In my last post, I introduced you to a new and intriguing business book call The Geek Gap by the writing team of Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin. Their take on communications in the workplace will help anyone who needs to understand the critical intersection of business and technology. Here´s part one of an interview with the authors.
Q: What is the Geek Gap?
A: The Geek Gap is the lack of respect, communication and trust between people who work in technology and their business counterparts. In fact, these two groups come from different cultures, and have different values.
Q: How does the Geek Gap affect companies and other organizations?
A: The Geek Gap affects all types of organizations–non-profit and for-profit, large, small, high-tech, bricks and mortar. In our book, we write about dozens of examples where the culture clash led to problems from people spending years on projects that were doomed before they began, to outright business failures, to crippling cyber-attacks. One way to measure the overall effect of the Geek Gap is to look at project failures: in 2004, the Standish Group reported that failed or “challenged” projects cost American businesses $68 billion. Challenged projects are defined as being significantly over budget or behind deadline–or not delivering as promised. Add in “shelfware”–projects that are completed and work as promised, but no one uses them because they don’t fill a real need–and that number goes up to $100 billion.
Q: Explain the differences between suits and geeks.
A: One of the most fundamental differences is this: The key skill for most geeks is solving problems–such as setting up a network, writing a piece of code that will do what is needed, etc. The key skill for most suits is influencing people–for instance their ability to sell, to pitch new ideas, to manage the members of their team, and to get people “on board” with their projects. This one difference affects many aspects of geeks’ and suits’ work lives, including the words they use (as well as how they use words) their aspirations, clothing styles and preferred work environments.
Q: How did each of you become aware of this problem in communication?
A: It kept coming up in our work lives–and in our conversations. A few years ago, Bill was working for a portal site where someone from marketing proposed matching banner ads to words in public chat rooms. (If someone typed “vacation,” an ad for Disneyland might appear, let’s say.) I knew the company needed to build revenue, so I thought this was a good idea. Bill was outraged at what he saw as an assault on the purity of online community. We found ourselves yelling at each other across the kitchen counter. Eventually, it dawned on us that we were looking at the same issue from completely different points of view.
The funny thing is, we still encounter the Geek Gap in our daily lives and sometimes still have debates about it. But putting a name to the culture clash has given us a better way to discuss it.
Q: 2006 saw the 20th anniversary of the Challenger Shuttle explosion. What role did the Geek Gap play in that event?
A: As you may remember, the solid rocket boosters, which caused the explosion were built by Morton Thiokol. The night before the launch, NASA officials met by conference call with Morton Thiokol execs for a final go or no-go recommendation. Temperatures that night got down into the 20s–an anomaly in Florida–and Morton Thiokol engineers knew perfectly well how dangerous it was to fly in such conditions: the o-rings between the booster sections might get brittle and fail to seal. They argued forcefully for no-go. Meanwhile, NASA officials made it clear how disappointed they’d be at yet another delay.
The final decision was made by four Morton Thiokol VPs, three of whom were in favor of going ahead. The holdout was the VP of engineering. One of the others turned to him and said, “Take off your engineer hat and put on your management hat.” He relented, and Challenger’s fate was sealed.
This comment was much discussed afterward, but no one questioned the underlying assumption that an engineer and a manager working for the same company on the same project would not want the same thing. That assumption stems from the Geek Gap, and it prevented the Morton Thiokol VPs from recognizing that they did want the same thing, and that the decision to OK the launch would be a disaster for all concerned.
Next time: part two of an interview with authors Pfleging and Zetlin