Is my role relevant anymore?

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Is my job function still relevant? Is my business becoming a dinosaur? Relevancy questions that often come up when we are in the verge of disruption. The question is one of concern, one laden with uncertainty and doubt. More often than not, the timing of the question becomes a tad late.

When I was a project manager a few years ago, I used to get such existential questions a lot from fellow project managers who are used to waterfall style of software development. If you are in the technology industry, especially in Silicon Valley, you could probably relate to the fact that many tech companies are moving away from Program Management Office towards a nimbler Agile style development approach. Nowadays the lead engineer takes on the role of a scrum master and drives the work product delivery. Although the fundamentals of project management has not changed, the title has.

Similarly software testing used to be a separate function before. Now there are no special testers involved. Engineers are writing automation scripts to ensure the code is written per specification. Quality Assurance has moved on to Quality Engineering.

These changes are necessitated by time-to-market needs and driven by a desire to optimize product life-cycle.

Customer Support is another example. Within technology industry it has come to a point where it is no longer a differentiating factor. Apple is known for its superior products that continues to wow consumers. Amazon is another example where they are known to provide a seamless shopping experience. These two companies focus very hard on removing friction points in their product experiences upfront so that customers don’t have to call support in the first place.  Oh by the way, did you know both companies are known for their excellent customer support too?. If the customer did contact anyway, they go out of their way to help the customer.

In each of these industry shifts, you will see a pattern of commoditization. A pattern where the change happened gradually over time. However, for those involved in these industries when they realized the shift it was rather late.

Important question is, why is that individuals and businesses don’t see the disruption coming? Why is that those who are wildly successful in their respective fields don’t anticipate the shifts happen around them? After all talent is what got them to be successful in the first place, right? So, what happened?

All too often, we wait for the disruption. We wait for an external event to dictate our next course of action. We wait for layoff rumors to dust up the resume. We wait for a corporate mandate to write our own career development plan.

Why is that?

I believe couple of aspects in human behavior that leads one to this situation.

First is called the Current Moment Bias. It simply means, we have a hard time imagining ourselves in the future and altering our behaviors and expectations even if the outcome is better. If your current job is stable and your company is doing fine you don’t typically worry about the macro economic or industry shifts that happen around you. It is the same bias that makes us break new year resolutions, lets us sleep for extra few minutes in the morning thinking we’ll exercise the next day. We tend to value instant gratification more than delayed gratification.

Second cognitive bias is what psychologists call as Dunning-Kruger effect. It is a bias in which we either overestimate or underestimate our abilities. Often times, we overestimate in thinking good times will last or that our abilities / skills will sustain us for the rest of our professional lives. In either case, we are making learning a new skill or advancement a lower priority.

Here is one way to think about it. Your motivation to stay in your current job might be work/life balance, good pay, great management etc. If you are a business owner your thinking might be if it ain’t broken don’t fix it. Whatever the case may be, your role, job function, the industry you are in will mature and evolve over time. That is just nature. If you think you can cling to your job title till retirement, think again. Evolving yourself personally and if you are in a leadership position evolving those around you should be your top priority.

How do you make this a priority? How do you overcome the biases and make some behavioral changes? Here are a few suggestions that may help,

1) Worry. As James Altucher would say, whenever things are good worry about what could go wrong. Not worry to the point where you are losing sleep or it impacts your health. That’s not the point. But to a point where you are constantly taking stock of yourself, your progress, where you want to go and charting out a path for yourself. Key here is to be honest with yourself. If your team or your company is thinking only quarterly goals and not long term it’s a sign of current moment bias. It’s time for you to start worrying about your future.

2) Think. Take a thinking day. Sort of like a strategy offsite company leaders do. Do this every 3 or 6 months or every year. Whatever works for you. Force yourself to chalk out a roadmap and figure out where you stand.

3) Network. Calibrate your position with rest of the industry by networking with similar folks or someone outside of your immediate circle to get an external perspective. Find out what challenges they face and how you may be able to solve those problems.

4) Try it out. Pursue whatever opportunities that are out there. Apply for that job posting. If you get a call back, that’s great. Go for the job interview. It’ll be a good learning experience. After all, you might think you are walking in water in your current job and the interview process will show if that’s true or not.

5) Set a high bar. Ok, you go for the job interview and failed. Don’t lose heart. Set a high bar for yourself and try to reach it in your current one. If you reach it, then the bar is not high enough. Move it up. If you do end up getting the job, set a high bar in the new place.

Repeat #1 through #5.

May be the question, “Is my role relevant?” does not pertain to you. But the question you ought to ask yourself is “Am I adding value?”.  Because if you don’t, someone else will.

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