Saturday, July 31, 2010

Vacation Leg 4 - Bali; Island of the Gods


If there's one place I just didn't couldn't do any justice to during my trip, it was Bali. The island of the gods may seem like a speck of dust on the huge ocean, but frankly its arduous terrain makes it difficult for you to get a full coverage in the space of three days. In fact, you could be in Bali for a month and still have plenty of things to do. Home to some amazing coral reefs, dive spots, snorkeling waters and surf beaches, Bali provides an equal measure of entertainment on the cultural front. In a largely Islamic country, Bali is a Hindu majority island and it's amazing to see the parallels between my own culture and that of the Balinese. In the end, we could hardly sample the island in our three days, also because of the fact that we didn't want to stress ourselves too much during the last few days of our vacation.

Orientation
Bali is a glorious, large island and the way you need to enjoy it is in layers. There's something for everyone to do. So if you're planning a trip, here's some information that may come in handy.
  • Kuta, the first layer: Bali has an enviable coastline and the Kuta, Legian and Seminyak beach trio provide 40 km of almost uninterrupted coastline for you to enjoy the waters around this island. While Kuta, the premier surf destination is home to maddening crowds and is a typical Asian beach location; Sanur, the country cousin beach is your opportunity to enjoy the waters in quiet. Kuta is also a stone's throw from Denpasar, the city-ish area of Bali, where you can do a bit of museum hopping.
  • Ubud, the second layer: If Kuta is home to Bali's best beach, then Ubud's got to be the cultural capital of the island. Home to quite a few museums, Ubud is also a great shopping destination for Bali's traditional handicrafts - batik, wood carving, stone sculptures, paintings and ornaments. Most of Bali's people are employed in these cottage industries, so you won't really find a particular market for specific things. You just need to pick a village and then go from home to home trying to buy what you fancy. Also, Ubud is home to several other attractions such as the Goa Gajah (Elephant Caves), the Wanara Wan (Monkey Forest) and places to see the famous Barong and Legong dances.
  • Lovina, the third layer: We didn't even touch this part of Bali, though we did border on the fringes of the beautiful Lake Batur and the equally awe inspiring volcano, Gunung Batur. Kintamani, the village around the rim of the volcano, is famous for it's morning market that opens every three days. This apart, Lovina houses Bali's highest and most sacred place - Mount Agung. At the peak of this mountain is Pura Besakih, Bali's most revered temple - from where the gods descend when they come to Bali. Add to this the beautiful black sand beach of Lovina (which I've seen only in pictures), the Candidasa and Padangbai beaches, the Goa Lawah temple and the proximity to Lake Bratan and the temple there, you've got some really interesting things to see and do.
All this is just a cursory introduction to Bali. Fringed by other beautiful islets and dive spots, Bali is a great destination for watersports and marine exploration. If there's one place I'm coming back to for my rejunevation leave, it's got to be Bali. Bali also has nine beautiful, highly important directional temples set either at the shores of the sea or in the hills. If you can visit all nine, then you've got to give yourself a pat on your back.

What we managed to do

I have to admit, we didn't plan our stay in Bali too well. Too much to do, too little time. We had to charter cars because we wanted to just rely on a driver to do the navigation for us - in hindsight, a scooter would have been a better idea. In the end, we just ended up doing a drive through Ubud, with a bit of shopping thrown in. A customary visit to the legendary Tanah Lot temple, dinner on the beautiful Jimbaran beach were just about the things we could make time for. We also witnessed the amazing Barong, Legong and Kecak dances - and if you have just a few hours in Bali, you should definitely watch these. Don't even think of missing them. And we went around the Bukit Peninsula a bit - to the Uluwatu temple and GWK cultural park. My wife got herself a Balinese massage and we spent a few hours at the Kuta beach - but that was it. I feel like I've left so much unseen and untouched back in Bali that I've got to go back. Heck, I haven't even tasted some good Balinese cuisine yet - except my amazing seafood dinner at Jimbaran beach which I highly recommend to anyone who visits Bali.
We're now on our way back to Bangalore. Despite the fact that I missed heaps in Bali, I've been missing my dog Sparky a lot. I'm looking forward to seeing him, getting back to work and planning my next holiday with renewed energy. For those who follow this blog for the L&D stuff I usually post - sorry if these posts annoyed you. I just can't start a new blog for personal stuff and keep it alive as well. Hopefully you got some handy hints about the places I visited and if you're heading to any of these destinations, feel free to talk to me and I'll share some tips with you.

