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September 20, 2007

Problem Solvers vs. the 9-5 Drones

140579_lawyers Living and working in Silicon Valley was a very delicate balancing act: on one hand work was empowering and in most situations my colleagues were open to new ideas and had a real desire to change things for the better. But it was frequently difficult to tear myself away from work in an evening to see my kids before they went to bed, or to avoid firing up the laptop on the weekends in order to spend time with my wife. Problem-solving becomes infectious when you are surrounded by other problem-solvers; at times I am sure I resembled an addict waiting for my next fix –well, why not, we were changing the world weren’t we?

Twelve months ago we moved from the Bay Area and back to the UK in order to be closer to family. (The other alternative was Florida but that place is just too damn hot for an Englishman! Besides, I have a fear of hanging chads.) It was when I re-entered the UK job market that I received my rude awakening…

While I expected differences, especially between Silicon Valley and the Old World, it was the lack of any real desire to solve problems that I had difficulty with. It took me nearly twelve months to understand it was not a lack of desire to solve problems or a lack of effort to drive increased value for the company, but a deep-seated fear of admitting weakness or lack of knowledge.

It occurred to me that many colleagues here are all too aware of the ease with which they could lose their jobs. Sadly, most of the UK lacks a start-up on every corner or a multinational in every other street. Opportunities within a reasonable commute are limited when you are outside of London or other metropolitan areas here (gas is US $7.30 per US gallon!) so people tend to stick with jobs longer, even if they aren’t happy. This results in a vicious circle: a fear of being seen to not know the answer after years of climbing the promotions ladder leads to slow progress on business issues and a fear of creative solutions which might result in failure. This in turn results in intractable problems, low energy, little desire to drive change, and a 9-5 working culture. Work is something many people do in order to collect a pay check rather than something they enjoy and are passionate about. Because of this, few businesses are as successful as they could be, which means fewer opportunities for all and there we start the whole cycle all over again.

This, I believe, is exacerbated by the fact that many of my male colleagues are likely to be either the sole bread-winner or their families are totally reliant on two incomes to pay their mortgages – why run the risk of looking weak or like a failure?  Just the thought of opening up a brainstorming session on how to drive change with a multi-functional group or, dare I suggest – a cross-hierarchy group, must have kept some middle managers awake at night.

For much of the last 12 months I have been doing the 9-5 work of a drone while seeking out the one role that I knew must be out there somewhere: something I could be passionate about and where problem-solvers were valued and welcomed! Happily, I have found something I can really sink my teeth into and am now back to the delicate balancing act I was so used to in Silicon Valley, although this time I am grateful for it.