Monday, June 28, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson: Great Inspiration to bring on the Learning Revolution

Sir Ken Robinson's most recent TED talk is a great validation of our approach at ThoughtWorks University. While Sir Ken speaks about education and I'm more a corporate educator and for long I've felt strongly against one-size-fits-all, factory style, conformant education. I've always been one for a pull-based approach as you may have noticed from my past blogposts some of which are below:
Sir Robinson's talk has some great quotes that I want to share with you:
"Education, in a way, dislocates very many people from their natural talents. And human resources are like natural resources; they're often buried deep."

"The great problem for reform or transformation is the tyranny of common sense, things that people think, 'Well, it can't be done any other way because that's the way it's done.'"

"You know, to me, human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability."

"The other big issue is conformity. We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. You know there are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other are things like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they're customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies."

"We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish."

"It's about customizing to your circumstances, and personalizing education to the people you're actually teaching."

"It's not about scaling a new solution; it's about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum."

"Now, in this room, there are people who represent extraordinary resources in business, in multimedia, in the internet. These technologies, combined with the extraordinary talents of teachers, provide an opportunity to revolutionize education."
Great speaking and great inspiration for those like me who believe in individualisation and diversity. We need to give our learners credit for who they are and move away from one-size-fits-all training. Instead, let's find an agricultural model that works for the enterprise. More about this when I post about ThoughtWorks University next month. Thanks Sir Ken - this is great ammunition to support my thoughts!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Here are 6 Social Learning Platforms you can enable 'On-Demand'

A few weeks back you may have read my recap of Jane Hart's webinar on choosing the right social learning platform. Jane outlined a variety of parameters that you should use to select your social learning platform - I've tried to summarise them in the picture above. Now before you run off to find yourself a social learning platform, let me play party-pooper a bit. The fewer boundaries you place on social learning, the better. If all you want to do is create a walled garden where along with your course resources, you can provide students an opportunity to have discussions, collaborate using blogs, wikis and collective databases, you're better off using one of the modern LMS's such as Moodle.

OTOH, if you're keen on being in tune with the state of the art in social learning, you're perhaps better off using a full-fledged social collaboration platform. But then again, you're perhaps going to tax an already stretched technology team -- and you need to be sure about what you're getting into before you spend a truckload of cash. This is where some of the cooler SaaS (Software as a Service)/ 'On-Demand' platforms come in really handy. In today's blogpost, I'm going to introduce you to six inexpensive platforms that you can try out and enable on-demand. Just like that - at the click of a button. Ready? Let's check these out. - Full featured Enterprise Social Learning comes from the makers of - the hugely popular web based word processor. The above video is kinda contextual, because I did it for ThoughtWorks, for a very specific purpose. But as you may have noticed, is a really solid, full-fledged social platform. It's very feature rich - name the feature and has it. Let's list them out:
  • Social bookmarking
  • Blogs
  • Discussion forums
  • Group calendars
  • Audio/ Video/ Image Sharing
  • Wikis
  • File sharing
  • Microblogging
  • Full blown metadata support - tagging, ratings, comments etc
Add to that, it comes with a really convenient (yet often cranky) desktop application which should make contribution almost a snap. To try things out, all you need to do is sign up on the community area and start playing on the sandbox. Once you're satisfied you have the choice of going with the free and open source community edition or the On-Demand edition. While the on-demand edition can cost upwards of $9000 annually, it's perhaps fair enough given it accomodates unlimited users.

Yammer - The Microblogging Platform
On the face of it, Yammer's just a microblogging platform. The simplicity is where it's power lies. Often social learning platforms are way too complex in the number of options they provide to users. For users that are already using the internet in a big way to find and create interesting content, Yammer's a great way to aggregate useful information in one place. Yammer's a Twitter equivalent for the enterprise. Which means that you can hashtag information which is easily searchable for later. This means that you can easily share information with a really low entry barrier and with minimal interruption to your work. This also means that with the right kind of community management, Yammer can do for your company the stuff that Twitter does for the big broad internet.

Yammer allows you to create internal communities in your organisation, which isn't such a great idea, but is something that a lot of companies look for. Most importantly Yammer doesn't have a 140 character limit, so you have the ease of use of Twitter without it's limitations - so just in case you wanted to have a longer back and forth, you can do that outside your email inbox. Yammer's been quite a success in the industry - check out some of the case studies here. While you can start with a network for free, you perhaps want directory integration and other enterprise features. At $36 per person for the Silver plan and $60 per person for the Gold plan, it does seem a bit pricey, but I guess you can talk to them about volume discounts.

Socialcast - the 'other' Microblogging Platform

Just like Yammer, Socialcast is a splendid enterprise microblogging platform. Everything I said about Yammer holds true for Socialcast. Socialcast, like Yammer has a desktop app and a smartphone app too. Their prices aren't openly published, but from what I understand even the free version gives you tremendous flexibility and configurability by way of the following features:
  • Outlook and Sharepoint integration
  • Analytics
  • Directory Integration
  • Administrative privileges
I'm just trying Socialcast out as an experiment, so I'd love to hear what you think about the application.

SocialText - The 'just enough' Collaboration Platform

When I was evaluating SocialText earlier this year, I thought of it as the 'just enough' collaboration platform, as you'll notice from my video above. While it may not seem like much, it supports the really important features such as:
  • Social networking;
  • Blogs;
  • Microblogging;
  • Wikis;
  • Shared Spreadsheets (ala Google Docs);
  • and Groups/ Communities
At the time I tried it, I remember signing up for a free network of upto 50 people (or something like that). Ever since I think SocialText has discontinued that particular option and you can instead sign up for a full-fledged 30 day trial. There's one thing that's always annoyed me about SocialText though. While the desktop application is really cool, lightweight and powerful, SocialText itself doesn't support hastagging. This is a bit of a downer for any application that provides microblogging as a feature. They need to change this soon, very soon. - The Ning Replacement is cool - is easy. You may remember reading about it on this blog when I reported Jane Hart's webinar. While I really love for it's feature set and the ease of use, customisability and setup, I'm a bit sceptical about it's use as an enterprise social learning application unless the intent is to connect with customers and third parties. This is because has absolutely no way of connecting with your company's single-sign-on directory. This may not seem like much, but this is is often a big problem in the adoption of enterprise applications, because users have to remember multiple passwords to even contribute. Yes, you can use Facebook integration, but how many companies are willing to see their internal information published on Facebook? This said, if you're not beset by security and intellectual property concerns, then you should give a try. It's extremely feature rich and most importantly a free and easy alternative to paid services such as Ning.

Google Apps - The Next Giant?