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!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vacation Leg 3 - Singapore; Asia's most organised tourist destination.


I've been to Singapore on a transit visa before. My visit however was so rushed that I left with half-baked impressions of the city and had really strong misgivings about the place. None of those misgivings remain today - I rate Singapore really highly now and I'll recommend it as a must visit destination to anyone who visits Asia. Singapore's a big island city-state, perhaps just a little larger than Bangalore. With a diverse population of Indians, Chinese, Malay, other Asian and several western expats, Singapore's got to be Asia's most global city. With English as a first language, it's perhaps Asia's most tourist friendly city and from what I've seen and heard, it seems to be a buzzing business destination too.

My tryst with Singapore has been short, yet fulfilling. Let me tell you a little more about it.

Orientation and Accomodation
My flight from Penang to Singapore was on Tiger Airways - a leading low-cost airline based in Singapore. We landed at the budget terminal in Singapore and after immigration we took the shuttle bus to Terminal 2 of of the main airport. Finding information and places in Singapore is never a problem and before we knew it, we had 2 tourist passes for unlimited travel by public transport for three full days! Sweet start. We'd deliberately chosen inexpensive accomodation away from the city center. Our hotel - Aqueen Balestier, is a cosy business hotel located near the Novena Medical center. A couple of train changes, a hop on the bus and we were right there at our hotel. I must say that we quite liked our hotel, it's away from the madness of the business district, yet conveniently located near some really good eating places and a train station. To top it the rooms are well appointed and unlike other hotels, the staff don't keep bothering you every now and then. So that was that.

Getting Around
Click here for a larger image

As I mentioned, we had a 3-day unlimited tourist pass that gave us access to all city buses and trains. So transportation wasn't a problem at all. The tourist passes are great value for money. They cost 26 SGD (19 USD) plus a 10 SGD (7 USD) refundable deposit. With the amount of hopping around that we did, it was well worth the price. Singapore's also a remarkably easy place to get around. Every bus stand has route maps for all the buses that stop there. There's an index of nearby streets along with a list of buses that'll take you there. Buses are really frequent too. As far as trains are concerned, Singapore's MRT is one of the most advanced and organised train systems I've seen. Every station has a locality map at each exit, so you'll never be in doubt for how to reach your destination. If nothing works, there's a fairly useful public transport journey planner that you can use. Of course, we never got to the point where we needed that app.

This apart, streets in Singapore are very clearly signposted and that makes it a great walking city. In the city center, it's great fun to walk across various streets and take quick snaps of interesting sights without getting too lost. In terms of getting around, Singapore scores a perfect 10.

Sightseeing
There are several sightseeing opportunities at Singapore. We've been very ambitious on this vacation of ours so my wife and I decided to do the first two days of this itinerary on our first day itself! So the Victoria Theatre, the Merlion, The Arts Museum, Cavenagh Bridge, Little India, the Supreme court, the Parliament square and many other sights came our way on day one. It was hectic, but it was a lot of fun jumping from one bus to another, changing trains and walking around the city. Day one was also my birthday so a top of the world feeling was in order. The Singapore Flyer was just what we needed - the view of the city from atop the observation wheel is quite something. Unfortunately we didn't have a really great camera, so snagging pictures in the dark was quite tough. We did what we could and I'll try to put up the pictures on Flickr as soon as I can.

