Are You a Total Zero?

Square-ZeroAs a kind of nomadic tester for hire, I move around from project to project a lot.

When I start a new engagement, I want to try and prove my worth immediately. I want to add value from day one.

Something Chris Hadfield says in his recent book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, made me examine my thinking about this.

In his book, Chris explains the benefits of being a zero, stating that most people basically have three modes of operation.

Minus One

You can be a -1, where you’re basically a net loss to the team or the environment you’re working in.

Your actions, your personality or behaviours are causing harm – because they’re unwarranted, ill-advised or just plain wrong.

Nobody ever wants to be a -1.

Plus One

When you’re in +1 mode, you’re adding value.

Your behaviours and actions are congruent with the goals of the team or organisation you’re working with. They’re considered, well informed, maybe even surgical.

You can suggest or implement changes and activities that result in net gains. Wins for the team.


Or, you can be a zero.

Being a zero means you’re neither doing harm nor adding value.

Sometimes it’s better to be a zero, because even though you’re not adding anything, at least you’re not taking anything away either.

The Benefits of Being a zero

In his book, Chris talks about how, being an astronaut, he’s away from home a lot. While he was away the family would somehow figure out ways of working together, getting through life without him. Then he would come home and rock the boat by trying to impose his ways of doing things on them again – without considering the fact that they were getting along perfectly well without him.

Not taking this into account caused him to be a -1, instead of the +1 he wanted to be.

He says that what he should have done instead was to just be a zero for a while. Integrating himself slowly by observing what they were already doing, rather than imposing his own ways of doing things and assuming he already had all the the answers.

When I heard Chris talk about this, it struck me how I often fall into the same trap.

For me, when I join a team, or an organisation, it’s easy to forget that somehow, they managed to get along without me.

It’s important for me to remember that, when I rush in and try to be a +1, trying to be the guy that adds value from day one, there’s a possibility I’m having the opposite effect.

Do No Harm

For me, being a zero means stepping back sometimes, and asking:

  • What is the team or the organisation I’m working with already doing?
  • How are they doing it?
  • How can I help?

After I’ve done that for a while, I’ll be a much better position to actually add value without inadvertently causing harm instead.

And as Chris says, it’s thinking I can apply everywhere. Not just at work.

Where do you need to be a zero today?

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.



  • […] Are You a Total Zero? Written by: Simon Knight […]

  • This is an interesting perspective and valuable in all walks of life. I love the example you provided from Hadfield’s book. That being said, how often do you see in today’s professional landscape that employees are hired on just to be a “zero?”

    • Simon Knight says:

      Obviously I wouldn’t hire someone to be a zero. But I wouldn’t have a problem with someone observing, reflecting and then acting with due consideration. I may not always know that this is what they have done, since I would probably see only the final stage of the process. But I would almost certainly recognise someone who hadn’t gone through these steps.

      Which camp would you rather be in?

  • eckart says:

    hi Simon, thanks a lot for these thought.
    as a matter of fact, i just became the scrummaster of a new team.
    and so it seems just natural to me imagining being a ‘zero’ to be able to start at the very beginning.

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