Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Tourists can teach us about New Hire Training

I've been on tour in South East Asia for the last few days and it's been great fun, I must confess. For those who may have waited for an article and didn't see it on time, I apologise - and I'll try to put in a little extra when writing this article. When I go tripping, I usually try to study as much as I can about the place where I'm heading. Unfortunately my memory never serves me well, so when I reach my destination, it's all about planning for each day and relying on little, contextualised information sources such as the Lonely Planet website, Trip Advisor, a local map, street signs and my own senses. The fascinating thing is that regardless of how little I know about the place on day one, I feel like I know enough to get around by the time I leave the place.

I've been thinking about this lately and it makes me think that the way we tour perhaps has some inspiration on how we can effectively train new hires at our workplace. To think of it, a new workplace is similar to a new city. Knowing how to survive in a new city, getting familiar with the roads, lanes, alleys, eating spots, food, sights, shops is very similar to learning about a new job. Yet, learning a new job seems to be significantly tougher than touring a new city. I accept that we approach tourism and new hire training with different mindsets, but the fact is that both activities are eventually about learning. There have to some parallels - what do you think? In today's blogpost I want to share my thoughts of what we as instructional designers/ learning consultants can about new hire training from the age old act of tourism. A lot of my thoughts find resonance in our design of ThoughtWorks University and I'll try to relate my thoughts back to real world examples as much as I can.

Approach learning 'Breadth First'
When I was planning my trip, I did as much reading as I could about the the places I wanted to visit. After a while though, every new name of a place confused me. Was Ubud, in Penang or Bali? Is there a Little India in Singapore or in Penang? Or both? Which is the larger free-flight aviary? KL or Singapore? And do I shop for Batik in Singapore, Penang, KL or Bali? As the places, sights, shopping and food options kept piling up, my memory started to fail me. The illustrated Lonely Planets and Outlook Travellers weren't helping; nor was Wiktravel. So I decided to do just enough to get a high level plan in place. I used the travel guides to put together a rough itinerary, but that was it - I couldn't handle anymore.

When I think of traditional new hire training, I see a similar phenomenon of information overload. The idea seems to be to tell people everything they need to know in the shortest time possible. I look at this as being the equivalent of reading and remembering the Lonely Planet guides for all the three countries I'm visiting. That just doesn't work. What we need is a breadth first approach where learners can know what they don't know. I think of it as the equivalent of building boxes in our heads which we need to fill out with in-depth knowledge and skills as we go on. At ThoughtWorks University, we adopt a breadth first approach as well - our aim is to give people the bare minimum skills and knowledge to start ineffectively, yet safely at their jobs. The key is to know that they'll be ineffective - and that's where the importance of failing fast in safety comes in. I'll tell you about that in a bit.

People need a map to get around (even better, a GPS)
When I get to a new city, I first like to pick up a map. In Asian cities it's very common to find a detailed map at the airport or jetty. The map is then my guide to the destination and I carry it around everywhere I go. When I see a sight, I cross it off my map. When I want to reach a local attraction, I look at my map to guide me from my origin to the destination. If I'm unsure about what the fuss about a certain place is, I look at the back of the map for a description of the place. The information I get in context is badly authored, often grammatically incorrect, but useful - often invaluable. In terms of quality, it pales in comparision to the Lonely planet book, but the fact that it's lightweight and always with me, makes it far more valuable. If I had a smartphone with GPS, I would have perhaps found that even more useful! I learn about the new place by being in the thick of the action and the context for learning is no different from the context of real work. The map is a tool for me to deal with the new context and be successful.

New hire training requires learning designers and trainers to create the right context for learning. We need to be able to put people in a safe work context as soon as possible, while giving people the ability to make mistakes in safety. We need to be able to create a map of lightweight, useful information that can help people when they're stuck. Communities of practice, organisational knowledge sharing, search enabled learning and the ability to learn when you need to, is crucial to a new hire's success.

At ThoughtWorks University, we put new hires on a real world project for five weeks of their course. They already have the breadth to know what they don't know. This is the time for them to perfect their skills. The project itself is structured with rules that create the context for learning. In addition our online learning packages, our organisational wiki, communities and the students own social learning activities provide the map for students to learn step by step on the project. Learning here is contextualised to real-world tasks as against traditional learning which doesn't culminate in a tangible goal.

Quick feedback aids effective learning
When I get lost in a new city - I ask myself a couple of questions:
  • Where am I?
  • Which direction am I heading in?
I've found that the best way to stop going around in circles when I'm a new place. Street signs and unfamiliar places are a great way to get feedback when you're in a new town. If you see a street sign you aren't expecting, all you need to do is find your current location on the map and then correlate it to where you're actually heading. The course correction takes just a few minutes. Often, if you're traveling with someone, they'll tell you if they feel you're heading in the wrong direction. That is feedback too - it allows you to course correct.