Before I tell you more, I must say I have a huge love-hate relationship with the Google Apps suite. Their email is great, but their calendaring tool is erratic. They always seem to be in hobby software mode and some of their tools such as Google Videos and Google Sites are just not ready for the enterprise yet. All this said, the introduction of Google Marketplace, Google Wave and Google Groups as part of the apps suite makes Google an increasingly attractive choice for enterprises. The promise of Google Buzz in coming months adds a really strong edge to Google Apps' social capabilities. Email is at the center of all collaboration and while this may not seem like the best idea if you trust the purists, email is going to take a huge time to die. Google has an irritating knack of releasing features without any advance notice and with no published roadmap for customers. Sometimes the things they do are a pleasant surprise to customers and at other times they announce a feature when you've spent months trying to develop a workaround. The latter is obviously very irritating. This said, if you wish to bank on a solution that's likely to shape up as one of the best in years to come, Google's a good horse to place your bets on. For features it doesn't have yet, try the extensions at the Google Marketplace and you're likely to have a social learning suite to die for. You can start up for no fee whatsoever by using their services on the public internet or better still try their free, standard edition. As of now, Google Apps Premier Edition comes with the following tools:
  • Gmail
  • Google Docs
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Videos
  • Google Sites
  • Google Wave
  • Google Chat
  • Google Buzz (coming soon)
  • Google Groups
  • and an unlimited array of options from the Google Marketplace
And of course, you never know what Google will announce tomorrow - they can always surprise you with their unpredictability. At $50 per user per year, including your email and calendaring solution, I think Google Apps is a very cost effective solution. I know it's a big decision to change your email platform and that's not something L&D controls very often. This said, it's well worth the try - Anand's recent blogpost is only a glimpse of how cool the emailing solution from Google really is.

Choosing a social learning platform is not easy and I'm not going to take a shot by telling you who my winner is. I'll let you take a guess with that! This said, each of the above tools allows you try without buying and most importantly without even installing. They're 'on-demand' -- all you need to do is pay and get your service running. So if you can get your evaluation done soon, getting your platform to work is almost like waving a magic wand - tada! Going on-demand also gives you the advantage of discontinuing the service once your subscription period is over, if that's necessary. Take away the trouble of installing and maintaining the applications and your IT department is likely to be your best friend. So try these tools out and see if they fit your bill, and let me know what you think. If there are other on-demand platforms you've had experience with, please drop in your comments and let me know. I'll look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LSG Webinar - How great content, systems and communications create provable learning results

Hopefully I'll have better luck with this webinar than I had with the last one. Without too much stage setting, let me get straight to the topic. Steve Ash, Director of LINE Communications will speak today about his experience with Ford Europe and how they found a better way to train and communicate with their network of car dealers. They've implemented a portal called the Learning Center as well as the Ford Foundation a suite of content for sales people to gain essential skills to sell Ford vehicles. So Steve promises to cover:
  • How a portal approach enables rapid, targeted access to learning
  • Why a communications campaign is essential for adoption
  • How elearning speeds up time to competence
  • Calculating and demonstrating cost savings
  • Showing provable increased performance by learners
It's tough to stay focussed on a webinar while live blogging it when you're in a classroom full of bright students with an interesting discussion on hand. So, I'm going to do the best I can with these notes, but if they're pants - don't shoot me.

OK, I'm interested particularly in how people are improving business performance with learning.

So Steve asks: What do you think a learning function should measure and report on?

Some interesting answers from the group:
  • Improvement in ability to carry out tasks
  • increase in meeting targets
  • that skills base increases
  • improvement in performance
  • Expectations of stakeholders (ROE noit ROI)
  • were they appropriate to the role
  • impact of learning - efficiency, effectiveness
  • Return on expectation
  • Should be based on business req's and Learning outcomes that result from the lna
  • behavioural change
  • Committment
  • What the buisiness expects
OK let's see what this case study is all about.

The Company and their Challenge

Ford was founded in 1903 - one model and one colour of the car. Now they obviously create so many different kinds of vehicles. The profits they make are related to the technological advancements for their cars and even the extras generate huge profits for the business. Ford Europe is the subject of this case study - they have 8000 dealerships with 25000 dealers. So that's huge scale!

Jacob - Head of training at Ford had a challenge. Traditionally, people would go to Henry Ford College. People join, and after 3 months of trial you get hired by the dealers (you've sold from Day 2, btw). After this you complete the minimum training and then by month 37 you're fully trained. Unfortunately by month 37, 40% people left or dropped out. So their problems were:
  • 40% staff turnover
  • People never trained in Ford Brand
  • People rarely trained in all products
  • People never had any tests on their competence.
So the question was "Why?" they were doing things the way they were doing.

So Jacob's objectives were:
  • Increase vehicle sales
  • Increase profits - Do more for less
The most important thing Ford need to realise these objectives was to increase retention because it was costing them a fortune to recruit. The second was obviously time to competence, which in the original state was quite high - 37 weeks!

The most important part of executing the project was in the space of Change Management, apart from all the L&D aspects.

What they did and how they did it

At this point, Steve is showing us the Learning Center and the Ford Foundation learning materials. Let's see. There's a really nice video introducing the Learning Center and really what's in it for the sales folks - on time, any time, etc.

The big thing for the team was that elearning was a new way of learning and they had to construct different messages for each group of people in the corporate heirarchy and I think this is key as is the delivery of the message. One size fits all rarely fits anyone. Steve is showing how they used a standard look and feel and how they varied the media to suit different people and different purposes. It seems like a very professionally executed change programme. I see greenbacks floating -- this is bound to be costly, but I'm sure it's well worth the cost. Ok - time for 1 more demo!

Steve's now showing another of these introductory videos explaining the benefits of the elearning programs. The look and feel looks really polished - it's more of the same though. The idea is to communicate effectively.

The results
The program reached out to 23820 people. The more difficult measures however were around replacing the existing training binders.

Ford went ahead and broke the training materials into vertical and horizontal chunks dividing not just the product lines but also the knowledge and skill areas across these product lines. Now people can actually get trained in 13 months and potentially be promoted to sales managers by month 36. A huge improvement on the past approach.

They also released 24 different language versions, so people could access training in a language that made sense to them.

Now Ford is looking for ways to make the learning modules even shorter and to increase the number of delivery platforms to take the materials to mobiles, tablets, etc. They also have a request to move materials to a format where sales people can use these with customers as well! Sounds like they're loving it, aren't they?

In terms of the before situation - the cost per person used to be 390 euros! That was a fair chunk of change for binders. Now, they spend as little as 65 euros! More importantly they can track completion and progress.

93% find the training useful. 81% people find it useful to sell vehicles before the launch event. Most importantly, amongst two people selling cars for 5 years, the person who had done elearning outperformed the people who hadn't done elearning almost consistently. More importantly the people who scored highly on the elearning did better on sales than the others. That's a very powerful statistic to send out to management to talk about the success of the program. Attrition had gone down tremendously as well!

