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Polanki's Pointer

by Gerald M. Weinberg

Adapted from More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit . Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

Tool # 2: The Golden Key

The Golden Key represents my ability to open new areas for learning and practicing, and also to close them when they don't fit for me at this time. Without my Key, my consulting would become narrowly focused, or focused on areas in which I was no longer interested. There are many ways to activate your Golden Key. One way is Polanski's Pointer.

Activating The Golden Key

After I had learned something about programming computers, people started asking me to find errors in their programs. At first, I didn't have much wisdom about debugging, as this activity is sometimes called, and I wasted a lot of time following false clues.

Finally, one rainy December morning in the District of Columbia, my eyes were opened. My team was working to a hard deadline—a scheduled rocket launch—and one of the programs just wouldn't run properly. Wally, one of the programmers, called on me for help, saying that he and some other programmers had worked all night without locating the problem. I asked him what they had already figured out.

"One thing I'm absolutely sure of," Wally said, "is that the bug can't be in the Red program. I've checked that one six times. And Sarah checked it, too."

So, taking him at his word, I plunged right into the Blue, Green, and Yellow programs and never came out. That is, I didn't come out for lunch, and I didn't come out for dinner—both significant events in my working day. Finally, at around 9:30 that night, my stomach told me that Polanski's Deli, next door, was going to close in half an hour. So, I took a break.

When I got there, Polanski's crew had already cleaned up for closing, so I asked Julie, the counter waitress, for a take-out of corned beef—extra lean.

"All our corned beef is extra lean," Julie insisted while assembling the sandwich. She turned and called out, "Hey, Polanski, bring me one of those take-out bags."

"Harold must have put 'em away," Polanski shouted from the back. "Do you know where he put them?"

"No, but I'm sure they're not in the cookie cabinet. I already looked in there."

"Thanks," Polanski shouted back, and in a moment, he emerged from the kitchen, proudly displaying a brown paper bag.

"Where'd you find it?" Julie asked. "I can never find stuff that Harold puts away." "They were in the cookie cabinet."

I was dumbfounded. "But why did you look there?" I asked. "Julie just told you she was sure they weren't there."

"Precisely," said Polanski. "When Julie's that sure it's not there, it means that she believes it's not there, so she probably never looked there. So, it's probably there."

"Oh," I muttered. I grabbed my sandwich, paid the check, and rushed back to the office.

When I arrived, Wally was still studying the errant code. "Give me the Red listing," I insisted.

"Why?" Wally questioned, but handed me the listing anyway. "We know it's not there."

"Precisely," I said, and proceeded to find the bug in about two minutes.

And that's how I learned another way to use my Golden Key, a technique I call Polanski's Pointer:

If they're absolutely sure it's not there, it's probably there.

Polanski's Pointer tells me what doors to open, and a corollary tells me which ones to leave shut:

Don't bother looking where everyone is pointing.

After all, if people knew the right place to look, they wouldn't ask a consultant to help them find it.

And there's another version of Polanski's Pointer, one that I apply when I find myself pointing away from some subject.

Whenever you believe that a subject has nothing for you, it probably has something for you.

Why? Well, if it's a subject, somebody must be interested in it, so there's definitely something about it capable of arousing human interest. Therefore, if I don't see anything interesting about it, I must not even know enough about it to know how it can be interesting. It's a sure sign that I'll learn something when I open that closed door.

The Golden Lock

I have a trick for applying this personal version of Polanski's Pointer. I search for someone who is genuinely interested in the subject, and then I ask for the one reference that person would recommend to someone who knows nothing about the subject. This always works—unless I find someone who doesn't really love the subject but is just making a living at it. There's a difference.

The reason there's a difference is that most people don't make full use of their Golden Key, and thus they easily get stuck in a field that bores them. I call this phenomenon The Golden Lock:

I'd like to learn something new, but what I already know pays too well.

The Golden Lock is a close cousin to The Golden Handcuffs, which corporations use to shackle their most valuable employees. But unlike the Handcuffs, the Lock is self-imposed, self-designed. Being self-designed, it's a far better trap than any Handcuffs could ever be, and only The Golden Key can unlock it.

The pay for wearing The Golden Lock need not be financial, though that's surely common among consultants. Quite frequently, the pay is prestige, or the envy of one's colleagues, or the gratitude of one's clients. Whatever the pay, it's not easily dispensed with and thus the Lock.

That's why The Golden Key has two aspects—one that opens doors, and one that locks them again. I think my Golden Key is very good at locking doors, but compared to my wife and business partner, Dani, I'm a novice. Dani is particularly good at locking doors and moving on, having mastered and practiced in several different areas of human knowledge: teaching piano, teaching and applying anthropology, consulting to large organizations, and training professional dog trainers.

Over the years, I believe I've learned Dani's secret rule, which I call Dani's Decider:

When you stop learning new things, it's time to move on.

Dani's Decider is one of the most powerful secrets of consulting. Why? Consultants are hired for knowing what others don't know, so a consultant who stops learning soon decays in value. On the other hand, the less you know, the less likely you are to threaten your clients with change, and this could endear you to those who benefit from the status quo. However, Dani's Decider would still apply, and ultimately, your value as a consultant would be diminished.



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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit [ISBN:0-932633-52-8] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2002 by Gerald M. Weinberg. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/ms.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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