Think of the parallels in new hire training. Does your course provide the right kind of feedback to learners so they can learn from their mistakes? How much of the feedback is intrinsic - driven by situations and real work? How much is extrinsic - a.k.a a teaching moment? The ThoughtWorks University project is structured into four iterations with plenty of feedback opportunities thrown in. Here are a few examples:
  • A broken build on the project is feedback that someone on the team needs to fix it.
  • Iteration retrospectives at the end of each week help the group figure out what they're doing well and what needs improvement.
  • Big visible charts monitoring the progress of the team, their technical debt and their learnings, provide feedback on how they're delivering.
  • Automated code analysis tools such as those for test coverage, help the team determine the quality of their solution.
  • Regular customer interactions create the real world business feedback for our learners.
  • Pair programming and group work ensure that people benefit from peer feedback and can learn from each other.
I could keep going on with how we've workscaped ThoughtWorks University to include real-world feedback, but I guess you get the idea of how you can effectively use feedback to create learning.

Expert advice at the right time is invaluable
Have you ever employed a tour guide for specific trips? Or found smeone to ask directions when you're woefully lost? This is where experience comes in handy. Sometimes, it's just not meaningful to keep making the same mistakes. You don't learn anything and you just end up getting very frustrated! And expert who can help in such situations is just wat the doctor will order.

Think of how you can provide expert advice on your new hire training programs. In reality, your new hires will rarely work all by themselves. OTOH, they'll rarely have experts guiding them at each step. What you need is a balance between letting learners be self-driven and offering them advice when they need it. At ThoughtWorks University we manage this by bringing on Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as trainers - they are the best at their jobs, so why not leverage them to create the best learning experience for our new hires? We use our SMEs to create leveraged teams that mix youth and experience. From time to time, our SMEs pair with the new hires so they can coach each of them individually on their specific strengths and weaknesses. The key here is individualisation, as against a one-size-fits-all experience that fits no one. The SMEs being part of the team can help the group course correct when they reach a dead end. This helps students learn what to do when work is not the happy path you learn about in training.
As you can see learning about a new job is not so different from learning about a new city. So put on your design hat and see what you can do with your new hire program to include some of the elements I've mentioned in this blogpost. I'd like to encourage you to think of the tools as a means to an end. The goal is to have new hires feel confident in their job, just as you'd want to feel comfortable in a new city. On ThoughtWorks University, we're managing this by giving new hires just enough instruction to get started on a project, with enough resources (elearning included) for them to pull learning from when at work. We're supporting them with experienced consultants on their training project and we're creating lots of feedback opportunities for them to learn from their mistakes. I will speak more about our experiences at DevLearn 2010 and sometime soon on the Learning and Skills Group.

In the meantime, let me know what you think about this article - your comments are always welcome!

Monday, July 19, 2010

An L&D Consulting Tip you Shouldn't Miss - Plan your Obsolescence

A few weeks back I was all set to start working with a friend of mine. I rate her very, very highly and she was going to be a real asset to ThoughtWorks when she'd join. A couple of weeks before her joining date though, I spoke to her and learned that her client can't release her from her current project. When we caught up, it appeared that her employers hadn't communicated her planned exit to the clients and at the eleventh hour they threw a fit. My friend and I spoke at length about possible solutions, but it looked like she was irreplaceable on her project -- given that she was leading it. While I admire my friend's decision to stay back on her current job to serve her existing customer, it seemed to me that her project was at a really high risk if it was so dependent on her.

On Agile teams we often talk about the truck factor:
"The number of people on your team who have to be hit with a truck before the project is in serious trouble".

While being hit by a truck isn't a very pleasant metaphor, you could easily substitute that occurrence by people leaving their jobs, going on vacation or falling sick. The smaller your truck factor, the more risk your project is at. The larger your truck factor, the better you're managing your risk. So if all that needs to happen for your project to fail is for you to leave the company and go, then I argue your project is already at a really high risk and there's something you need to do about it. I've often heard my colleague and ThoughtWorks consultant, Angela Ferguson talk about the importance for consultants to plan their obsolescence. It's an interesting thought - because if you're the 'hero' on your project, you perhaps want to retain that status. Unfortunately, being a hero isn't the best thing for your clients! So in today's post, I want to talk about three simple strategies that can help you plan your obsolescence in your team.

On typical, leader driven, command and control projects, there's only one person who has a vision for how the final product takes shape. They understand the strategy, the release plan and even plan the little bits of work that each member of the team performs. As it turns out, when these people leave, the project is in absolute shambles. Agile teams mitigate this risk by applying the practice of Collective Ownership. The idea is for all members of the team to contribute ideas to every segment of the project. This defies traditional wisdom where a single architect is responsible for unifying the vision for your project. Agile however, is based around real-life experiences with human behaviour, and the one thing we know about people is that they make mistakes! Architects/ Chief Designers/ Project Managers all make mistakes - and they're not wrong to do so. Unless you're dealing with a trivial piece of transactional work, it's impossible for one person to know everything about everything. By ensuring that everyone explicitly understands and contributes to the project's design and planning, you encourage diverse perspectives, and reduce the risk of letting one person's mistakes fail the project.

So the next time you're planning out some fancy solution-ing workshop, include the rest of your team members in it. Try an Agile Card Wall to track and manage your project's progress as against a plan on Microsoft Project, which only you can see. Yes, you'll need an electronic version of your plan and you may have distributed teams as well -- in that case use a collaborative project management tool like Mingle. Remember, you need to move from a point where it's your project plan, to a point where it's the team's shared vision.
The other thing you'll see on Agile teams is the act of Pairing. The idea is to have two heads solve a problem instead of just one, thereby achieving some interesting benefits. Firstly the quality of the work goes up, because while one person is creating the output, another person is checking it. The increased quality always leads to big savings on the project as time goes on.