In summary, this is a hugely successful program from Ford's perspective. The top tips;
  1. Pursue business metrics.
  2. Don't underestimate Change Management.
  3. Fun, engaging, interactive content is critical.
  4. elearning really works!
I really loved this experience report - great tips and inspiration. One thing for me to remember - Change Management is everything. I'm going to get some lessons from our Change Manager - Liv Wild. Thanks Steve!

LSG Webinar - How to design learning (aka “Serious”) games

It's been a really busy time which has left me with no time whatsoever for webinars, PKM, tweeting and everything that makes life on the internet really interesting. Anyways, I've spoken to my team about making time for this webinar, so thanks to the guys who're being nice to me - I get to attend Patrick Dunn's webinar on designing serious games.

This is my second webinar with Patrick - the recap of the last one is here. Patrick Dunn has been designing, producing and thinking about various forms of learning technology for more than twenty years. I particularly enjoyed his last talk and I'm guessing this one will be quite exciting too.

So, here are the live blogged notes.

Don starts off in his (now famous) midnight presenter voice and is introducing Patrick in the way only he can. And after Don's usual house keeping, Patrick begins. Good morning, Patrick.

Typically in the west, people spend more on games than on films. Modern games are starting to permeate peoples lives in different ways. The above video from YouTube is a nice one to watch and see how this landscape is changing.

SG = OP + LO + PC (Patrick's formula to explain serious games - explained below)

Serious Games = Organised Play with Explicit Learning Objectives usually delivered on Computers

Learning Games are part of a wide spectrum of learning exercises. You mix ingredients to come up with an experience that actually solve problems. So you mix elements from traditional elearning and learning games to create learning that meets a business objective.

So some of the elements of game design/ and even a good learning experience:
  • Relevant challenges
  • Sensory stimulation
  • Flow
  • Learner Centricity
  • Repetitive Rehearsal
  • Personalisation
  • Safe failure
  • Socialisation
  • Incremental challenge
  • Guiding feedback
  • Contextualisation
  • Stories
  • Emotional Engagement
  • Characterisation
But all of this is tough to distill down and simplify - why do games really matter is the big question?

First things first we can categorise most of these elements into 3 areas:
  • Simulation
    • Sensory Stimulation
    • Repetitive Rehearsal
    • Safe failure
    • Guiding feedback
  • Motivation
    • Flow
    • Relevant challenge
    • Learner Centricity
    • Personalisation
    • Socialisation
    • Incremental Challenge
  • Narration
    • Stories
    • Emotional Engagement
    • Characterisation
    • Contextualisation
So once you need a game, you need to pick and choose elements from these buckets to decide what makes sense for the experience you're trying to create.

So here's the notion that's really makes a difference:

Extrinsic Games: You're just dressing up a dry topic to be a game.
Intrinsic Games: You're helping learners practice a skill by playing a game or simulation.

Big questions to ask ourselves when designing the game

What game is it?
How do you play?
How do you score?
How do you win?

And here's where my webinar screen goes kaput! So all I'm doing is following Patrick's voice! So pardon me for being stupid with my writing. Oops and I've lost sound too.

OK - I'm back after logging in again. Patrick is now showing a bunch of learning games examples I guess - I still can't see what's on. Patrick's now showing a great example from Cathy Moore.

The idea is that all successful games produce an emotional reaction. And the challenge is to cultivate these reactions from a design perspective.
  • Some questions about your story:
  • What's the perspective?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What are the surprises and twists?
  • How does the story resolve itself?
  • How will learners feel when they play the game?
  • How do you establish the mood?
  • Most importantly how does this relate to the business objectives?
So what keeps us interested when playing games?
We play by exploring, calculating, shooting, picking clues, etc. So there are bunch of things to take care of  when trying to plan this interest.
  • Micro-macro structure?
  • One thing at once/ many things at once?
  • Few similar interactions/ many different interactions?
  • You could try different things:
    • branching journeys - like the branching simulations you can create using traditional tools;
    • guided discovery - more like the controlled learning games from Thinking Worlds;
    • open - more like the games that we usually play and of course you can create these using Thinking Worlds too.
Patrick is demonstrating a great example of a controlled simulation with a series of decisions that affect whether or not you win a penalty shoot out in a football match. Your decisions have a real-world impact, so you get feedback for how your actions affect the overall outcome of win or loss. Good stuff.

You have a lot of choice when designing things - so you need to be able to nail down various aspects of game design well in advance.

Most importantly, your game needs to give you feedback on whether you're doing well or not and whether you failed or succeeded. Feebdack is crucial - you need to decide how much is intrinsic and how much is extrinsic.

Top Tips:
  • Play games yourself!
  • Think experience not content
  • Be 100% clear of learning rationale ("Why am I designing a game?")
  • Really know your learners
  • Plan your architecture (macro structure) carefully.
Sorry, my writing's all messed up today - I'm at a hotel with bad internet, so I've just snapped up the pearls of wisdom.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why a Sustainable Pace and Fun matters

Something beautiful happened at ThoughtWorks University today. For the first time we tried an Open Space format to facilitate informal learning in the group - which incidentally went quite well, I think. Amongst the parallel sessions, I facilitated a discussion on 'What good speakers do.' What happened right after the open space was almost remarkable though.

We've tried our best to keep a sustainable pace and create an environment of fun on the course, right from day one. I can't attribute what happened only to these factors, but I think it may have had a strong effect. So here's what happened. Right after the open space, a bunch of students walked up to ask if they could organise an event where people could do Ignite style talks, so they can not only share knowledge but also practice their presentation skills. This is exactly what we were planning to announce on Friday, but it was beautiful in that the students asked for it before we even mentioned it. It may seem like too little a thing to get excited about, but I think of it another way. What if we'd piled heaps of homework on the students and not focussed on the fun and informality aspect of the course. Would tired students who were not having fun have made a similar proposal?

There's something to be said about how sustainable pace and fun encourages people to contribute with things that they're passionate about. People who have fun at work and aren't working long hours under pressure are perhaps more likely to contribute to their employers/ clients in creative, unimaginable ways. And it's this individuality that often gives projects the edge they need. I might be getting needlessly excited, but well this is how I feel today - what do I do?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Social Learning isn't all about the Tools - 4 Factors to Consider

This is a really tiring, exciting and fulfilling time of my professional life. I'm in the thick of ThoughtWorks University. ThoughtWorks University (TWU) is our graduate induction program where we've traditionally flown our graduate hires from all across the world into Bangalore, India for an intense six weeks of collaborative learning. While I'm in my 11th TWU, this term is really special to me for the enhancements we're making to the experience - primarily in the area of social and collaborative learning. Most importantly we're helping graduates learn the ropes by participating in a true to life project, and in that we're using a workscape to drive home the skills they'll take into their jobs as consultants.

