Earlier this decade I had the unique pleasure of having a variety of Amish craftsmen work for me in restoring a Victorian estate in rural Wisconsin. I learned many things about woodworking and old school craftsmanship from them, but their greatest gift to me went well beyond the mere teaching of technical skills.
These local Amish were descendants of a people from German-speaking areas of Europe who fled to escape religious persecution. The first Amish immigrants to America settled in Pennsylvania, thus the moniker Pennsylvania Dutch, which is actually a misspeaking of Pennsylvania Deutsche (or Pennsylvania German), as their native tongue is heavily Germanic.
Along with their unique language, these people also have very unusual customs and rituals by mainstream standards. They eschew the trappings of modern life on their farms, tilling the soil by horse power, handpicking their crops, heating their water and ovens with wood and lighting their homes with oil lamps.
In these regards, the Amish are very much like the typical IT organization. The technologists from IT speak their own, unique language, both foreign and completely unintelligible to the average businessperson. The IT community also has its own rituals and is often driven by overriding philosophies, dogmas and theories. The customs of IT are equally as mystical and mysterious to the average business user, filled with requirements, methodologies, research, analysis and an apparently endless route that seems to lead anywhere but to a solution.
How then do the Amish manage to not only survive, but to flourish with such an iconoclastic society while IT organizations worldwide continue to struggle to find a fruitful common ground with their customers and brethren in the user community?
Tolerance: In all the time I spent working with the various members of the local Amish community, they never once tried to convince me that their way was the right way. I often peppered them with questions, and in response they were patient with my ignorance and tolerant of my misconceptions. They invested long hours slowly teaching me about their ways, their history, their language and their beliefs. Instead of bombastically proclaiming the superiority of their approach, they simply did their jobs in a highly professional manner and taught by example.
IT teams have much to learn from this approach. Too often teams are impatient and intolerant of the user community. Often IT teams are plainly antagonistic toward their clients and the customers for their products. This culture of superiority and separation often leads to fatal polarization between the IT organization and the business community. Instead, IT teams would profit from following the example of the Amish. Listen, teach and, above all, be tolerant of those with different priorities, different missions and different approaches to challenges.
Customer Focus: During our long two years of rebuilding all the buildings from the foundation up and the studs out, the Amish crews never once wavered from a single-minded dedication and determination to meet our needs as customers. Regardless of the sweltering heat of the attics or the cold winter winds whipping across the steep, high barn roofs, they stayed focused on meeting the challenges of the job and driving toward a total solution. They did not compromise their standards because they were frustrated with our non-Amish values, nor did they abandon the precepts of their community in order to expedite a solution.
How many times have IT teams in your organization compromised quality because they were frustrated with the unclean and unholy users? How many corners have been cut, standards abandoned or scopes narrowed because the teams were so unhappy working for users who just didn't understand or just didn't "get" the technical nuances and challenges? To succeed you must remain focused on only one objective delivering a 100 percent solution to the needs of the users. If technical, theoretical or guru purity becomes the goal, the team has abandoned its route to success.
Pragmatism: Above all else, the Amish demonstrated pragmatism. Faced with a world filled with circular saws, pickups and tractors, they adapted to a modern workplace. They developed the skills to leverage and utilize what the world had to offer. Rather than trying to compete by using handsaws, our Amish crews happily and skillfully utilized our full range of power tools, drove our trucks and piloted our tractors. In short, while on the job site, they did whatever it took to deliver success.
Technologists tend to adopt a particular approach or philosophy and force fit it into every new situation. To succeed in data warehousing, you must adapt to the unique needs of the customers and deliver success within the parameters of that particular scenario. You cannot adopt an approach that proclaims that your way is the only way when, in fact, the way that delivers success for each specific site and situation is the only way.
The Amish are a warm and wonderful people who have found great prosperity, peace and harmony by leveraging these principles. These maxims have allowed them to build and strengthen their communities while bringing success to their customers. IT teams can profit greatly by emulating their example.
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