Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Who are you? - identity and change

Identity has been much on my mind lately. Not identity as in “identity theft” - yes that is important but not what I’ve been thinking about. Nor internet identity as my friend John Merrells talks about it - XACML and all that jazz.

No, more identity in how we define ourselves and how that identity then defines us. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

As I’ve said before I’m moving house. This flat/apartment is me. I bought it eight years ago and although I’ve been away (2 years in California, 1 year in Nottingham) it is part of me and I am part of it. The daring red carpet in the lounge, the (slightly impractical) blue carpet in the bath room, the simple plain walls with modern art (Kandinski, Heron, Pollock, (Ellsworth) Kelly (no relation) since you ask) they are me. I defined the flat and the flat now defines me. Moving to another house I get the chance to redefine it but it also defines me, its got 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen - see.

And this applies at work too. I’m a software engineer by trade, what I do is write programs, design them too, perhaps get involved in process discussions or elements of project management. Testing? Maybe I leave that to others. And perhaps I want to leave project management to someone else.

A project manager I know always speaks to me about projects in terms of “risks” and “tasks to be done” - I once told him I was examining the strategy behind the project and his reply was something like “why are you doing the? It was determined by management months ago, all we have to do is execute.”

When we are young our identity is not yet framed: should I be fireman? an engineer? a policeman? And as we get older we can become rooted in that identity.

Much of what we do day to day is not rooted in the job title we hold, or even the role we are filling but it rests in who are. I was a software developer for about 10 years, no matter where I worked, what project I was doing, or what I was called I did more or less the same thing. My identity was intact wherever I was.

Perhaps this explains some of the problems I have now I’m a product manager. My identity is still largely a software developer. So when I’m wondering: “what should I be doing?” its not just the practical “what should I do in the next five minutes” I’m wrestling with its the (almost) metaphysical “who am I? what should I be doing in this identity?”

Changing employer doesn’t necessarily change your identity, you can be the same person just elsewhere. You have to do something more.

You can change your identity. I made a pretty good stab at it when I did my MBA. For a year you get to pretend your all sorts of other people: the head of GE, the head of IBM, a human resource manager, an entrepreneur, an academic...

When you choose to do an MBA your reaching for that new identity, if you believe the hype maybe you’ll be a McKinsey man at the end. And it is a new start in many ways, by the end of it you have an almost clean sheet, ready to start again. Maybe that’s why going back to what you did before seems like a failure to some people. But then, it is who you are.

So, identity has a role to play when your considering change. Think of all the coal miners who lost their jobs in the 1980s (in the UK). Their identity was coal-miner. Becoming a supermarket assistant, or an airport baggage handler was a big change. People don’t know what this strange new world holds for them - of course they are worried and scared - identity goes deep.

And he same thing happens in companies. Companies take on an identity and changing from that is hard. So it takes them time to recognise they are loosing money - think of General Motors - and it takes them time to get out of one industry and into anther - think of IBM, in retrospect the changes Gerstner made are obvious.

Where does this insight leave us? I don’t know, but when I look around me and wonder why people don’t change I often see identity, I’ll leave you with a few more examples:
- the software developer who continues to blame “managers” when he could change things himself
- the C++ programmer who can’t see any good in Java
- the support engineer who is continually busy
- the academic who bemoans the lack of industry interest in their work

I promise to return to this subject.

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