In my excitement, I'd almost forgotten about my blogpost for this week and then something about ThoughtWorks as a company got me curious. While we're not a perfect culture, there's something about this culture that makes programs like ThoughtWorks University a distinct reality. It concerns me however, that while a lot of the talk on the blogosphere seems to center around the tools, there's the layer of organisational culture and context that we often neglect. In today's blogpost, I want to try and demistify some cultural factors that work for us and that I think learning consultants need to consider before deploying or even suggesting social learning solutions. Here's what I think.

The Right Social Environment

A few years back Andrew McAfee wrote an excellent article about the enterprise bulls-eye. It's tough to distill down McAfee's wisdom into a few words, but in short, he talks about the power of weak and potential ties to help find solutions to problems. So while your team mates and inner circle form your strong ties and help you with daily collaboration and productivity, your weak ties help you innovate, discover useful information accidentally and to find novel solutions to complex issues.

While this model really makes sense for most modern organisations, it works on the premise that most individuals rely on their team mates and strong ties for day-to-day productivity and collaboration. As it turns out, there are still heaps of organisations that believe in the concept of 'individual contributors', who just need to arrive at work and perform based on a set of pre-established rules. Do these workplaces still exist? Absolutely - my first job as a trainer involved supporting operators who sat at computers all day, processing customer accounts. The only breaks they had from their computers were for a 30 minute lunch and two 15 minute coffee breaks. Not much time to learn anything, huh? People hardly got time to learn within their team, leave alone learning from others in the organisation.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the best tools will do nothing for learning if people don't need to collaborate with their colleagues on a daily basis. If work is only about getting to an office and finishing your quota then, there isn't much scope for social learning, is there? Charity begins at home and true collaboration begins in your teams.

The Problems that Matter

I'm a big fan of Dave Snowden's work on the Cynefin framework. It's a great map of domains that describes problems, situations and complex systems. The four domains of the Cynefin framework are an excellent way to categorise the problems we face at work each day. Here's a quick explanation of the four domains:
  • Simple: This is business as usual and we have clear cause and effect relationship. For problems in this domain, we Sense - Categorise - Respond and apply best practice.
  • Complicated: Often the relationship between cause and effect needs investigation. In these cases we Sense - Analyze - Respond and then apply good practice.
  • Complex: In such domains it's impossible to determine a cause effect relationship in advance so our approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic: There are times in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level. Here we Act - Sense - Respond and we can discover novel practice.
Now a lot of teams do work in the Simple and Complicated domains. With simple problems individuals have absolutely no need to work in groups - the solution is pretty evident. For complicated problems, you may need small teams to figure out the right solution, but even this doesn't necessarily need any cross-functional expertise. The problems that could really do with many eyeballs looking are the ones in the Complex and Chaotic domains. So, the question to ask yourself before even considering a social learning solution is if you have enough problems in these domains to truly exploit an infrastructure of this nature.

The Diversity that Helps

I recently watched Scott Page speak at XP 2010 and I was deeply impressed by his views on diversity. His book 'The Difference' , is a great read for how diverse groups allow us to find better solutions to complex problems. His mathematical modeling research of team work demonstrates that diversely smart teams consistently out-perform homogeneous teams on a variety of tasks. Diversity in organisations isn't an easy task though. Think about it - most training aims at indoctrination and homogeneity. We try our best to create an assembly line of similar thinking people. So while we may get diversity at the beginning of our pipes, we end up with similar thinking people at the end and as a consequence discussions end in groupthink as against constructive debate. We can reach relatively accurate solutions to complex problems provided we have a diverse enough group using different perspectives and heuristics. OTOH, a group of similar thinking people are likely to lead us to a solution that's not to better than our own. Watch the wonderful video above to hear Scott's views on the topic.

So the question for us as learning professionals -- is our organisational ecosystem diverse enough to help people find emergent solutions to their complex problems? Or are we succumbing to groupthink? If the answer is the latter, then it's perhaps best for you to spend some effort trying to address the balance of varying perspectives and heuristics in the firm.

The Facilitation that Binds

Last but not the least, nothing happens by itself or by pure magic, unless you're in Harry Potter land. Social learning is all about self-organisation, but that requires people to play facilitators who help the group define a common purpose, consolidate group learnings and encourage participation. Colocated or distributed, these facilitators form the backbone of any collaborative infrastructure. Way too many tools get deployed without enough stewardship and facilitation. Unfortunately tools are never enough to solve a problem by themselves. Add the right, passionate people behind your tool and you can ensure that you the true participatory potential of your infrastructure. Of course, you need to communicate well, but I guess that goes without saying. Josh Little wrote an excellent article on the Learning Solutions Magazine about this very topic.

So as learning consultants, let's ask ourselves if there are enough facilitators to lead any of our social learning efforts. If there aren't, we perhaps need to spend some time creating this pool of facilitators who can help nurture our collaborative learning communities.
While I'm a big 'shiny toy' freak and I love playing with the latest tools in the learning technology space, I'm also big on thinking about the underlying cultural factors for any sort of learning innovation in the enterprise. ThoughtWorks is an interesting place to try new stuff, given that a lot of the cultural factors fall into place almost magically. We're a strange company with our own little quirks - but when it comes to collaborating in small and large groups, we have just the culture that is conducive to such stuff. I recognise that it's perhaps easy for me to speak about these factors in hindsight, so I'd like to know what you think about them. How do you go about deploying social learning solutions? What factors do you consider? Where do tools appear in your implementation strategy? I'd love to hear your thoughts so please leave your comments on this post.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Here are 3 Factors you should consider before you plan a Training Solution

There's a worrying trend in Bollywood these days. Producers have started to believe if they follow numerology and spell their movie names with an extra character or two, they'll happily get to a hit! As a result you get movie names such as Do Knot Disturb, I hate Luv Storys, Heyy Babyy, Singh Is Kinng, and what have you. Well some of these movies turn out to be commercial hits, and others bomb at the box office - which tells me that all this noise about numerologically correct names is just industry superstition. I want to laugh at the producers, but then I have a sinking feeling. Turns out that in the corporate world, we have superstitions of our own.

In almost all companies there's a superstition that somewhere in the closets of their training departments, there's a magic wand that'll make their performance problems disappear. Throw in a disengaged training team and eager consultants, the moment a client utters the words 'training' or 'elearning', we start to salivate at the prospect of displaying our wares. In the real world however, performance issues are multi-causal and it's no wonder that most training or elearning fails to improve performance.

This may seem to be almost a 'common-sensical' thing for all of us L&D professionals to remember, but the results we see are quite the contrary. So I've decided to write a blog post about the first few things we should consider before we plan a training intervention or an elearning course. This is definitely not an exhaustive list and I hope you can add to my preliminary thoughts.