"Laurie Williams of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has shown that paired programmers are only 15% slower than two independent individual programmers, but produce 15% fewer bugs. (N.B.: The original study showed that 'error-free' code went from 70% to 85%; it may be more intuitive to call this a 50% decrease of errors, from 30% to 15%.) Since testing and debugging are often many times more costly than initial programming, this is an impressive result." - The Economist

The other, more intangible benefit of pairing is that of knowledge sharing. Constant rotation of pairs ensures that every understands every part of the project almost equally well. This again helps ensure a higher truck factor on the team. So think about this from the perspective of L&D and elearning projects - how about having instructional designers pair with builders and project managers. How about having builders pair with testers and how about having SME's pair with all the different roles? You can build a truly cross-functional team that can deal with the risk of losing a random person.
Last year I read a really interesting article on the Harvard Business Review blog about why the wrong people get laid off at their jobs. From the blog, "Legend has it that Gordius, king of Gordium, tied a knot so intricate that no one could untangle it. There were no visible ends. It lasted for centuries." The article discovered that the people that often got laid off were the people whose work the company understood quite well. It often didn't matter that they were superb workers - the fact was that people understood the risk of doing without them. On the other hand, people who were Gordian Knots - who performed well, but whose work no one understood were the ones that seemed to keep their jobs. While this strategy may seem to help you as an individual, it's more likely to backfire. Firstly, if no one understands your work and you're not as good as you think, you're likely to get fired anyway. More importantly, the mystery around what you do may protect your status but hurts your client, as a consequence hurts your employers and then hurts you. The examples of the AIG and Lehmann collapse, finally triggering the downturn there for us to see.

So if you really care about your clients and your employers, spend some time each day, demystifying what you do. Refine your job description, create standard work that'll help you teach others what you do, coach others to perform your tasks, write a wiki page for each of your individual capabilities. Create a toolkit for a potential replacement. Think as if you were going to roll off the project tomorrow!
While I've put my friend on the spot when writing this article, I realise that despite all the great wisdom out there, I haven't been great at planning my own obsolescence. Which is why you'll see this post when I'm on vacation - I want to see how my pet project performs in my absence. I've done what I can to narrate my work and hopefully the team is fully empowered to make my decisions when I'm not around. Over the next few months, I want to ensure that I detail each piece of work that I do for my employers. If anything, that'll give me the opportunity to try different roles in the organisation - if the opportunity comes by.

What do you think about the idea of planning obsolescence? I can understand the choice of words can be a tad depressing - though I'm keen to know from you if my argument made sense to you. Do let me know what you think - I'll look forward to your comments on this post.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

An inauspicious start

I pride myself on being an excellent vacation planner, but somehow none of my vacations seem to start on a very auspicious note. The last time my wife and I took a similarly long vacation, we were stalled by protesters at the Bangkok airport, and at the last minute we had to take detour via Singapore to begin our vacations. It bled us the extra dollars and well, wasn't much fun! Till last night, it seemed that our vacation was blessed by the gods. Speaking of gods, there's a saying,"Man proposes, god disposes!". I'm not sure god had much of a hand to play in this, but here's what happened. We had tickets to travel by the 1715 train to Trivandrum so we could then catch the Sunday flight to KL. For some reason, I'd entered the 2145 train on my Tripit itinerary and my wife and I planned our day at office with that assumption. So well, you can imagine the fiasco thereafter - we reached the train station in the hope of catching the train, only to know that I'm actually a crap planner and we'd missed our train hours back.

Well, I wasn't going to allow our vacation to be derailed (pun intended) by such a minor setback. So, autoride back home, some time on the internet and we had air tickets to Trivandrum. And so, this morning we got on the 1020 Air India flight to Trivandrum - our destination, Kovalam beach. Does that sound awesome? Not quite! Well, Kovalam beach isn't the best place to visit during the monsoons. It's off season, most places are shut tight, the area has almost a deserted, sleepy look and every picture of the beach looks like you took it with a badly scratched lens. We took some time out to tuck in a very heavy meal of chicken, beef, fish and porrotas though the oil didn't seem to do much good to my tummy. Anyways - I spent a good part of the evening in the hotel swimming pool. And now, I'm tired, cranky, bored and I'm waiting to take my flight out - 0800 this morning, I'm outta here! Gotta set that alarm.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ThoughtWorks University Pecha Kucha No.2

Continuing our newly established tradition of Pecha-Kucha nights at ThoughtWorks University each Wednesday night, we did our second Pecha Kucha night today. Again a whole lot of fun, great serendipitous learning for all of us and an excellent insight into various presentation styles. It's a bit unfortunate that I'm away on holiday for the next two weeks of TWU and I'll miss the events on the next two Wednesdays. Anyways, here are some of the presentations people put up and again they're no substitute for being there live at the event, but they're definitely indicative of what you could expect at such evenings. Do remember that you can see most presentations on slideshare using the tag twupk. This is my last post on the Pecha Kucha nights for this term of ThoughtWorks University, but you'll hear more from me when I'm back and we start the third term for this year.

