Generic musing

A much classier category than “uncategorized”

Jun 092014

The other day a project manager was remarking on the early stages of large projects and the inevitable changes that occur as those projects unfold.

I’m no project manager, so I was doing internal translation. I see a big project’s requirements document as like the initial design for a kitchen remodeling: in the new inventory system, we want to have glass cabinets,  a wall-mounted oven, an island with its own sink, and on the south wall, bigger windows (for greater visibility into the supply chain)Only later in the process do you discover you won’t have the time, or the money, or both, to move Finance’s plumbing.

Financial flowYou’re facing some rethinking, but that doesn’t mean starting the project requirements from scratch.

If  right now you’re wondering why Finance has a sink, then my analogy failed. Or, you recognized adjustments that you’ve seen, or that you can imagine, even though the project you’re thinking of didn’t involve inventory, Finance, or a kitchen, then I think I made my point.

A larger point is that, when it comes to improving performance, what’s crucial about an analogy is not how clever it is, but how effective.

The goal of an analogy is to help someone make a connection or reach an understanding that he hadn’t yet made. You can’t guarantee that your analogy will do that, though you can road-test it and modify it so that it’s more likely to.

Cleverness carries a risk that you’re focusing on surface elements, or on outside references that don’t apply to the immediate situation. Shakespeare’s plays are as full of analogies as O’Hare airport is full of wheeled baggage, but many of those analogies rely on references that in the twenty-first century we don’t understand.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

 – As You Like It

It might be clever to work Shakespeare in, but if this one’s your choice, you’ll likely connect only with committed theatergoers and unreconstructed literature majors.

I tried a different line once, as a lead-in to a course on vendor-managed inventory.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me…

 – Macbeth

It might not work for you, but I managed to avoid using a stock-art photo of a warehouse dock. More important, the inventory people saw the connection  to the topic.

That helped me escape the too-clever trap, although technically this wasn’t an analogy, just an indirect lead into the topic. Banquo was not in this scene struggling with inventory control–but he was interested in knowing what the future might hold, which is a true, on-the-job concern for warehouse managers.

So the real test might not be whether you’re using an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile — but whether the way you present something new makes the aha! more likely.

CC-licensed kitchen sink photo by Steev Hise

Mar 042014

Four years ago I started using the WWDiary app to keep track of how I was doing with the Weight Watchers approach to, well, watching my weight. I never officially joined Weight Watchers, but my wife did, and I seized an opportunity for self-improvement.

I’ve written about this topic here, and especially here (my favorite), and most recently (if Oct. of 2011 is recent)  here.

I’m revisiting the topic in part because as I write this, it’s four years to the day since I started with that app, and I weigh 55 pounds less than I did then.

Another reason is that this anniversary, and how I reached what to me is a milestone, relates closely to the idea I came across today  in this tweet from Ruud Hein (@RuudHein):


The link in the tweet takes you to this post on Google+ and onto another of those virtuous cycles that make the hyperlinked world such a joy at times. I’m crediting Hein, who credits All Smith and Branko Zecevic with linking to a post on by Jeff Haden.

(Got that?)

I want to highlight the excerpt that Hein highlights:

Commit to a process, not a goal….

We put unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule instead of worrying about big, life-changing goals.

When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.

Often in my life, to-do lists have just depressed me–especially the end-of-day or end-of-week carryover, as still-to-do items plodded through the calendar. There was the temptation to knock off a mess of low-priority things.

(Admit it; you’ve done it, too. The deadline is looming and you spend the afternoon fixing the transitions in PowerPoint.)

Looking at the process is a higher-level way of answering the question, “”What do you want to have happen?”

Four years ago, I started with “lose some weight” but reframed that to “get in good shape” (which I guess sounded better to me at the time than “be healthy,” if only for the active verb). That turned out to be a far better goal, because it was easier for me to identify some processes likelier to get me there eventually.

Anywhere is walking distance, if you have the time.

I don’t mean for a second to position myself as a expert on weight loss — but I’ve become a far better manager of my own systems. I’m a practitioner of things that tend to keep me on a path I wanted–and still want–to be on.

I’ve been at my new job four months now. I have coworkers I look forward to seeing, people who want to share, to experiment together, and with whom it’s a pleasure to figure things out. Even as my current project rushes to the delivery date, I find myself engaging more both with my face-to-face peers and, sporadically, the many virtual colleagues I’ve encountered.

That’s part of the practice I need to be practicing: not just connecting, but regularly and purposefully connecting. Not just reading, but regularly and purposefully reading. Not just thinking out loud, but regularly and purposefully doing that.

CC-licensed photo by Víctor Nuño.




Nov 122013

Between the corporate and academic worlds, the borderlands are wide and mostly ill-defined, but you can always rustle up a ruckus by asking, “What’s the difference between training and education?”

I’m not that big a ruckus-rustler, and nearly all my career has taken place in the non-academic world–at least since a Certain University bounced me, and other unworthies, from its adjunct faculty because we lacked what it referred to with a straight face as “the terminal degree.”

But even in the efficient system of a corporation (which, as Voltaire might have said, is at times neither efficient, nor systematic, nor corporeal) you can spark a decent-sized ruckus by asking about the difference between training and learning.

The main difficulty is that many people who’ve worked in what used to be called training and development have come to see that training as it’s been practiced can be:

  • Narrow in scope (the task, maybe the job, rarely the function)
  • Limited in timeframe (this week, this month, this quarter)
  • Modeled on the dreariest aspects formal education (classrooms, lectures, the semester contact hour)
  • Posited on the transfer of skill–and even more so on the transfer of knowledge

I think all of those are generally true, though I don’t think they’re generally evil.  For example, I see “transfer of skill” as a metaphor for a process through which someone who lacked a skill comes to acquire it.  I do not equate that phrase with “content dump,” though I’ve sat through more than one training class that held strictly to the knowledge-as-freight approach.

Still, the traditional (albeit diminishing) approach to training is a kind of freight train. There’s no steering wheel; someone else controls the signals and throws the switches.  To further overextend the metaphor, the suboptimal form of learning is–I don’t know, some solar-powered, personal flying car, powered by your innate desire to learn.

I’m all for learning, and in particular for learning the things that interest me, but I’m not delusional enough to think that I can necessarily maintain the standard of living I’d like to maintain solely through that.

The drawback, at least in the most extreme forms of this point of view, is that somebody’s got to value your ability to learn what you want, when you want, enough to provide you with a means of making a living. I’m sure people manage that, even a few people I know, but I have no clue how to pull that off myself.

And that’s okay. Especially since I have a new home (Victoria, British Columbia) and a new job–working for a crown corporation in BC. (It’s roughly the equivalent of a not-for-profit corporation, established by the province to administer public-sector pension plans.)

I’m a curriculum designer, which means I work with stakeholders and subject-matter experts to figure out how our people can master new or changing conditions in order to better serve members of pension plans, as well as satisfying the requirements of the plans themselves.

The job search that led to this move is one reason I haven’t posted here for so long: I’d hit a slow period in terms of consulting, and I was ready to make a change. Moving 3,000 miles to another country seemed to have accomplished that.

Years ago, my first professional experience with social media was as part of the original TRDEV-L listserv begun by David Passmore of Penn State. (If you have no idea what a listserv is, then you have some idea how long ago that was.) Many participants wanted to make clear that they spoke for themselves and that their opinions were not necessarily those of their employer’s. My own email signature for TRDEV-L included “My opinions, not GE’s.”

Tthat approach still holds. I’ve missed my blog and want to resume thinking out loud about the interests, ideas, and notions that I see as relating to learning and performance in the workplace. None of this should be taken as necessarily reflecting any policy or program of BC Pension Corporation, or the province of British Columbia, or the government of Canada, or anything other than something that held my interest long enough for me to write about it.

It’s good to be back.

Feb 272013

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says,
“What is this, some kind of joke?”

No matter how you reacted to that, it’s a lot like how I react to infographics.

Most of them are more about the graphic than the info, I think. In fact, I’d been planning to write a post contrasting infographics with job aids, because I think many people confuse the former with the latter.

Instead, thanks to Mark Oehlert, I came across Desmond Wong’s post, Infographics to Teach You How to Create Infographics. Wong talks about them as a marketing tool, then goes into the details of constructing them using PointPoint, and of harnessing layout and graphics to achieve your goal.

What’s that got to do with those folks walking into a bar?

Infographics are like jokes.
(This is a different statement from “infographics are a joke.”)

Infographics are situational.

People enjoy jokes, but enjoyment (usually) hinges on context. What’s funny at work isn’t always what’s funny at the game; what sparks conversation at the coffee shop can put off someone reading online.

If you’re uninterested in the context, reading an infographic can sometimes like work–the kind of work you’re glad you don’t have to do.

If the graphic elements are well-done, though–when they engage us, the way a good joke-teller does–we’ll at least take time to find out what happens next. We might not stay long, but we didn’t pass by

Infographics rely on patterns.

I haven’t read enough Jung to be sure, but I’d bet he thought about “walking into a bar” as one of his archetypes. It’s really the framework for a pattern: “I’m going to arrange some ideas here and play with them.”

Not every pattern shows up in every good joke, any more than the same cards show up in a good poker hand. Like music, though, jokes and infographics are subject to their version of Duke Ellington’s test: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

X-walks-into-a-bar is a stage for a virtual performance. For infographics, that stage is set, as Wong points out, with strong visual elements: blocks of color, distinctive shapes, headlines, callouts, hand- (or cherry-) picked data.

Even the overall shape is a pattern. While I’ve seen exceptions like Randall Munroe’s graphics on money and radiation, most infographics embrace a long-but-not-wide format. My hunch is they’re following the online convention: people scroll down, but not sideways.

Infographics are an invitation. 

People tell jokes for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t tell them to themselves. Telling is only the start of the process. A joke is an invitation to share.

Maybe you’re sharing silliness or mockery. Maybe you’re sharing stereotypes to ridicule them–or to signal that you’re on the same side. Two-way sharing can be a kind of camaraderie: “Okay, how many accordionists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

Through wordplay and juxtaposition, jokes invite you to take up a different viewpoint. The unexpectedly funny jokes engage us with their contrast and make us feel good because we got them.

A good infographic invites you to look at its content in new ways. Whether polemical or political or even poetic, the infographic is saying, “Did you ever think…?” 

I do have some misgivings. Some people seem to think that any collection of text, shapes, and colors doing time together is an infographic. I suspect they’re the same sort of people who think “outtake” is a synonym for “hilariously funny.”

Still, if somebody wants to follow Desmond Wong’s tutorials and come up with his own infographic, I think that’s great. He’s got some design fundamentals and a set of templates as a fast start. The real learning begins where the infographic leaves off.

Jan 072013

I’ve just read David Kelly’s post, What I’m Looking for More of in 2013. Like me, David’s not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’m not sure what his reasoning is; I know that despite all the social-media cheering for failure as a good thing, I’m not always prone to cheer for myself when I fail, particularly in the resolution-as-self-improvement realm.

One way that David’s working in that realm is to talk in public about things he wants to do more of this year. I certainly see the value in that; at the same time, because of my own tendencies, I’m often reluctant to discuss that kind of goal publicly. Falling short feels that much worse to me.

David lists four things he wants to do more of this year.

  • Read more
  • Write more
  • Do more
  • Help more

(Read his post for the details; this is the mini-summary.)

I’m particularly taken by what he says about “do more.”

I hear a lot of talk from people, including myself, about the type of work we should be doing. We adapt the way it should be done to the way it can be done within an organization. Sacrifices are made; that’s just the way things work in organizational learning.

But the fact is, until there are more examples of the way it should be done actually being done, with examples of the benefits reached by doing things differently, our industry will continue this cycle of doing what we’ve always done.

So when I say “Do More”, I’m really talking about opportunities to “Do Better”. I’m looking to get involved in projects both inside my organization and outside my organization that provide an opportunity to produce more examples of the needle being moved.

I think the “we” here refers to people in the learning field, especially the organizational learning field. I’ve often encouraged people who are considering proposing their first presentation for a professional group–to me, that’s one of the best ways to clarify your own understanding of what you’ve been doing and what value you can uncover for someone who’s doing or interested in doing something similar.

Or, even better, who’s grappling with a similar problem that you’ve had some success with.

At the same time, I’m sometimes surprised at the number of people whose jobs seem mainly to involve going to conferences. Depending on my mood, that could be puzzlement, or just plain jealousy.

Sure, I’d like to go to a few more conferences myself; the potential for face-to-face interaction is pretty easy to realize when you’ve connected virtually ahead of time.

While I’m on this conference tangent, I admit in all honesty, I have a certain… well, if not skepticism, then doubtfulness, about “speakers.” Hey, I like to speak. I know lots of words. I can talk, and I can even (though this might trigger your doubtfulness) be intentionally quiet.

My point is not to criticize many people I admire who have “speaker” listed on their site biographies. I just want to underscore David’s comment about doing. At a professional conference, I readily bail on keynote addresses; I want to hear from the practitioner.

David’s post came at a good time for me. This past year was not a roaring success, professionally, on many fronts. Frankly, I’ve been stuck for a while, feeling frustrated that X wasn’t happening and that Y turned out so poorly. This isn’t a useful way to proceed for very long.

So what positive goals will I set for myself?

  • Do more. David has his meaning for this; I have mine. I want to work on more projects, or longer projects. I want to connect with clients to help them achieve better results. I also want to help them avoid doing any more training than they have to, both because training usually isn’t the route to better results, and because so much of what’s done in the name of training just plain isn’t very good.
  • Connect more. I don’t comment or communicate with my professional colleagues as often as I’d like. In fact, for certain people whom I really admire, I tend not to connect; I don’t want to be taking up too much of their time. So I want to find opportunities to share more and collaborate more. In particular I want to find opportunities to collaborate in Canada.
  • Write more–and regularly. Were it not for Jay Cross helping me understand how blogs work, and Harold Jarche setting the example of thinking out loud about what interests me professionally, I would not have nearly 600 posts here on my Whiteboard. 2012 was a sporadic year for me, though. I want to rebuild the habit of posting regularly, which requires the habit of thinking regularly. The French verb réfléchir can be translated as to think about or to think over as well as to reflect.
  • Count more. This is just an offhanded way of saying I want to monitor what I’m doing and compare what’s going on to what I said I wanted to have going on.

About that monitoring: I’ve written a few times about weight, health, and performance management (as in this post from two and a half years ago). I weigh myself at the same time nearly every morning, and I track the data both in a food-diary app and on a spreadsheet. This routine has had the side benefit of making me very clear about normal variation. Small gains from one day to the next don’t bother me; small losses are more fun to see, but I don’t take them seriously in the absence of a trend.

There’s other stuff I’d like to get in there, but I know I’m better off focusing on four things than fourteen. So thanks to David both for sharing his ideas and for helping me tease out some of mine.