Process Factors

I've recently been observing a very popular departmental store. If people buy vegetables, then depending on the time of the day, it can take them 30-60 minutes to get out of the store once they're ready to check out. Here's what happens:
  1. Once customers get their vegetables, they need to stand in a queue to get their veggies weighed.
    • There are four weighing counters.
  2. It takes them approximately 10 minutes in line before they can get their veggies weighed.
  3. It doesn't take that long to get the veggies weighed - most customers get done in two minutes.
  4. It then takes customers another five minutes to get to the billing counter and stand in queue there.
    • There are about 10 billing counters.
  5. Depending on the time of the day, it can take extra time. In the best case it takes customers at least 12 minutes in line.
  6. It takes the billing counter about 5-10 minutes on an average to bill the customer.
So, as a consequence of those steps, here's the cycle time for billing a customer - 10+2+5+12+10=33-39 minutes.

“A bad system will defeat a good person every time.” – Deming
Now a very naive, yet lean improvement to the workplace can work this way:
  1. We scrap the weighing counters and add four more billing counters for customers.
  2. We make a small adjustment to the billing counters so the billing associates can also weigh the vegetables.
  3. Customers don't need to move between counters anymore. They go straight to the billing counter when they've made their selection.
  4. Now this means that the billing associates will add about two minutes of weighing time to their billing process. So it can take 7-12 minutes to bill a customer.
  5. This said we now have four extra counters, so we can still keep our customer waiting time down to 12 minutes.
In our newly aligned workplace, it can take 12+12=24 minutes to get a customer out of the door once they make their selection. Moreover we can service 14 customers at a time as against the previous maximum of 10. That's at least a 27% increase in productivity, isn't it?

My solution may be missing important details, but the point I'm trying to drive through is that very often the reason for sub-optimal performance may just be a badly engineered workplace or process. Fortunately the Lean toolkit gives us a really useful tool called Value Stream Mapping, which allows us the see the waste in our business processes. So before we rush into a training solution, a value stream mapping exercise to visualise the whole process may just be the right thing to do.

Performance Support/ Leadership Factors

I'm in the middle of an interesting discussion at work, where we're discussing the importance of training in onboarding people. Frankly, I feel that traditional training is a bit overrated when it comes to making people competent at work. True competence comes from real experience and contextualised support. Training can only help heighten people's awareness about a skill. No amount of training however, can guarantee that all individuals will emerge totally convinced and skilled on your practices. Depending on where they start from and their ability to learn, people may either emerge competent, confused, brainwashed or with cognitive dissonance. This is an awkward, but realistic mix of results. The truth however is that no amount of training will make this mix any different. To expect unconscious competence at the end of training is equivalent to believing that giving someone instructions to swim is will make that person a competent swimmer.

As with most skills embedded in our muscle memory, we learn from experience. In the work context, experience can come only from working on a real project - training simulations are fine, but no substitute for the real world. So I challenge managers and leaders to provide the right kind of performance support and coaching to help people perform at their jobs. And I challenge L&D professionals to investigate if the people you're trying to help have the right leadership and performance support at work. If not, then the solution may not be training. It may mean that you need to equip team leaders with the ability to teach their team members on the job using lean methods.

Motivation Factors

Knowledge is only one dimension to performance. Beyond the knowledge of what one needs to do to perform well, one needs the motivation to excel each day. Unfortunately most workplaces focus on extrinsic factors to encourage people to do well - training, incentives, the fear of being admonished or fired, etc. I can't do any better than Dan Pink to explain the things that motivate people - the above video does a really great job. Before embarking on a training solution though, it may be useful to investigate answers to the following questions:
  • Can the people you're helping direct their own jobs to some extent?
  • Does the job satisfy their urge to get better and better each day? Does it even matter to them if they get better?
  • Do they have a purpose with which they come to work each day? Is that purpose bigger than just getting a paycheck?
If the answer to any of these questions is "No!", then you should perhaps drop the idea of training, because that is unlikely to change performance. The answer to performance problems may just be at a completely different level.
If you look harder, you'll realise that training is hardly the solution to most performance problems. Don't get me wrong - there's a time and place for training. All I'm saying is that putting all your eggs in the training basket leads to nothing but huge disappointment at most times. Let's think beyond the training box - in fact let's stop believing that performance problems only have to do with a knowledge or awareness gap. As I'd said earlier, performance issues are multi-causal. Let's get to the root causes and if and only if people lack the knowledge to do their jobs effectively, let's embark on a training solution. What do you think about that? Let me know by leaving your comments on this blogpost.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

37 of Microsoft's Illustration Styles that are still available

You may remember that I had written a blog post about Microsoft's illustration styles that can help you create a consistent look and feel for your presentations and elearning courses. Unfortunately the new Microsoft Office website has discontinued some of the really nice styles and we're left with a slightly smaller subset compared to few months back. I've tried to catalogue a list of styles that are still available. Again, I can't assure that all these styles will work indefinitely, but for now I guess these can save you some effort in searching and finding consistent illustration styles. This can be an endless post if I try to provide you an image of each of the 37 styles, so here's a zip file with previews of all the styles below.
  1. Style 1
  2. Style 15
  3. Style 13
  4. Style 68
  5. Style 148
  6. Style 487
  7. Style 531
  8. Style 544
  9. Style 588
  10. Style 707
  11. Style 741
  12. Style 744
  13. Style 792
  14. Style 802
  15. Style 925
  16. Style 1087
  17. Style 1191
  18. Style 1252
  19. Style 1268
  20. Style 1278
  21. Style 1280
  22. Style 1295
  23. Style 1368
  24. Style 1402
  25. Style 1449
  26. Style 1450
  27. Style 1461
  28. Style 1534
  29. Style 1540
  30. Style 1541
  31. Style 1549
  32. Style 1568
  33. Style 1576
  34. Style 1580
  35. Style 1592
  36. Style 1593
  37. Style 1597

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Training Trainers - Tips for Effective Presentations

Over the last couple of days I've been training the new trainers at ThoughtWorks University. Those who know me will be aware that I'm extremely passionate when it comes to bringing new trainers onboard with modern presentation and training methods. Today's topic led on from some discussions I'd facilitated yesterday and we discussed tips for effective presentations. Here's the presentation I did for the group - I led it as a 90 minute session, interspersed with discussion and debate. I'm really pleased to have a great team and the session for me was great fun! I've tried my best to translate the original presentation to slideshare though there are a few issues:
  1. The examples of motion don't capture the transitions across different slides where objects move into position to show a new arrangement/ concept.
  2. The examples of embedding video don't play the movie clips, but I guess you get the idea of what I'm trying to achieve here.
Hope you find this useful - thanks for watching!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Other Sessions I liked at XP2010

Apart from the sessions I've written exclusively about, here a quick synopsis of the other sessions I really liked. I'm going to be quick about it, so let me just jot down the high level notes from each session.

