How Value and Ambiguity Shape Work Experiences

Not long ago I was leading a team of people on a months-long project with many work-streams and many more tasks. The tasks varied greatly in ways I have not thought about before and sparked the thoughts that went into this article.

Software engineers do their best work when the majority of the tasks are in line with the amount of ambiguity they accept and when the value of their work is in line with their expectations.

Value – the meaningfulness and impact of work – is a perception shaped by various factors. It is essential to differentiate between the value that work holds for the person and the potential value it may have for the business.

Ambiguity – the challenges and uncertainties a person may face at work – is a subjective experience, varying among individuals. Those with more experience and confidence navigate ambiguity easier, while others may attempt to avoid it.

Dissecting these two aspects of work along low to high ranges into four quadrants, each quadrant characterizes a type of work.

Grunt work is routine tasks requiring minimal decision-making or specialized expertise.
Think of data entry, manual data validation, or repetitive administrative duties. Grunt work is essential for maintaining operational efficiency, but it can also be monotonous and disengaging for knowledge workers.

As engineer leads, it is crucial to minimize the impact of grunt work by automating processes and providing opportunities for skill development and growth.

Expert work requires deep domain knowledge, specialized skills, and a mastery of specific tools or technologies. Experts enjoy problem-solving and executing tasks with precision and efficiency.

As engineer leads, it is important to recognize and cultivate expertise within teams.

Conceptual work involves exploring abstract ideas, brainstorming possibilities, and conceptualizing new approaches. While the value may not be immediately apparent, conceptual work lays the foundation for future breakthroughs.

Engineer leads must create an environment that encourages experimentation, risk-taking, and out-of-the-box thinking.

Creative work involves pushing boundaries, challenging conventional thinking, and envisioning new possibilities. Creativity fuels innovation, enabling knowledge workers to think beyond existing frameworks and reimagine solutions.

Engineer leads must foster a culture that embraces creativity, encouraging diverse perspectives, and providing the freedom to explore uncharted territories.

Recognizing that individuals thrive in different quadrants of the ambiguity-value matrix is crucial in fostering a productive team. By understanding the specific type of tasks required for a project, engineer leads can compose efficient teams. It also enables individuals to perform at their best and maximize their contributions. Moreover, allowing team members to experiment and explore various quadrants of their choice promotes personal growth, stimulates innovation, and cultivates a sense of ownership and empowerment.


Perception of Seniority

I have seen so many different responses from professionals when presented with a task.

No doubt every situation is different. There are cultural differences at the individual and organisation levels. There are many factors at play. However, over time the following characters emerge.

Wrong hire – “I don’t know. I have not been trained for this. Sorry cannot help.”

New starter – “I can take a look at it. Can somebody tell me what to do?”

Junior – “I do not know a lot. I can make a few recommendations to help. Can somebody review and let me know what else to do?”

Mid-level – “I am familiar with this. I will get started and check back for review. We can keep iterating until it is completed.”

Senior – “I have done/seen this before. I will have it done in a week. I will make you recommendations for the future.”

Leader – “My colleague is the best person for this. We will also help your teams to identify and complete these in the future.”

These are some of the examples of how I perceive seniority.


Career and Leadership

Figure out what leadership means

  • to you
  • to your team
  • to your management
  • to your company
  • to your clients

(Not necessarily in this order)

Once you reconcile all these without compromise thats a career fulfilled.


Innovation != Evolution ???

What is a ground-breaking new idea? a killer app? a real innovative idea?
Every new idea, anything innovative has roots in something existing, something already invented. Is everything just an evolution of other things, there is nothing innovative? How far one should really go back to the roots?

Is it enough to come up with a great, innovative idea? What happens to the solution-for-every-problem-world-peace-and-cure-for-everything ideas? I have got a great idea, what’s next?

Where is creativity coming from? are there geniuses amongst us? is there a special food/drink or a special ritual to unleash creativity?

Many of these and similar questions are answered in  Scott Berkun‘s book: The Myths of Innovation

  • Read it once because it is simply a great read – not sure about the humour though
  • Read it every time you have a worthy innovative idea – amazing how much you will find the book related to your idea
  • Read it if you are frustrated about how large corporates treat innovation(especially if you are working for one) – you will find your answer in the book, not necessarily the one you wanted to hear though
  • Read it if you like anecdotes, stories and lessons learned – do not forget to follow up with the many references to other books, articles, Web sites and pages