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American IT Speaker Gurus Through Finnish Eyes: Mary Poppendieck, Alistair Cockburn and James Whittaker

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to participate in trainings by Poppendieck, Cockburn as well as Whittaker. As a trainer and agile coach myself, I started to notice similarities in their behavior and style of communication and how much their style differed from the ways of Finnish lecturers so I thought it might be interesting to share my views with you. 

Let me introduce our gurus: Mary Poppendieck is an influencer in Lean software development and author of many top selling books like ”Lean Software Development: an Agile Toolkit”. She is firm embodiment of Lean thinking and application of it in practice. Alistair Cockburn is one of the signers of ”Agile Manifesto” and a celebrated author and speaker. I recommend his book ”Writing Effective Use Cases” for everyone who is interested in agile development. He is the most artistic one of these three and sees similarities between great artists and great developers. James Whittaker is a man who put his bathtub to the internet. In top of that he talks about creativity and storytelling and has written many books about them. His view of the world is more humanistic as he constantly references physical health and happiness in his presentations and books.

First American Guru Rule: No BS

Finnish speakers tend to start every answer with "Great point" for even the most stupid questions, but Americans will not do so. They will tell you that your question was stupid and you are wrong with your opinion. They may even interrupt your question halfway if they see that you are about to ask some basic stuff they have answered a hundred times before. Once an older student began telling the whole class about his heroic house building project. The American guru said “Stop, no one is interested in your house building project”. It might be a little rude, but he was right. People didn’t pay for the training to listen to somebody boast about their past accomplishments, but to listen to what the guru had to say. These speakers travel a lot and meet a lot of people. You only have a few seconds to grab their attention and interact with them, so say something interesting. Don’t be like me; I told them my name, my title and what I work with - just a tad bit boring.

Second American Guru Rule: One Guru, One Opinion

Finnish public conversation is a lot about trying to find compromise and cohesion. I find the same happening also in business culture. In meetings many people stay silent and nod at everything. Maybe recently things like the "tenth man rule" have started to change the way meetings are being held. Now there is more controversy. But o´boy these Americans! They have huge opinions! Even when they might agree with you at some level they won´t admit it. They stick to what they have said and they don’t look for compromises. They want their point to get across and they don’t want to soften the message. No if´s and no second-guessing. Just one person, one opinion. At least you remember what their point was as it was not watered down. One Finnish guy working at manager level in an American ICT company said that if you don’t have an opinion in a meeting, you don’t even exist. I like the fact that Finnish public conversation is not as polarized as in the U.S, but maybe we could learn from their way of being active in business.

Third American Guru Rule: Be Somebody

U.S top level speakers might wear sneakers instead of polished shoes. They may wear a hat inside and use more swear words than Nicki Minaj. Between their slides you might see a video of them jumping off a cliff half naked. They put their persona on line - I have been told that the bigger the hair and the shorter the pants you have, the bigger a guru you are in the US. That seems to ring true!

For me, all this makes these people and their message more interesting. In Finland, people´s working life is very separated from their personal life. This also makes Finnish speakers a bit grey. There might be one introductory slide at the beginning of a presentation with one bullet saying something personal about them, like "I have a boat and a kid". And that’s it. The rest is pure fact spoken in a low, monotone voice. The amount of information is usually overwhelming, but who can remember it all? I think the same is with music. Computers can make as good music as humans (at least that’s what they say), but nobody wants to hear it. And I think that’s because there is no story behind it. If a composer writes a song for a blind girl so she could understand how beautiful moonlight is, it is a BIT more compelling than “here is my laptop’s recent mathematical kudos of notes.”

Well, that’s my view on the subject. It would be fun to hear your view! I could have written more about what these guru´s actually talked about as they have very interesting and eye opening views on processes, servant leadership, user stories, happiness and life. But it is better for you to pick up their books and go meet them in person. Most likely they have once again reinvented themselves and found new, even more multifaceted and vivacious ways of expressing their views and telling their stories - maybe the reason why they are called gurus.

P.S. Though maybe not quite as lively (yet), please have a look at the trainings we provide at Knowit.