Day two in Singapore was visiting one of it's must see attractions - the Singapore Zoo. Until recently I'd thought of the Taronga Zoo as the best I've seen. That hasn't changed, but I'll say that the Singapore Zoo is definitely an equal to Taronga. Not only are the zoo, the animals and their abodes in top condition, the zoo's keepers and commentators are very knowledgeable and extremely engaging presenters. Each of the shows that we went to, left us enlightened and wiser about the great wildlife that walks our planet. If you're in a mood to visit the zoo, I suggest you skip the tram and boat tickets. While it may seem convenient to hop on and off the tram and boat, you're more likely to keep walking the same stretch that you've already covered by these modes. In the whole day we did just one trip each on the tram and the boat, so I don't think it was worth the extra money. Another word of advice, particularly if you're in Singapore for a few extra days - 45 SGD (33 USD) gives you entry to all the three wildlife attractions in Singapore; the zoo, the bird park and the night safari. If the zoo was anything to go by, the other two attractions should be well worth the additional cost. I recommend them as must sees.

We decided consciously to give Sentosa a miss - since most locals refer to it as 'So Expensive but Nothing TO See Actually'. However, we've found Singapore to be completely devoid of tourist traps. There's not a single place where we spent a dollar in vain. So I can imagine Sentosa will be interesting for those who like that kind of fun.

Food

Singapore's truly a gastronomic adventure and matched Penang bite for bite. There's all kinds of food on offer, but if there's one particular meal I want to write about, it's got to be the dinner on my birthday. My wife treated me to a sumptuous meal with the legendary Singapore chili crab and a finely grilled stingray. When the menu says chilli crab, take it seriously - there's a lot of chilli in that delicious spread. But the mighty Sumeet is not one to be deterred by the spice. The spice from the crab and the stingray gave me strong battle, but like any other food gladiator I waged war. Claw after claw met bite after bite from me. It was a fight to the finish - I was sweating  profusely, but I wasn't going to five up. No sissy rice morsels to cut out the spice; in fact to be a man I added some extra chillies to the dish. Surely perseverance and bravery had to pay off - to the victor go the spoils of war. The crab lay vanquished, I slept satisfied. It was a massacre as you can see for yourself. A delicious massacre that I have no regrets about though. I'll gladly do it again.

I enjoyed every meal in Singapore. It's definitely one of the costlier places in Asia, but well worth the price for the quality of food you get. The hawker centers, like in Penang, make it incredibly easy for you to find good food. Just walk into any place that looks cheap and crowded and you'll find great, scrumptuous food.
I can keep saying this and never tire - Singapore's the most tourist friendly destination I've ever been to. You have everything you can associate with a vacation in Asia - great sights, friendly people, good food and none of the ills - touts, tourist traps, pushy salesmen or health scares. It's easy to navigate, a stone's throw from KL by train or by air and just so entertaining for a short holiday. I want to repeatedly recommend it as an absolute must visit.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vacation Leg 2 - Penang and Georgetown; Beaches and Churches

A short flight from KL landed us in Penang - the pearl of the orient. There are good reasons for Penang to be called that. It's definitely Malaysia and Asia's food capital and perhaps also the cultural capital, given Georgetown's status as a UNESCO world heritage site. As in KL, we wish we had more time here - good reasons to ask for a bigger holiday allowance. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, though! Anyways, let me give you a quick run down of a few things that may serve you well if you come to Penang.

Accomodation
We booked our accomodation at Penang through Hostelbookers. Hostelbookers often has links with several homestay providers and we ran into Annie's homestay close to the famous Batu Ferringhi beach at Penang. The accomodation was expensive by Penang standards, but we didn't want to run around looking for places to stay given our tight itinerary. The room we got at Annie's home in Batu Ferringhi's posh residential area by the hills was nice and cosy, but I've got to warn you about a few things. Firstly, it's a homestay - so don't expect someone to clean your room everyday and take out your garbage. You've got to do that yourself. Second, she has just one bedroom with an attached bath and that didnt' do us much good since our water heater wasn't working too well. My wife's really particular about a hot shower, and she had to go to the shared bathroom to get one. So we paid for an ensuite, but really did with a shared bathroom. All that said, it's a stone's throw from the beach and in a really picturesque locale and if you can deal with Annie's talkative nature then you should be fine.