Mary Poppendieck - The Five Habits of Successful Lean Development

Mary distilled down five characteristics of typically lean organisations with the mnemonic of 5Ps - Purpose, Passion, Professionalism, Pride and Profit. Here are some of the subcharacteristics of the 5Ps.


  • The reason why we work.
  • Solving real problems.
  • Connecting developers to customers to solve their state of pain.


  • An undying fanaticism for results.
  • Clean code comes from someone who cares about results.
  • Altruistic motivation for great quality products.


  • The drive to build the right thing 
    • "There's nothing as useless as to do something efficiently, that which should not have been done at all."
  • Building the thing right.
    • Test automation.
    • A state of correctness at any given time.
  • Simplicity of design - decoupled architecture, set-based design.
  • Feedback
  • Diversity of perspectives and heuristics.
  • The right vision coupled with the right leadership and focus.
  • Eliminating waste of all kinds:
    • unevenness;
    • non value adding tasks;
    • overburdened teams


  • Doing things gains respect.
  • Being fast and 'sloppy'
    • It's ok to fail - "If you haven't failed ever, it means you haven't tried hard enough."
  • Little documentation aids communication - find the balance.
  • Communication fanaticsm - it's at the heart of all we do.
  • Principles trump processes and practices.
  • Value people as professionals not resources.
  • Hire exceptional people.
  • Planning is everything, but plan to deliver not deliver to plan. So "planning is everything, but plans are nothing".


  • Employees that are dedicated to success.
  • Profitability is the underlying measure for success - without this, there's no business measure for what you do.
  • Value people - valued people make decisions and are engaged to achieve real outcomes.
Though a bit fluffy, I guess the 5Ps are an excellent mnemonic to remind yourself of the behaviours you want to encourage as a leader if you wish to institutionalise Lean Thinking in your company.

Padraig Brennan - What Agile teams can learn from Sports Coaching

Padraig Brennan was talking about his experiences with Agile coaching at Ericsson and his view is that teamwork and collaboration are crucial to achieving success. He made an interesting analogy of how sports coaches work to build effective teams. His talk was about the characteristics sports coaches deem fundamental to success with a lot of inspiration from John Wooden (TED talk above). These are rough notes from Padraig's session.

Does Agile foster teamwork or require team work? Similar teams have varying results? How is that so? Why is that so? The secret is team work. Teamwork leads to good results. There are several characteristics to Agile:
  • collaboration;
  • feedback;
  • shared workspaces or colocation;
  • pairing/ helping each other;
  • and heaps more
The fact is that just making all of this happen doesn't work always.
Click here for a larger picture.

Padraig then went onto to introduce Wooden's pyramid of success (above) and urged teams to start from scratch, by establishing the foundations first before moving to other steps. He proceeded to talk about his interpretation of the science of coaching:
  • people self-organise, but within parameters;
  • teams bond with leadership;
  • there's an external stimulus to aid correction;
  • servant leadership comes into place only after the blocks are all in place;
  • the coach details the system of play;
  • the coach helps people learn through exercises of show and tell;
  • the coach directs and leads until the team gets to be a well oiled unit
Brennan's made some modifications to Wooden's pyramid for Agile teams and I guess there are likely to be other modifications depending on the context, but I guess the focus of the talk was that before we can get to the aspirational goals of Agile Leadership, Agile coaches need to adopt a sports coach role to first emphasise the importance of teams and teamwork and focus on the fundamentals. Like Mary's 5Ps for Lean organisation, Brennan had 5Cs for coaching:
  • Character based: "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."
  • Committed
  • Competent
  • Communicative
  • Consistent
As a short talk, I think this was fairly meaningful and aroused the right kind of interest for me. For more stuff on this chain of thought, take a look at John Wooden's website.

Marcus Ahnve - Done considered harmful

This was a lightning talk and Marcus basically challenged the notion of the fluffy 'Done' state on Agile card walls because:
  • the definition varies;
  • the context is unclear;
  • it means different things to different people;
  • it doesn't necessarily capture a true done state (done may not mean 'business value delivered' or 'feature in deployment' for eg.)
  • encourages local optimization because people mark as 'done' only what they control
So the simple solution Marcus encouraged after having effectively made 'done' the bad word in the conference was as follows:
  • Instead of done, capture the real state of the card (eg: in production).
  • Treat the fluffy 'done' as inventory unless it reflects the real state.
  • Capture the handoffs to visualise where work is piling up in the value stream.
  • Discourage any local optimisations that create a false sense of effectiveness.

Kjetil Moløkken-Østvold - Who killed the digital nomad?

Not much to say about this, because Kjetil pretty much echoed my thoughts from one of my old posts - No Collaboration without Colocation? Maybe you're not 'Agile enough'! Kjetil's a hard nut and seemed very practical and was basically asking the question of our modern workforce, equipped with powerful laptops, hi speed wireless, etc  -- why do we still have to travel, show up each day in designated workplaces, in designated time slots? This is an unnecessary waste, because we travel like stuffed sardines, often in hot humid weather (tell me about that).

Kjetil dismissed the notion of colocation by challenging engineers who build communication platforms but are reluctant to use them. The culprits are:
  • old managers;
  • immature and oversold collaboration technology;
  • and agile fanatics who won't budge from the stand of "colocation is the only way to collaborate".
There are obvious benefits to high quality communication and collaboration technology to the individual, business and environment so Kjetil's point was that we need to be mindful of that and try harder to revive the digital nomad! Kjetil works for Conceptos and is proud to be a digital nomad.

Other stuff to be aware of

While that ends the list of talks I want to write home about, the conference itself was a great experience with the amount of networking that we were privileged to, the open spaces, the cultural experience (see here and here for the Jazz performance). I facilitated an open space on "How Agile teams learn" and I've had some interesting insights about the topic which I'll share sometime in the future.

Something I particularly want to draw your attention to, is the Diversity in Agile initiative, particularly aiming to introduce more women to the Agile world. There's a nomination system that's open for everyone to nominate an awesome woman. Check out the nomination criteria and nominate an awesome woman here.

I've thoroughly enjoyed this conference and been privileged to meet some great people - I hope to see you all again, next year!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

My Agile Suitcase at XP2010

My favourite session until now at XP2010 has been the Agile Suitcase session by Martin Heider and Brend Schiffer. I don't think it created any ground-breaking insights, though it was an excellent, high energy methods of reiterating the values that we live by to revolutionise IT and champion software excellence. The format was really quite simple. Five experienced Agilists, Rachel Davies, Mary Poppendieck, Joshua Kerviesky, Jeff Patton and Patrick Kua delivered five fast paced Pecha-Kucha presentations to address the following situation.

