While my perception of my own knowledge path has been something like “I know nothing” -> “I know everything” -> “I know nothing”, engineers at any level can become overly convinced that their own approach is the correct one.
A junior engineer straight out of school may be overly biased toward approaches taught there, which may or may not be effective in, for instance, a heavily product- and market-driven environment. Someone with a few years of experience may, due to their own definition of what success looks like, believe they have arrived and there’s not much more to learn. (This was me during the dot-com bubble.) A senior engineer with a decade or more of either going deep or wide can become too set in their ways and reluctant to incorporate different thinking, like single-brain groupthink. The rock star engineer, if you subscribe to such a thing, may well have developed an ego matching the size and approach attributes of a tropical island dictatorship.
With the likely exception of most rock star personas, biases and awareness can develop in the opposite direction as well.
Our junior example may have near zero self-confidence and simply assume their ideas, freshly graduated, aren’t worthy. A mid-level engineer could have suffered a bad start to their career, with senior people constantly shutting them down, discouraging growth and subsequent successes to point to. Our decade-plus friend may have come to the conclusion that the peak of the mountain is indeed at infinite altitude and it’s best to stay open to the new and different while simultaneously being anchored by what’s proven successful for them and others. (This is me this very minute.) Can the rock star escape their own ego and mind? Sometimes, but likely only if they genuinely discard the very label they have adopted and/or been endowed with. There weren’t that many humble hair band singers, but I’ve come across one or two rock star engineers who have redefined the term to mean “amazing teammate”. Respect.
On a team, or across multiple teams, how can we in a single shot solve near-religious, endless debates, keep egos in check, foster continuous learning and bring team dynamics to a healthy place? By recognizing that the pros and cons of any idea or approach are inseparable.
What does this look like in practice? It’s an extremely simple idea (and surely many variations have been thought of and used by others in the past): we don’t get to present only the pros of our own idea and we don’t get to state only the cons of someone else’s.
When you find two or more team members entrenched in their positions or otherwise communicating in a manner displaying toxic bias, insist on each of them explaining the cons of their own approach. On the flip side, insist they present the pros of their sworn enemy’s idea. If the response is “there are none”, it’s time for the group to get in a room for some very candid, respectful conversation.
There aren’t that many viable options that don’t have cons attached to pros and vice versa. Each option is a set of the two, and we’re selecting which set is preferable based on engineering, product, team and human realities at whatever moment in time.
Getting into the habit, as a team, of continuously discussing the pros and cons of ideas will, over time, yield a much healthier, enjoyable and productive environment. Start by doing it yourself. Admit to the cons of your next idea. Show that you understand the pros of your teammate’s next approach. Occasional reminders that it’s irrelevant to the team, and ultimately product, whose brain first magically entered a state which yielded the ultimately chosen direction may prove helpful as well.
All of this said, “I know nothing” and there may well exist cons to the whole concept. Think it over.