Sunday, April 27, 2014

Zero-Level Design for Experiential Exercises

NOTE: This week, I continue my practice of weekly excerpts from my various books. This week, the excerpt is from the beginning of Volume 1 of the Experiential Learning series.

If you’ve never designed experiential exercises–and possibly even if you have–getting started may seem quite formidable. Over the years, we’ve found that the concept of zero-level design gets us over these start-up willies, so we’re offering it as our first tip.

A zero-level design is the simplest design that will satisfy the principal learning goals.

The idea behind the zero-level design is to relieve, as quickly as possible, the anxiety of designing exercises.
Once you have a zero-level design in hand, you know you can do at least a minimal job as learning leader, so you can relax and feel free to be creative about coming up with something better. You know that if you fail to come up with a better exercise, you still won’t fail in your class, because you do have an adequate exercise in hand.

1.1 A Zero-Level Example

For instance, as part of a process improvement program, we were asked to teach how observation could be helpful. We hadn’t done such an exercise before, but we needed to say whether we would do it or not. Here’s a zero-level design we cooked up ten seconds after we were given this goal, a design that allowed us to accept the assignment on the spot:

      1. Divide the class into two groups. (In a large class, use an even number of groups.)
  1. Designate the groups as A and B. We don’t tell the groups, but A will be performing a simple process without the help of observers, while B will be performing the same process with observers. A is the control group.

  2. Privately tell the B groups to chose one of their members to observe their process.

  3. Give each group a deck of shuffled playing cards. (For large groups, use multiple decks.)

  4. Tell them their goal is to sort the cards into a specified order as fast as possible,
    but with 5 second penalties for each card out of order.

  5. Time each group as they sort the cards. When they are all finished, have each group check another group’s deck for cards out of order. Apply penalties and post the net times.

  6. Now have each group meet and discuss how they can improve. The B group, of course, has a designated observer who can provide information as seen from the outside.

  7. Shuffle the cards and have each group sort again. Measure and post the times as before.

  8. Using their experiences, invent principles of how observation can help or hinder process improvement.

Now this is a very simple exercise, but it will get people talking about process improvement. With this in your back pocket, you can relax and begin thinking of better things. For example, you might make adjustments to tune this exercise–give the observers a checklist to guide their observations; practice on sample groups to decide the best group size and number of decks; modify the exercise for a large class so you have groups of different sizes.

But even more important, you can put this zero-level design aside and come up with something completely different. That’s the big advantage to a quick, zero-level design. At the very least, it will keep you from slipping back into reading slides full of bullet-points to a sleeping classroom. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Conventional but Flawed View of Leadership

Contuining my excerpts from various books, this week I'm posting this segment from Becoming a Technical Leader.

Psychologists and management theorists have dozens of models of leadership, with a typical one of their texts offering this explanation:
There are two principal ways to identify the leaders of a group:
1. asking the members to identify which members they regard as most influential in directing the group, or
2. asking observers to name the most influential members, or to record the frequency of effective influencing actions.
Although they appear to be scientific, these models are based on the opinions of the members or the observers, and on their ability to observe "effective influencing actions." Over the years, I began to see some flaws in that approach.
For instance, a company recently retained me to help a group of computer programmers improve their problem-solving techniques. The company was losing thousands of dollars of sales each passing day because of a subtle error in its software product. Until the programmers could find the error, the product was useless. To help the group, I videotaped them as they struggled to find the error.
In one hour of observation, the "effective influencing actions" of the four programmers involved looked like this:
Arnie 112 actions
Phyllis 52 actions
Weber 23 actions
Martha 0 actions
Martha's actions were easy to record. She sat like a zombie through the entire hour, studying the printout of the erroneous program. She said nothing, made no gestures, and didn't even smile or frown. Without question, she had no influence on the group whatsoever.
After consuming an hour with their effective influencing actions, the other group members were no closer to solving the problem than when they started. All of a sudden, Martha lifted her eyes from the listing, pointed a finger at one line, and said, ever so quietly, "This word should be '87AB0023', not '87AB0022'." Then Arnie, Phyllis, and Weber resumed their agitated discussion. They terminated the meeting ten minutes later, after they had convinced themselves that Martha was indeed correct.
When I asked the group who had been their most influential member, they all said, "Arnie." Then I played the videotape, asking them to be especially alert to the method by which their problem was solved. After watching the tape, Arnie, Phyllis, and Weber changed their answer to "Martha." Why? Because in terms of solving their problem, the table of effective influencing actions should have read
Arnie 0 actions
Phyllis 0 actions
Weber 0 actions
Martha 1 action

Without Martha's contribution, the meeting would have gone nowhere, yet non-programming psychologists would have probably missed Martha's role entirely. When such nontechnical psychologists observe our workshops, they are consistently befuddled by the dynamics of the teams as they solve technical problems. It's as if the psychologists were watching people from another planet, people whose culture and language look and sound superficially like ours but are entirely different.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

NOTE: Up until now, I haven't been much of a faithful blogger. I keep telling myself it's because I'm too busy writing other things and trying to induce people to buy them—or at least read them for free. At long last, however, I applied some of my own problem-solving advice and solved two problems by putting them together.
At least I'm going to try. Each week, instead of writing a new blog post, I'm going to snatch a bit of writing from one of my books, something that holds together on its own and is worth reading. Perhaps it will also convince a reader or two to read the whole book, but it any case, I will try to make each piece worth their time.
This week, I'm starting the experiment with that strategy. Now I have another problem. With about a hundred published books, how will I choose which book to use each week. I don't know how I'll solve that problem in general, but just so I don't have to think about it today, I'm starting in alphabetical order. So, this week's snippet is taken from a book I wrote with Don Gause, Are Your Lights On? At the very least, read it to learn where the title came from.
Chapter 13. The lights at the end of the tunnel.
A long auto tunnel through the mountains above Lake Geneva has just been completed. Just before the opening, the chief engineer remembers she has forgotten to warn motorists to turn on their lights before entering the tunnel. Even though the tunnel is well illuminated, the motorists must be prepared to prevent a catastrophe in the event of a power failure—a plausible eventuality in the mountains.
A sign is made saying:
The tunnel, with the sign well ahead of the entrance, is opened on schedule, and everyone relaxes, now that the problem is solved.
About 400 meters past the Eastern end of the tunnel stands the world's most scenic rest stop, with a sweeping view from high above the lake. Hundreds of tourists stop there each day to enjoy the view, perform important bodily functions, and perhaps partake of a small but tasty piquenique.
And every day, ten or more of those hundreds return to their cars, refreshed in body and soul, only to find a dead battery from having left their lights on! The gendarmes are tying up most of their resources getting them started or hauling them away. Tourists are complaining and swearing to tell their friends not to visit Switzerland.
As usual, we ask you to pause and ask yourself:
(a) the drivers
(b) the passengers (if any)
(c) the chief engineer
(d) the gendarmes
(e) the president of the canton
(f) the automobile clubs
(g) none of the above
(h) all of the above
The strong tendency in this type of problem—with an explicit "designer" or "engineer"—is to consider it her problem. Not only do the drivers in this case consider it the engineer's problem, but the engineer probably does too. It's a common impression among architects, engineers, and other designers that they must take care of everything.
In this instance, the engineer considered various solutions she could impose upon the drivers and their passengers.
(1) She could put a sign at the end of the tunnel saying, TURN OFF YOUR LIGHTS but then people would turn off their lights at night...
(2) She could ignore the situation and let people...No, that was already happening, and the government officials think the engineer has done a lousy job.
(3) She could put a battery-charging station at the scenic overlook. But that would be expensive to maintain, and would make people even more furious if it didn't work.
(4) She could give the recharging station franchise to a private firm. But that would commercialize the overlook and be unacceptable to the government and the tourists.
(5) She could put a more explicit sign at the end of the tunnel.
The engineer felt intuitively there should be some way to write a more explicit sign. She worked on several alternatives and eventually came up with a masterpiece of Swiss precision:
By the time anybody had finished reading this sign (in three languages), his car would be over the guardrail and gurgling to the bottom of the lake, which would not be an acceptable solution at all. Besides, what about funerals? There must be a better way!
Instead of all this complication, the chief engineer took the approach of "It's THEIR problem"—but it was her problem to assist them. She assumed the drivers had a strong motivation to solve the problem, but they might need a little reminding. She also assumed the drivers—if they were to be: licensed at all—couldn't be complete dummies. All they needed was a sign at the end of the tunnel:
If they weren't smart enough to deal with that, dead batteries were the least of their problems.
This sign eliminated the problem, and the message was short enough to be put on the sign in several languages. The engineer always remembered her lesson from this situation:

Are your lights on?