Imagine you are an agile consultant or coach. You are called by the inhabitants from waterfall island, who haven’t heard about agility before and want to benefit from your advice. Which practices, principles and values would you pack in your agile suitcase for providing them guidance? What would you leave at home?

Here's what I caught from each of the speakers and the points are perphaps a bit paraphrased too.

Rachel Davies

Rachel was carrying a backpack instead of suitcase so it doesn't get lost! Good metaphor. So here are the points from her presentation:
  • Environment matters for Agile software development. Keep learning and keep the environment conducive to the learning.
  • Great software takes time.
  • While building great teams seems like herding cats, teamwork is essential to Agile.
  • Stickies, markers, index cards, whiteboards - all will be in Rachel's suitcase. She's big on consensus building.
  • She refuses to carry planning poker cards because they don't measure true value in her opinion.
  • She focussed on the importance of slicing and release planning.
  • Focus not just on pairing for programming but pairing for non-programming tasks too.
  • Try tea-driven-development so you can reflect on what you've done after each little salvo.
  • Deal with technical debt early - write clean code.
  • Ship early, ship often.
  • Show courage.

Mary Poppendieck

Mary's talk focussed on her husband Tom's passion for photography. It was a spell-binding slideshow of amazing storytelling through pictures and Mary's objective seemed to be to talk about the way Tom has reached this stage of mastery. Tom is an addict with photography and as a consequence very passionate about all aspects of it. He's gone beyond the usual novice's approach to snapshots - he can tell stories with pictures. His intellection has taken practice, hard work, time and heaps of experience.

Tom's persistence with the skill has lead to the fact that he's ready to capture the right photograph when the opportunity comes by. This is a factor of preparedness and skill which again comes from years of deliberate practice.

I think Mary's message was quite simple but used a powerful example to show that expertise stems from passion. Magic doesn't happen by magic, it takes time and we need to invest time in our skills or just be snapshot photographers. When Tom's done learning, he passes on learning and tools to others. For example he passes on his cameras to his son. In the same way, when we gain mastery at something we need to pass it on to others as well.

Joshua Kerievsky

Again the theme seemed to be around getting better. Here were some interesting points from Josh:
  • Make awesome users.
  • Values trump practices.
  • Agile is about riding two dolphins at a time - the technical and the managerial. They're not mutually exclusive and you need to build skill riding both at the same time.
  • Begin any Agile transformation with a readiness assessment.
  • Discard the iron project management triangle. Adopt the Agile triangle and focus on quality, value and constraints instead.
  • Think of a project community that involves all stakeholders; this goes beyond just the development team.
  • Educate the anti-bodies. People that are unhappy with you, your approach or your success need you to educate them about why what you're doing is valuable.
  • Ship when necessary - the Industrial Logic team doesn't do iterations or so it seemed.
  • Perform usability testing, because you don't want to make your users think.
  • Unit testing is the USP of Agile, so why aren't all 'Agilists' writing unit tests?
  • Build the important stuff - it'll take care of the rest.
  • Measure what is valuable.
  • Do your retrospectives.

Jeff Patton

More than anything else, I loved Jeff's typography on his slides so I missed a minute or so because my jaw had dropped. Anyways, here's what I think he said.

The question we need to keep asking ourselves is 'are we there yet'?
  • We need conversations which are about words which we hear, then see and then can draw out to create shared understanding.
  • It's about learning in a timebox, because we need that as a feedback mechanism and a constraint.
  • We need subjective measurements such as how good something is or how valuable it is.
  • We need to celebrate success, but more importanly celebrate outcomes over outputs.
  • We need to learn how to observe users in their real work context over taking them out of context and asking them questions. Ethnographic research is a key tool in our toolbox.
  • Describe your users, role-play them to understand their motivations.
  • Keep learning, ship it and change the world!

Patrick Kua

Pat made some rapid-fire points with very interesting pictures and I love the fact that he resonated many of my thoughts about coaching and learning. Here's what I think he said:
  • Passion is the biggest thing in any professionals toolbox - we can't live without it and it's pointless doing what you're not passionate about.
  • There are no silver bullets - context is key.
  • Learn about learning - people rarely learn through push so help them learn by pulling what they need and create the context for learning in the workplace.
  • Focus on the big picture of the system - a bad system will beat a good person each time.
  • Share ideas and be open to new ideas.
  • Practices we should never forget:
    • Retrospectives: they tell us it's OK to look back in safety and think of how we can improve.
    • Kaizen culture: make changes one small step at a time.
    • Timebox: we need constraints to innovate; constraints drive innovation.
    • Connect with users.
    • Whole team: include everyone.
    • Celebrate successes.
    • Lastly, have fun - it's sustains you at work!
  • Pat also talked about the metaphor of planting seeds and creating the right environment for growth."Trees don't grow overnight nor do people."
  • Create safety for people to fail fast and learn from their mistakes.
  • Leadership means, getting your hands dirty - action matters.
  • At the same time you need let go as well. There will be a time you won't be around and you need to plan your obsolence.
  • Invite others with your passion to share ideas and improve the process.
  • Prepare for change since it's the only thing that's constant.

Massively Multiplayer Agile Suitcase

After all the talks were over, Martin and Brend got the crowd of 80 people to come up with their own Agile suitcase by first working in pairs and then in silent groups of four, eight and 16 people. That ensured that each group of 16 had their best five items in the Agile suitcase. Each team then volunteered someone to go up on stage and stick their post-its on the big suitcase whiteboard beside Brend and Martin. All in all a massively multiplayer Agile suitcase achieved in about 16 minutes. The reason I loved this session was it gave me some great ideas about getting groups to work together to come up with thoughts and also a great way to create an engaging learning experience for people.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Scott Page's Keynote at XP2010

If you're wondering why I'm not live-blogging, it's because I have an awful battery in my computer - it conks off in less than 30 minutes and is at 30% health. Not too great. What I'm doing however, is mindmapping notes from each talk I find interesting at XP2010. I'll keep translating them into a short synopsis like this so you can perhaps get a gist of what I got out of the session.

Scott Page

Scott is quite a renowned academic having written a great book on complex, adaptive systems and perhaps an even more insightful text on 'The Difference - How the Power of Diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies'. He's a collegiate professor at the University of Michigan and an external faculty at the Santa Fe institute.