Getting around
As we do at most Asian island and beach destinations, we rented a scooter to get around Penang. A scooter in these parts is absolutely invaluable because of the flexibility it gives you. At 35 RM ($11) a day, it's a cheap alternative to rental cars and taxis. Traffic in Penang is relatively easy to negotiate, since most people follow traffic rules and are generaly disciplined drivers. Given my Indian upbringing and experience handling peak traffic in Bangalore, I had it quite easy. If you're squeamish with the idea of riding a two wheeler, then consider renting a car or better still use public transport. Unlike many other island towns, Penang has a really good bus service called RapidPenang that is fast, cheap and reliable. For example a 90 minute ride from the airport to the beach cost us just 12 RM ($3.77) apiece.

Sightseeing

Penang's definitely a sight for sore eyes with it's rich mix of natural beauty, beaches and culture. Amrita was really tired and sore on day one, while I was being my usual energetic self. So I decided to head off to Taman Negara - the Penang National Park. The park itself is a well maintained trekking site perched atop a hillock, surrounded by the sea. Some of the beaches are absolutely breathtaking. You can take yourself along the 3km hike to Monkey beach. My shoes gave way half way through, so I couldn't make it to the end of the hike and returned from the Maritime University itself. Along the same route, you'll find the Tropical Spice Gardens and the Butterfly Park. I gave those a miss too, since I've seen quite a lot of similar sights in my lifetime.

Day two, was perhaps the most enjoyable and the saddest day of our entire trip. We were at Georgetown. Georgetown is an important site of the British colonial era in Malaysia. Home to several temples, mosques, Chinese temples and colonial buildings, every corner of Georgetown is seeped in history. Amrita and I did quite well to see all of Georgetown's 36 interesting sights, but not before my trusty Olympus camera gave way and stopped functioning altogether. Task for me when I get back home - get the camera fixed! I'm not going to list all the sights down, but here are some you shouldn't miss at all:
  • The Clock Tower
  • Fort Cornwallis
  • Penang Museum
  • The Kapitan Keling Mosque
This is by no means an exhaustive list, especially if you're a photography buff. Georgetown has several great photography opportunities and if you don't want to miss any of them then charge your batteries, get yourself one of the detailed area maps and go absolutely bonkers!

Day three was a light day -- there was heaps to see, but we decided we didn't want to stress ourselves too much. The Penang hill railway was on our list of things to do, but unfortunately it was undergoing renovation. If you're there in November, you're likely to see the famous train back in action. Anyways, we headed off to the 'infamous' Kek Lok Si temple, which the temple managment keeps expanding every year. While the temple's quite nice, it paled in comparision to some of the other sights we've been witness to especially with the number of shops that dotted every corner of the establishment. It seemed more like a shopping destination than a real temple. So if you had to give this a miss, don't worry - you aren't missing much.

Food


Last and certainly not the least - food! Penang is truly the best food destination you can get to. Penang eats its food at hawker centers - a place for street food vendors to get together and sell their stuff. Consider this as the street equivalent of western food courts, only cheaper, tastier and less posh. Hawker centers serve a huge variety of food, ranging from the very popular Nasi Kandar cuisine, to Chinese, Malay, Baba-Nyonya, Indonesian and Western delicacies. While these places generally serve good food, I strongly recommend you eat at Georgetown for a wider range of food and rock bottom prices. Some of my favourite foods at Penang have been the delicious grilled fish that they serve on banana leaves, the satays, the Char Kwoay Teow (fried flat noodles), the Laksa and seafood soups, the Nasi Biryanis and Rotis, the seafood steamboat barbecues, and the different varieties of Mee (noodles). If you feel upto it though, you should try the Bak-Kut-Teh - a very tasty and spicy, soupy concoction made with (take a deep breath) the insides of a pig. No matter how repulsive that sounds, it tastes sinfully good and is well worth the experience. In fact, if you're really particular you can choose which parts of the pig make their way into your soup!

Anyways, food is Penang's crowning jewel and you just can't go wrong with it. Regardless of where you go and what you order, you're likely to get good food. All you need is a spirit of adventure to keep trying new things and you're likely to experience strokes of serendipity!
Penang was my last stop at Malaysia. I wish I had more time to enjoy this country and travel to some of its other beautiful destinations. Perhaps I'll do that during my rejunevation leave coming up next year. Let's see -- for now, my next stop is Singapore. Keep following this space for more stories from Asia's most organised city.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Vacation Leg 1 - Melaka and Kuala Lumpur. Cities in contrast, bound by food.