Sam Tardif - 17 Reasons why AFL is Better than your Favourite Sport

Abubacker Siddiqui - Health

Stuart Greenhall - What Consultants can learn from Optimus Prime

Priyanka Shah - Indian Classical Dances

Garima Singh - Introduction to GIT

Rohit Bansal - Running a Green Business
Akash Bhalla - The Consequences of Actions

Monday, July 12, 2010

Social Learning without the Technology - 7 Patterns to try out

I find it amusing when people speak of social learning and technology enabled learning almost in the same breath. It's as if social learning is impossible without the help of technology. It's odd - didn't people have coffee table conversations before the age of social media? Did people not learn from each other? While I understand how the the recent explosion of the social web accelerates this process, social learning is hardly a phenomenon solely dependent on technology.

In today's blogpost, i want to introduce 7 different patterns you might want to try out before you even take the plunge into technology enabled methods to facilitate social learning. At ThoughtWorks we see these patterns everyday and that's perhaps one big reason why collaborative learning seems to thrive at this company. Don't get me wrong - you're likely to still need technology. I hope though, that by applying some of these patterns you'll have taken several high impact steps to influence your organisation's learning culture. With that said, let's take a look at the patterns.

Reface your Team Spaces

Image taken from karthikc's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

If charity begins at home, learning's got to begin at the workplace. While we pay so much attention to the curriculum, it can't hurt to reconfigure the workplace to facilitate learning and collaboration. A few weeks back I read an excellent article by James Clay where he wrote about the importance of how institutions need to create spaces that encourage informal learning while creating a context for people to socialise and learn at the same time. The article made absolute sense to me, though it still intrigues me to see so many workplaces all across the world that adopt a closed cubicle and corner office approach.

At ThoughtWorks we've taken a people centric approach to designing team rooms - the above picture is indicative of our open workplace approach. We keep experimenting with seating methods to maximise collaboration on our project teams - the uPod configuration is just one of those different layouts that we keep trying out every now and then. There are several benefits to such open layouts: people talk to each other and throw out ideas without any restrictions or walls. Information radiators and open wall spaces give people enough and more opportunity to collaboratively problem solve and find creative solutions. Most importantly, the open workplace allows for cross pollination of ideas across teams and 'departments', since we've torn down the unnecessary walls. Whether we we like it or not, we see things happen and we learn from each other's successes and failures.

All the chest thumping aside, I completely understand that moving to a completely open workspace isn't trivial for those in cubicle and corner office land. Which is where I think you'll find these tips to build a collaborative workplace really useful. It's a huge, but really valuable change and all the little steps you can take to get there, are worth their weight in gold.

Bring in the Lunch

Image taken from wetwebwork's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

Another pattern you'll see very often at ThoughtWorks is the idea of learning lunches or brown bag seminars. The idea is very simple. If you have an idea you want to share, or something you want to discuss or a concept you'd like others to learn about, organise a meeting over lunch so people can socialise and learn in a comfortable setting. These short, 30 minute, one hour or 90 minute sessions often end up being really valuable. The very fact that people have the opportunity to leave when they think they've had enough, makes it a relaxed setting, where participants aren't just sitting through the discussion because they were asked to. As a community initiated event, it provides an learning opportunity for the people, by the people.

Pecha-Kucha Nights or Just Ignite It

Image taken from pecha kucha cologne's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

Something we've been tried recently is the idea of Pecha-Kucha nights or Ignite gatherings. You may have read my recent posts about how we're using Pecha Kucha at ThoughtWorks University. The idea of Pecha Kucha is fairly simple:
  • Meet on a designated evening.
  • People can present on any topic of their choice.
  • Their talks should have no more than 20 slides which automatically transition within 20 seconds each.
  • If you wish, you can allot a couple of minutes at the end of each talk so participants can do some QnA.
I've seen some great Pecha-Kucha events -- the recent Agile Suitcase event at XP2010, is a prime example. The breadth of ideas that get thrown out, the accidental and serendipitous learning that we go through and just the remarkable insight it gives us about our colleagues and others attending the event, are just the kind of things you need to learn informally and socially. Do remember, Pecha-Kucha and Ignite aren't the only short - presentation formats. There's also Lightning Talks and Talk20.

Open Space Conferences - For the People, by the People
Image taken from edmittance's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

If there was ever a group learning pattern that was truly for the people by the people - it's got to be the Open Space approach. I've seen a few of these at ThoughtWorks and more recently at the XP2010 conference. In fact we use Open Space to define the agenda for several of our time-slots at ThoughtWorks University. As a company, we're also quite privileged to have a distinguished Open Space facilitator in our midst - Steven 'Doc' List. Doc writes extensively about the Open Space approach and you should definitely read his posts on the topic. Again the idea of an Open Space is very simple.

At the beginning of an Open Space the participants sit in a circle. The facilitator will introduce the theme of their gathering, and invite all participants to identify any issue or opportunity related to the theme. Participants willing to raise a topic will come to the centre of the circle, write it on a sheet of paper and announce it to the group before choosing a time and a place for discussion and posting it on a wall. That wall becomes the agenda for the meeting.

From that point, it's upto the group to attend sessions they care about. There are just four principles for Open Space conferences:
  1. Whoever comes is the right people: and so, you shouldn't be offended if some people don't come and the people that arrive are the people who genuinely care.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time: spirit and creativity don't run by the clock.
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: once something's happened, we can't break our heads over it. We need to move on and let the group dictate the agenda.
  4. When it's over, it's over: we can't tell how long a discussion can take, but when we feel we're done talking we shouldn't need to stretch the discussion just to make for the time in our slot. As a corollory, 'if it's not over, it's not over' - participants are welcome to take their conversation beyond the planned slot, if they feel they'll gain sufficient value from it.
There's also one law - "Law of Two Feet". The idea is that if you're caught in a discussion that you're not contributing to or not learning from, then you should just use your two feet and go someplace else! And most importantly, no one should take offence to this.

I've seen some really great conversations and learnings come out of Open Space conferences and if the idea interests you, I encourage you to pick up Harrison Owen's excellent book - Open Space Technology (A User's Guide).

Take it Offsite - Away Days

Image taken from Sam Newman's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

A huge part of the culture at ThoughtWorks is how every year, each country organises an offsite for all the ThoughtWorkers of that country. In our culture we call these Away Days and I'm sure they have their parallels in the retreats that various other companies keep doing. Our Away Days are a great place for ThoughtWorkers to get together and not just know each other, but to informally learn from each others experiences. The geeky company that we are, I've seen beautiful things happen at Away Days -- geeks get together and write some code for an organisation like Unicef; we share good practices across our consulting engagements, we discuss a range of esoteric topics and we often listen to cool people like Andrew McAfee speak about their area of expertise. For a company like ThoughtWorks, this social interaction is just gold-dust! Of course, on the way we have a lot of fun as this post about our 2007 Away Day will tell you.

Unconference It - Barcamps/ Geek Nights

Image taken from kk+'s Flickr stream under the Creative Commons license.

Just like Open Space, unconferences, particularly BarCamps and Geek Nights are a huge part of our culture at ThoughtWorks. While geek nights are a bit different and often have at least one defined, main event, barcamps are open-to-all, participatory workshop-events, where participants provide the content. Like Open Space conferences, barcamps are largely self-organised events where participants decide the agenda. The only difference is that barcamps are typically technology oriented gatherings, though in the recent past people have used the format for other topics as well. The idea behind barcamps is pretty simple:
  • When you come, be prepared to share with barcampers.
  • When you leave, be prepared to share it with the world.
Barcamps operate on the 'no spectators, only participants' principle. Attendees should either do a session or contribute in some other way to make the event a success. If you wish to present a session, then all you need to do is prepare in advance and be at the event early enough to propose it. People at the event decide which sessions they'd like to see. Once you do present at a barcamp, you're obliged to share your knowledge with the rest of the world. Cool, isn't it? If you wish to host a barcamp, check the wiki page to organise such events.

Conference It!

Image credit: ThoughtWorks Bangalore
Last, but certainly not the least, I want to talk about a recent phenomenon, particularly at ThoughtWorks India. We've been organising an internal conference called XConf, which we're using as a platform to share innovative ideas, good practices and to socialise, meet and learn. Our first event at Chennai was a grand success and our upcoming event at Bangalore is likely to be even bigger. We keep the organisation of this event as simple as we can - we encourage all ThoughtWorkers from across India to submit ideas for talks; we then arrive at a shortlist for the event and then voila, it's time for us to travel to the host location and spend a weekend sharing knowledge, like there's no tomorrow. From all the experiences that you're likely to hear about this approach, you'll realise that there's a huge benefit in harnessing your company's collective intelligence in internal conferences. See if you can try something like this and talk to a ThoughtWorker if you're keen to know more about what we do at XConf.

At the end of this rather long blogpost, all I'll say is that these are just a subset of the many social learning patterns I see at ThoughtWorks, which the world can learn from. Do remember that your lobby, your pantry, your cafeteria, your all hands meetings, your project onboarding practices, are all opportunities for you to create the context for social learning. So while technology is important, don't forget the human elements that build the foundation for any collaborative learning you'd like to facilitate at the workplace.

What do you think of the ideas on today's blogpost? As always, I'm keen to hear your thoughts so do let me know by adding liberally to the comments section of this article.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Retrospective Pattern - The World Cafe

Today at ThoughtWorks University, I tried a different format for the team's retrospective. This is a team that's one week into their first project and have finished their first iteration time-box. In order to introduce them to the idea that there are different patterns to retrospectives, I wanted to try a different way of conducting the ritual. Often retros are a very left-brained activity, with people doing a structured brainstorm, then analytically bubbling up the most important themes and then discussing action items to resolve or address the issues. I wanted to try a right brained format that takes a more creative approach to reflection and problem-solving. Let me tell you how I did what I did.

Preparation for the event
Often we spend a lot of time in retrospectives just brainstorming issues, so I wanted to get that out of the way and determine the highest priority discussion items before the meeting. To achieve this, I tried Google Moderator. People could make suggestions of topics they wanted to discuss, vote items up or vote them down. We decided that we were going to discuss only the top five items that came up. By the end of it we had 130 votes on 10 suggestions from 26 people, so I'll say the preparation went quite well.

To prepare the room for the meeting, I put up the above poster at different places in the room. I also laid out the 'table cloth' on five cafe style tables, by covering them with flip chart paper. To top it all off, I ensured that each table had pencils, crayons, markers, stickies and index cards. Everything that could stimulate their creativity.

How I ran the event

So once we were done with the voting, it was time to get to the meat of the activity. I did my best to keep to the essence of The World Cafe format. Here are the steps I followed:
  • Since this is a new team, I started off with a safety check to determine if everyone felt safe to contribute their ideas and share their thoughts.
  • Once I'd confirmed the safety levels in the group, I assigned a problem on each table.
  • Each table had a minimum of four to five people on it.
  • For the first round of 15 minutes, everyone at the table discussed the problem I'd assigned to them and also potential solutions.
  • The groups had the opportunity to discuss problems in many different ways. They could doodle on the table cloth, or even do elaborate illustrations to graphically record their conversations. They could use the stickies or index cards as facilitation tools. They could note action items, or just have a rambling discussion!
  • After 15 minutes, I had one person stay back at each table to retain context and play host while others moved to different tables.
  • As a cafe-host, I floated across tables to ensure everyone was comfortable with the topic on hand and had enough, safe discussion going on. Wherever I saw things getting stuck for too long, I interjected and let the group see a different perspective.
  • I encouraged participants to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations.
  • In the last round of conversation, I asked people to synthesise their discoveries and to consolidate action items for the problem they were solving.
  • Once everyone was done, I consolidated action items on a whiteboard, ensuring that most of them had an owner for them.
How I think the event went
I actually felt we got a lot of discussion going in the retro and gave each item it's due importance. We got a lot of diverse perspectives and connections on each problem, which gave us a lot of interesting action items to work on. The cross-pollination across tables ensured that people were engaged through the discussions and that we were sharing ideas across small groups. In contrast to traditional retro formats, we spent an equal and a large amount of time on all issues, by trying to solve them in rotating, small groups. This means we now have a huge list of tangible action items that the team can execute to make real improvements.
If you wish to run a World Cafe style retro and want to learn more about my experience, please do reach out to me. There's a lot of good information in the World Cafe hosting guides, so do use them. Of course, there's also the great book by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.

And BTW, if you have success with this format, please do drop a note on the comments section of this blogpost.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

#DearScott wants to Work for ThoughtWorks

It all started with Scott Robinson telling ThoughtWorkers that he wants to work with us. How did he do it? Through a really creative reverse Facebook-ad. Over the last couple of days, all ThoughtWorker denizens of Twitterville have unloaded on on the #DearScott hashtag - some amused at Scott's cleverness, some trying to socially network, others just being funny! I think #DearScott should be a way for just about anyone around the world who wants to work at ThoughtWorks to get in touch with us. It's just a great story of how social media is completely transforming the way we work, communicate and do business these days. All the best Scott, hope you do well at the interviews!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Here's a simple Social Learning technique you should try on your Training Course

Today was a great day at ThoughtWorks University. Our graduates have reached the business end of the course and are building a real-world application as part of their work here. To help people build their presentation skills and also for them to share knowledge and insights, we've organised Pecha-Kucha nights in the office. The idea is pretty simple:
  • Every week, six students and a few trainers present.
  • People can present on any topic of their choice as long as it's valuable to the group.
  • Their talks should have no more than 20 slides which automatically transition within 20 seconds each.
  • Everyone in the group has to present at least once.
  • We do this once a week, on Wednesdays and we bring pizzas into the office (or an alternate snack).
So that's the general format, and we did our first Pecha-Kucha night today. And was it awesome or what! For one, I consider myself to be a good enough presenter - but was I humbled by my students! I can speak to the quality of the presentations out there and some of them were so good that I feel honoured to be in the company of such people. More than the content of the presentations, I really felt that the talks gave us a different level of acquaintance with each other which will shape our ties over the weeks, months and years to come.

We had topics ranging from how to play Euchre to the coolness of mathematics; from why dogs are man's best friend to someone's first experience with programming (a complex social system). We had advice on sports, careers and blogging and there were some great questions as well.  To blow my own trumpet, I'll say our first Pecha-Kucha night was a great success, given how much we achieved in less than 90 minutes (pizza eating and socialising included).

If you'd like to see the presentations, you can find them under the twupk tag on slideshare. For your benefit, I've also added the presentations to this blogpost, so you can see some of them from here. Of course, nothing can beat the experience of watching people speak live; so you've got to pardon us if the slides don't make sense by themselves.

Before I leave you to view all the nice presentation-ware, I'd like to encourage you to try an activity such as this on your training program and see what people do. As trainers if we can relinquish some control and give that back to our students; more importantly treat them as peers, they're likely to amaze and astound us. That's what our students did to us today. So try it out - give up some control and be prepared to be amazed.

Molly Bartlett

Chris Reade

Rose Fan

Sanjiv Suman

Sports - Sanjiv Suman

Sumeet Moghe

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Over a 100 perspectives on L&D at this blog - Part 2

I started writing my previous blogpost under the impression that I was going to be able to finish in one go! As it turns out, I have said too many things on this blog, so providing a map to all those things in one little blogpost is close to impossible. So I'm carrying forward the work from the previous post. If you aren't familiar with the format I'm using - just read the previous post and in the mean time I'll cut to the chase.