The Keynote - Leveraging Diversity in Parallel: Perspective, Heuristics, and Oracles

In his talk, Scott helped the audience see the two sides of the diversity debate:
  • Two heads are better than one.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Which one is true? Turns out that there's no free lunch - the answer is case-by-case and context is key here. So Scott proceeded to break down the problem into a few different parts. Over the next few minutes, Scott made some brilliant points that I can only summarise here:
  • You can't sum up people by using things like IQ tests - it's like putting measuring tape around people's heads and saying one person's head is bigger than the other. People are more multi-dimensional than that.
  • The most common solution isn't always the best solution. In the 'Sum to Fifteen' card game, you can use an unconventional method to win, by looking at it as if it were tic-tac-toe. This is a different perspective and the varying perspectives that people bring are part of their toolbox.
  • In an experiment of 20 best people in a certain arena and a group of 20 diverse people, the diverse group almost always wins. "A diverse group will almost always outperform an alpha group."
  • 'Problem solving is ideas having sex together.' People have different heuristics or 'rules of thumb' to solve problems. The combination of these heuristics usually generates newer ideas as well. For example the parts for a combustion engine existed years before we even thought of the damn thing.
  • Diversity is the combination of different perspectives and heuristics. The conditions for diversity to work better than homogeneity is that:
    1. the diverse groups has really smart people who can tell what their heuristic is (and have a good reason for it);
    2. the problem they're solving is complex.
  • "Diverse groups work better if: the problem is hard, they are all smart and bring different heuristics to the table"
  • Scott started to to explain the concept of Prediction markets which I've first heard of from Andrew Mcafee. I've heard several great things about these and according to Scott the prediction markets are almost always more accurate than than expert statistics.
  • Scott explained to us how Best Buy uses a prediction market for store managers to tell how much inventory they need to have and usually this seems to work quite well. "Individual, diverse predictions lead to collectively accurate decisions."
  • Scott recommends that we read the book called Expert Political Judgement, which touches upon how diverse foxes outsmart the one-track hedgehogs.
  • I must confess I've never heard of this, but Scott brought out the story of the Netflix prize. You can read the full story here and it's amazing how combined perspectives and heuristics can together beat an algorithm that's so comprehensive.
  • The reason why the diverse crowd is wiser is mathematical
    • crowd error = average error - diversity
  • So it's useful to remember that what the crowd lacks in expertise, they make up in diversity.
  • "If you can't press a button to evaluate something, you want to have two heads." (or more) When you have no Oracle to give you a divination, the crowd is your oracle - you need diversity.
  • Group think is bad when everyone is thinking the same way. You need to keep the diversity of the group high to nullify your average error.
  • Pair programming is a great way to get multiple perspectives to a problem, though it's important that both people are thinking about things in different manners.
To me, this talk is intriguing. We talk about training, we talk about education and cultural indoctrination. In fact that's one of the conversations that's going on in my professional circle at work too. But should we really be doing this -- do we really want an army of people drinking the kool aid and saying the same things, thinking similarly? I ask this question in the light of the great empirical evidence that Scott put out.

One of the big problems with training is that it teaches you one way of doing things. On the other hand I think training and education needs to educate people more about the purpose of doing things. If smart people with diverse perspectives and heuristics approach the problem they'll more likely come up with a better solution than what we consider the push-button oracle. I really want to chew on this some more - because I feel I'm encountering more and more non-diverse group think each day.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Our Workshops at XP 2010 in Norway

Yesterday I delivered two workshops at the XP 2010 conference in Trondheim, Norway. The run up to this conference has been awfully busy for me from a work perspective, so I'm extremely pleased that the sessions went quite well, despite my lack of obsessive preparation. I just want to quickly share the artifacts from each workshop.

Facilitating Dialogue in situations of conflict

I presented this session with Rixt Wiersma. As with other runs of this workshop, we got a decent list of ideas for conflict management in the Agile context, though my guess is that these ideas can be equally useful for any other context. The premise of our workshop was that while we place a huge emphasis on communication and collaboration in Agile teams, a high degree of communication can mean a high degree of conflict. The secret to managing this conflict, is in facilitating dialogue so you can get all the interests on the table. While the slide deck above will give you an idea of what our recipes for such situations are, here are some ideas the group came up with:
  • Take another perspective to the problem. Try to have smaller group approach the problem from different perspectives.
  • It could be that everyone's thinking of the same thing. So a 'rapid-first-cut' solution will help you detect this and establish common ground.
  • Start fast - don't spend too much time looking a toad you have to eat.
  • Decide generalities first and then go into the specifics. This helps to understand if every agrees in principle with a certain approach. (a lot of people recommend this)
  • Grouping similar decision items helps with generalising.
  • Visualisation helps a lot, use big, visible charts in meeting to make mental models explicit.
  • Use an explicit criteria; agree this with the group and keep referring back to it on a big visible chart.
    • First agree on the most important criteria.
  • Destroy the psychological binding between people and problems. Try to unentangle the two. When necessary, you may even want to create a psychological binding to help people be more associated with their decisions.
  • Time matters and a time-box helps.
    • Have more of the 'last minutes' by keeping focus on the timebox and having at least some kind of a decision by that time.
    • Creating smaller timeboxes for various parts of the decision helps.
  • Start with a flawed version of your solution and then iterate from there with everyone's inputs.
    • Have a solution ASAP, then try to refine it.
    • Ship early! Get version 1 out as soon as possible.
  • Gather all opinions in a group.
  • Be an active part in deciding ground rules for the decisions that follow.
  • Consider actually appointing an observer when the team must discuss controversial issues.
    • Sometimes being an observer is a good way of dispassionately evaluating a situation.
  • Make the value system open. Don't make an assumption about other people's values.
  • As a facilitator and participant, ask:
    • Does everyone agree?
    • What problems do you have?
  • Make the options visible to everyone involved in the decision.
A few interesting resources that people mentioned during the workshop:
  • Mountain Goat Software has some interesting tools that can help deal with conflict situations in very Agile specific contexts; project success criteria, prioritisation, etc.
  • The Evaporating Cloud is an interesting bit of literature/ technique that helps you reach a win-win solution. It's also known as the conflict resolution diagram.
  • The Thomas Killman instrument is a tool that helps measure an individual's response to conflict situations. This is interesting because a number of people are genuinely comfortable in conflict, while others are highly disturbed. The TKI is quick to administer and interpret. It takes about 15 minutes to answer the questions, and an hour or so for interpretation by a trainer. 
  • Type Talk at Work is another interesting book that helps groups explore their similarities and differences in personality through the science of the Myers Briggs Type Indicators. Getting these personality differences to be explicit helps in a big way with team creation, which in turn helps people understand each other's peculiarities in a conflict situation.
  • I also recommend Strengths Finder as another way of building awareness about people in the team, so you can deal with conflict situations with a fair understanding of the people involved and their strengths.

The Distributed Agile Game

I ran this workshop with Chirag Doshi. As usual, three hours passed by without any trouble whatsoever. We had a small group, but no issues with energy whatsoever! All I have to share with you is my deck from the session is my slide deck.

Want a copy of either of the above games?

If you want a copy of either of these two games we played at these workshops, please send me a direct message on Twitter and I'll be happy to share the materials with you. If you'd like to know more about ThoughtWorks, then please visit us at
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