Sunday, June 15, 2014

Generic Advice Is Dumb

I despise generic advice, and the worst sampling of this is in high school graduation speeches.  Every graduation speech I've heard is full of lot's of worthless phrases.  We hear that we should believe in ourselves, work hard, and above all, "do the right thing," since apparently so many of us set out in life to do the wrong things that we need to constantly hear this.

The Navy is sadly no better.  I tend to be very focused in my advice to people.  When I had new Ensigns check in, I would layout my expectations of them for their first year:

- Complete check in within 2 weeks
- Get qualified on their job within 90 days
- Get qualified Information Warfare Officer in one year
- Send all correspondence (EVALs, awards, chits, etc.) about their Sailors on their Department Head's timeline

Only after they were doing all that should they consider a major collateral duty, a masters degree, or any other significant effort.

My advice was always fairly specific, since I didn't want there to be any question about expectations.  It wasn't designed to limit initiative, but it did put things in perspective.  You could be a star on the command's volleyball team, or be doing great things in the color guard, but if you were behind in qualifications that didn't matter.

I have given generic advice in the past and I honestly regret it.  When people have asked for my advice and I tell them about things like "sustained superior performance," I think I missed an opportunity to really help them.  Maybe it's because it is so easy to push out meaningless phrases (like status updates on Facebook) that we tend to do that in abundance.  Or maybe people have lost the patience to hear 5-10 solid minutes of what they need to do.  Whatever the reason, generic advice is out there in abundance.

I know how I feel when I receive generic advice, and it's probably not unlike how others feel.  First, I can't wait for the conversation to be over.  When someone launches into a 10 minute diatribe about doing the right thing, I tune out.  I'm looking for details and substance, and the second I realize I won't get that, I focus on other things.  Also, I don't store any of that information, so those ten minutes are completely lost on me.  I'm willing to bet that same thing happens to many others.

Instead of generic advice, try focusing your advice.  I ask more questions about work performance first before giving tailored advice to people.  What I find is that I give less advice, but it's way better, and the person actually uses it and tells me about it afterwards.  I don't know how many people are "doing the right thing," but I know how many got their qualifications done earlier than normal so that they could take a collateral duty they really wanted.

No subordinate wants to be told to do the right thing.  It's insulting to their intelligence.  Tailor your advice and you'll be surprised by the better results.