I'm glad you use the word 'context'.  A lot of the social learning patter these days seems to focus just around the cool tools we see all around us. While the tools are crucial to the success of social learning, it's important that we consider other factors too. OTOH when selecting a platform, we need take into account when the tools actually do matter. Speaking of tools - I recently wrote a blog post about 6 social learning platforms that you can enable on demand. The one thing I'll mention though - please don't fall into the trap of creating walled gardens. Consider the little things that make a huge difference; for example, metadata.

Given my background as a training consultant, I know for a fact that a vast majority of people think of a training magic wand that'll make their performance problems disappear. As consultants however we need to be pragmatic and determine if training really is a solution. Our current performance problems need us to think beyond trainer mindsets, and we need to avoid being one-trick-ponies.

There's a huge people angle to developing learning strategies. Firstly, all people are not the same - I like using the Dreyfus Model to plan how we can involve people at varying levels of expertise. You may also find my learning paths approach useful, so you can avoid the pain of big-upfront training. Most importantly, we need to devise our strategies to be pull-based, so we don't keep creating overloaded, one-size-fits-all-but-fits-none approaches to learning. I like approaches where we empower our learners and let them think for themselves like adults.

I'm hardly an industry commentator to answer this question - but let me take a shot. If there's one word I want to focus on, it's versatility. L&D people in today's age need to wear multiple hats. If there's another word I want to focus on, it's creativity. We're beyond the point where one specialist can solve business problems with a known solutions. We're getting to a point where business is so fast that we're encountering problems we've never seen before. So I can't say much about the 'state of the art' except that we need learning generalists who can approach problems creatively, by applying diverse perspectives and heuristics.

Those are quite a few things to comment on arent' they? I have a huge interest in how people work together. Working at ThoughtWorks has been a revelation for me. At ThoughtWorks, working with people like Patrick Kua has made me realise what an important place feedback has in helping people grow. A few months back I piggy-backed on some of Pat's posts and wrote a post of my own about about building a feedback culture. I completely understand that in the absence of the right culture it's tough to give and share feedback. To make it easy I recommend separating the 'what' and 'if' of feedback and treating all feedback you get as a gift. Yet again, if you're in a situation of conflict, you may want to try the technique of percepual positions to evaluate the situation from different perspectives.

I also have a strong interest in being a student of leadership practice and HR. You'll notice that from my unending rants on the history of heirarchy, on how I approach leadership, and how I believe organisations should run their career development and leadership development programs. I could keep going on, but I'll stop by directing you to all of the little other things I keep posting about.

Ha, ha! This is where I pop out an answer and people's estimation of my skills goes way down! Well, I use good old Powerpoint for most of my graphics. This however is the stuff I have least information about on my blog. You may find some tips in my blog posts about visual design, but I must confess you'll find far greater inspiration on Tom Kulhmann's posts on visual and graphic design.

Oh I have tons of inspiration to share with you. Let me first direct you the 6 talks you should absolutely watch if you're a presenter or a trainer. I'm going to add Ken Robinson's latest TED talk to that list. Speaking of TED, it's a great place to learn not just about the various interesting developments across the world, it's also a great place to get inspiration for your own presentation style. Even Bill Gates seems a transformed speaker on TED. But if you're looking for the mother of all inspiring talks, you've got to watch the last lecture by Randy Pausch - and here's my commentary on Dr. Pausch's talk.

In addition to this, there's all the inspiration I get from the web. Here are some news bundles I've created which you may find useful:
You can also browse through my Delicious bookmarks and look at the bookmarks from my network. And of course, I have the knack of sharing inspiratin through my blog and through Twitter, so do check out the links below:
The RSS feed for this blog
My twitter handle - @sumeet_moghe

Well that's the map for this blog which I wanted to share with you. I hope it gives you and easy way to contextualise useful information from this website.

So, how did you find the last two blogposts? I defnitely want to hear from you about this post, so please, please tweet this post if you can and also leave your comments here. Thanks!

What to use Google Docs for!

Forget social learning, collaboration and what not - here's what Google Documents is great for. Ordering ice cream for the team!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Over a 100 perspectives on L&D at this blog - Part 1

"It's easy to sound smart, when you parrot the wise" - Someone I can't remember.

I have absolutely no remorse in saying that most of my ideas are not original. In fact I don't even believe in originality. To me originality is the fine art of hiding the source, which unfortunately I'm crap at - so I like to give credit to the sources I steal from. After all, isn't synthesis one way of way of expressing your creativity? I'm stealing another idea today, but before I tell you what that idea is let me tell you what I'm trying to do. Until sometime in 2008, my blog was just a catch all for everything that made it's way into my stream of consciousness. Since then, I've made a concerted effort to focus this blog on issues related to modern learning and development. We're halfway through 2010 now and before I write anymore, I wanted to provide my readers a map to this blog. This is also my way to reiterate the how I think about L&D and where I as a practitioner see things going.

So what's the idea I'm stealing? I loved Tom Kuhlmann's format where he provided answers to frequently asked questions about rapid elearning. I have no pretensions to being an expert like Tom, but I do get into a lot of conversations in the community and I often get asked questions too. So I'd love to use a similar format to explain how I think and to give you a map for the content on this blog. Given how much of a common man I am in the learning industry, this is as close I'll get to an interview! Incidentally, I have over a 100 links that I'm sharing through this and the next blogpost - so keep track of them! In fact for your browsing ease, I've also catalogued them on my delicious bookmarks. Allright, these are going to be fairly long blogposts so I won't waste any of your time - let's get going.

I confess to being an L&D industry common man. I work at ThoughtWorks, a company that defies traditional theories of management, as director of workplace learning. Of the many things I do, I run one of the best graduate induction programs in the IT industry - ThoughtWorks University. As part of my technology education background, I have a strong bias for free and open-source software, though I'm also a hard-core Apple fanboy. You'll often see me as a participant on various webinars. I tweet using the handle sumeet_moghe and here's my Linkedin profile.

The most important thing you need to know about me is that I hate being a one trick pony. In fact, I prefer being a learning generalist, more appropriately a versatilist. Having said that, you can't take me too seriously because I'm neither a researcher nor an academic. I can't vouch for the statistical accuracy of what I write or profess. All I can say is that what I write is true for me and my experience.

To be very frank, there's only so much I can do as an individual. I think there's heaps of interesting stuff happening all across the industry and I'm particularly interested to see how people are using their skills to solve real business problems. So that's the reason I like attending webinars. Now the reporting's a completely different story. You must remember that I'm not the only live blogger out there. In fact, I've taken inspiration for this from Cammy Bean, who's just fantastic when live-blogging events. She's just so good that it's impossible to match up the number of events she reports and the quality she brings to her reporting. I'm just following her lead trying to share what I learn in each of these events with the rest of the world.

There's a lot of interesting stuff you'll see on my webinar reports and conference reports. There's over 30 different events where I've learnt interesting stuff ranging from Ruth Clark's approach to scenario based learning, to Jane Hart's approach to selecting a social learning platform. And then there are brilliant experience reports by folks like Steve Ash and Lars Hyland, so I think that there's a lot going on with the webinar circuit that deserves reporting.

I don't think I do a very good job of keeping up. I have a 12 hour day at work on the best days and there's very little time I have otherwise to stay abreast with everything in the industry. That said, I think over time I've learned how to learn and all the informal networks I'm part of, are helping me grow as a professional. In addition, some thought around how to structure my personal knowledge management framework has helped, so when I do dip my toe into the river of information, I end up making the dip fruitful!

First things first, I like to believe that there's a shift happening in the way we collaborate on teams. This is not to say that things have turned on their head, but I definitely think that there's a change in the control structure and the dogma around the best ways to collaborate. I still love face to face communication (who doesn't), but I like to believe that if you can't collaborate without being colocated, you're perhaps not agile enough. There are so many great tools that can help your team collaboration soar, that you need to keep your eyes open for things that are changing in the technology space.

Well my views on presentation skills have evolved over time. To me, the McKinsey Mind quote, “Presentation is the ‘Killer Skill’ we take into the real world. It’s almost an unfair advantage.”; is an indication of how important this craft is. To contrast that with the amount of slideumentation we see in the corporate world, is depressing to say the least! This said, I don't think it's rocket science to do good presentations. If you plan effectively, choose the right tool for your presentation, use simple techniques to create meaningful visuals, and avoid some of the common mistakes, you should be well and truly on your way to matching Steve Jobs!

Yes and no! I started off my career as a training facilitator and that's perhaps my strongest skill even today. I look at training as a distinct discipline from presentations, so while media skills are crucial to training, they aren't all training's about. As a trainer, the biggest virtue you can have is patience - you need to believe that your learners can do it! You need to know how the brain remembers, the effective use of language patterns in the class, ways to encourage participation and to handle QnA. There are various subtelties in being a trainer. For example, competition lends momentum to training, but how do you ensure that people learn to collaborate amongst all the fun? Another example I love to talk about is around the issue of entertainment in the classroom - how much is enough? As a trainer I'm always looking to improve my skills in leading socratic discussion, eliciting well formed outcomes, reviewing concepts effectively -- and student feedback always helps. After all, it's a performance of sorts and we need to ensure that it's of the highest quality.

Again, most of this is experiential and I can't vouch for the academic authenticity of my opinions. I'm big on rapid design of any kind. Back in the day, I was thinking about rapid instructional design with Powerpoint and I've come down that road thinking how we can apply Agile principles to elearning design as well. There's however an aspect of this which I'm extremely passionate about - the role of an instructional designer. I strongly believe that it's not about the tools - creativity is key. The typical elearning projects are late, poorly designed and just don't solve performance problems. We need a breed of passionate instructional designers, who have more skills than just writing. When we start leveraging our SMEs effectively instead of looking at them as barriers to our instructional process, we're likely to produce high quality outputs.

Why just elearning? If we're creative enough we can not just apply them to transactions such as simulation design, but also solve complex problems like induction. But coming to the topic of elearning - I like to apply the rapid paradigm. On this blog I've demonstrated that it is possible to produce elearning on a shoestring. It's important to remember that you don't need to do everything within elearning - you need to find a way to integrate all of the rich media from the web. If you're big on rapid elearning just in the same way that I am, you should take a look at my 6 tips for rapid elearning success. In addition, pay attention to meaningful interactivity, your navigation scheme and your information architecture and you'll find that it isn't rocket science to create high quality, yet low cost elearning.
This brings me to the end of this blogpost - in my next post, I'll cover off other stuff that I usually write about. Do let me know if you like this map to my blog. I'll look forward to your commentary.
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