Höckerschwan, White swan, Cygnus olor, Wild duck, Stockente, Anas platyrhynchos ginsheim-gustavsburg. (c) 2010 Vera Buhl, CC-BY-SA-3

Sometimes You Really Can’t Describe What You Do

I was really frustrated. I was trying to explain what a particular Work Swan — one of these people who are “hidden” high potentials, like Andersen’s “ugly duckling” — brought to the table and I just kept hitting a wall. I knew that this person brought a solid set of skills, but they were transformative. When you added him to a project, he changed the game. He didn’t deliver what you asked for: he gave you what you never imagined was possible. This isn’t “setting the bar higher”; it’s putting in an elevator. He simply transforms the very nature of the question involved. The entire project changes.

But somehow I couldn’t get this across. It’s not that the guy I was talking to wasn’t smart: he’s an ex-executive with a large American company and has tested high intelligent. His intelligence isn’t the problem.

The problem is that he speaks the wrong Work Language to understand what I’m saying.

And this is a problem that a lot of you Work Swans hit. People think that you’re just the ugly one in the duckpond because you can’t describe what you do in language that they can comprehend.

The core problem stems from the what Warren Kinston describes as the Seven Domains of Work:

  1. Familial
  2. Organizational
  3. Disciplinary
  4. Societal
  5. Philosophical
  6. Spiritual
  7. Artistic

These domains happen because of how people use language to talk about work. The way someone who is a “native speaker” of the Spiritual domain talks about work is quite different than how the Disciplinary natives do. My guess is that there is some understanding between domains that adjoin but not much farther. (Although maybe not: Kinston has pointed out that everyone needs to be competent at work inside the family (Familial).

Transforming work almost always requires someone who talks about work (conceptualizes it) using a different language of work, someone who is “native” to a different Domain. This makes explaining what they do very difficult.

So you have to resort to parables.

Imagine that you can go back in time. You start explaining how smartphones changed the world. But the folks from 1900 can’t imagine why anyone would want any of the things that you are describing. It makes no sense to them.

It’s why even IBM chief Watson could famously say in 1950s that the global market for computer would only amount to a handful of units. Of course, he was thinking of a computer as something that filled an entire floor of the Empire State Building, not the little machines on his desk. Advancements like Cloud Computing would have to seem insane.

Except that some of his contemporaries predicted the advent of cloud computing in some pretty high detail. (See the incredibly prescient “Lick” Licklider.) They spoke a different language and could conceptualize a new type of social institution or set of societal values.

I’m not sure what the solution here is. I find talking with Organizational domain people very frustrating. I end up simply creating things and then showing them. Once I show the new way, it’s obvious to them. “It’s so obvious I could have thought of that. You’re not so great!” is the usual response.

Your best bet is to find somewhere else to work. Or to find a group that has burned through the Usual Suspects because they couldn’t get the work done. Then you can step in and accomplish. But don’t expect people to see that you did something extraordinary.

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: