The New Hire superpower

When I have a 121 with a new hire, I often share with them that they have a superpower that is unique to them within the organization. It’s something that doesn’t require any specific background, expertise, or even experience. In fact, its effects may be more pronouced the less experience the new hire has.

The superpower is simple: the ability to experience everything as new.

Much like a toddler that has entered the “why” phase, a new hire can experience the world for the first time, and ask a simple but powerful question: “why is this thing the way it is?”. The new hire wants to understand the system, and to understand best is to determine the reason for something’s existence.

The concept is simple, but the effects can be quite powerful if acted upon. The simple process of asking “why” is really a challenge to the conventional wisdom of the organization. The “why” then requires explanations about processes or policies that may not have been examined holistically. Instead, those processes and policies have grown organically, twisting into form not through a straight line but a series of decisions that may have been reasonable in isolation but when tested in aggregate no longer hold up. The answer to the “why” may reveal that the intended purpose of the process or policy is not really being served. If there is no good answer (or, possibly, no real answer at all!) to the “why”, then it’s maybe time to consider whether this thing is really just a vestigial structure.

Why is this superpower limited to new hires?

Primarily, new hires don’t have any expectation about how things work, so all processes are evaluated with completely new eyes. There is no context or history that may fill in the gaps for the new hire. They have no concept of the existing organizational structures that may make it obvious to others why a certain policy is in place.

For folks already working within the organization, certain practices are just normal. After working for long enough, it’s just become the expectation that this is how things work - which, in extreme scenarios, may seem crazy to new hires. For a new hire examining a practice for the first time, they may not be able to fathom as to why something is the way it is. But, organizations are living organisms, and new processes or precedents sprout up in response to specific situations. The impact from a incident or previous failure may be dwarfed by the lasting reaction. Much like a human body, the company will remember the scars and bruises it absorbs; however, the healing process may result in the wrong cure being used, whether through the wrong prescription, or the right prescription but the wrong dosage. After the cure is applied, the organization reaches homeostasis, and without a catalyst for change things will stay as they are.

The new hire can then be a catalyst for change. In addition to the superpower of examining everything without prior context, the new hire likely has a set of tools in their belt that others don’t: the time and lack of existing responsibilities to do something about it. Unencumbered, the new hire has more free time to play free agent.

This “free agent” role is unique to the new hire. For existing team, there can be a willful ignorance to certain issues because of a lack of time or resources. Acknowledging a problem exists then means it must be solved. Naturally, that problem falls onto the person or team making the discovery. If that problem has existed for a long time, that implies that there have been workarounds and alternate paths discovered. The organization has learned to work with the foreign body, rather than work on expelling it. This implicit acceptance of the issue means that the problem is not seen as an obstacle stopping progress, but rather just an occupational hazard of getting work done within the organization. If a team acknowledges said problem, it becomes their responsibility to fix it. As the problem hasn’t been seen as a showstopper, there is no organizational incentive to fix it, spending valuable resources fixing an “non-issue” costs political and organizational capital.

However, the impact that this issue was having on the team will only be recognized and acknowledged post-hoc. Once the issue is resolved, leaders will question why such a decision wasn’t made earlier, because it will seem so obvious in retrospect. But, the inertia of the organization meant that no one ever got around to solving the problem. The new hire, without being swept in the current of the organization yet, is allowed to find the problem and focus on fixing it.

For new hires, the ability to earnestly ask “why” and seek to understand is simple but extremely powerful. Asking “why” may result in an unsatisfactory answer; an unsatisfactory answer means there’s a great opportunity to fix or change something. Questioning things with a perspective untainted by context is an effective way to dissolve parts of the system that have become calcified, useful, and occasionally harmless.

As a new hire, a recipe for early find something that you think is broken (or that other people metnion is broken, but don’t have time to fix), and go and fix it. If you find the right thing to solve, fellow engineers will love you, and managers in turn will sing your praises to other leaders and the rest of the team. It’s a great way to make a good first impression and also have an immediate impact on the organization. There is also a snowball effect here - proving that you can have an immediate impact to the organization in ways seen as unconventional to the team will give you more leash to continue to do the same thing, and fix or remove those issues that are past their expiration date.

Note, however, that there may be solid, well-thought out reasons why things are the way they are. There could be a number of reasons - it may be that you don’t fully understand a complex process, or that coupling means that the cost of fixing something makes it no longer worth it - so make the assumption that people have acted in good faith and have done the best they could’ve in the circumstances.

Unforunately, after awhile those zany processes will start to become normalized. Your superpowers will wear off as you understand more of the business and context. You will slowly be able to reason out why things are the way they are (those reasons may not be wise, but they exist nonetheless). It is a natural and necessary reaction as you learn how to work effectively within the existing organization.

However, you can still do your part by encouraging the new hires that you in turn will influence, work with, and potentially manage, to not be afraid to discover why things are the way they are, and to work toward eliminating the processes, practices, and policies that no longer make sense.