Life's great when there are natural tensions. As a tourist, I always want good weather and clear skies. OTOH, every local dying of heat in a tropical country wants rain. If there's agriculture, people need rain. It's a healthy tension. Life's also great when you discover the truth behind modern day myths. When you have concrete evidence to bust an old-wives-tale you've heard for years, you feel good. I've felt all of this ever since I got into Malaysia on a cloudy rainy day. Sunday afternoon was depressing - I felt like a fool to have arrived into a tropical country during the onset of the monsoons, and for sure I wanted to go beat some of my friends who said I could come here any time of the year. So all I could do was whisper a silent prayer, hoping things would clear up. As it turned out, things did indeed clear up and we've had 3 days of almost clear, unblemished weather.

My greater discovery has been Malaysia. Malaysia is primarily an Islamic country and a model Islamic country at that. For ages since the emergence of modern day terrorism, the faith of Islam has gotten a bad name. Malaysia is an example of how an Islamic nation can be prosperous, peaceful and compassionate. For someone like me whose best friends have been Muslims, this is evidence to bust a modern  myth. Not that the jihadis do justice to their faith, but well every religion has it's villains and there's no reason to tarnish Islam for the work of some lunatics.

Anyways, l've had a great first couple of days in Malaysia, so let me tell you more about that.

Flying in - Our Hotel and Local Orientation
We booked ourselves into the Chinatown Inn hotel on Petaling street, a bustling street shopping extravaganza that doesn't let up till midnight. Getting here from the airport was no big deal. We were flying Air Asia, so we flew into the humble LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal). Getting transport from there was easy - we took a bus from the airport to KL Sentral (yes, that's how they spell it) and then we took the train to Pesar Seni (The Central Market) and then we just walked to the hotel.

I usually judge a city by the cost of what it takes to be a local. Transportation from the airport was cheap; just 8 RM ($2.50) as compared to Bangalore where a similar trip costs about $3.75. As soon as we got on the streets we were looking for food - our meal on the flight was measly, so we had to eat! So, we walked into a local joint serving Indian Malay food and we were done with a full meal for about 10 RM ($3.13). Cool, huh! Yeah, Malaysia seems to be easy on the pocket.

Location wise, we were in tourist haven. Chinatown boasts of great food options, cheap shopping at both Petaling street, the local wholesale emporium and the neighbouring Central Market and is a stone's throw from a lot of the tourist destinations. I strongly recommend that if you come to KL, you pick an accomodation in Chinatown to enjoy the real city. Our accomodation set us back by 300 RM (about $30/night) for three nights, which isn't bad at all.

We spent the first evening walking down Chinatown, trying to soak in the shopping atmosphere. I succeeded in making my wife avoid the temptation to splurge on the huge variety of garments, shoes, bags and jewellery on show. Chinatown's a truly Asian shopping experience, rivalled perhaps only by Bangkok's Lumpini Market/ Chatuchak Market and Delhi's Sarojini Bazaar. So if you're coming over, keep a few kilos of baggage allowance aside to take back some shopping.

I'd been craving to have some frog on my trip here, so we settled for an expensive-ish meal at one of the streetside eateries at Petaling street. When I say expensive, I mean expensive by Malaysian standards. Our meal at the restaurant, with two servings of steamed rice, two curried frogs and some stir fried shrimp, cost us about 40 RM ($12). Not to be deterred, I happily tucked into my meal and threw in some local mango ice cream as dessert. That was the evening for us; our next day was going to be long and exciting - Melaka!

Day 1 - Melaka
Melaka is one of Malaysia's most important, historic cities. A bustling medieval port, the center of European colonization for a few hundred years and subsequently the place of Malaysia's declaration of independence, Melaka has a prominent spot on most tourist journals as it does on mine. The little town is less than about 150 km from KL and buses leave every hour. If you travel to Melaka in the near future, you're likely to have to take the bus from Bukit Jalil, a make shift bus stand in the absence of the main Puduraya station which is currently under renovation. Anyways, it wasn't a stretch to get to Bukit Jalil. We got a bus from Puduraya, which incidentally is just a stone's throw from Chinatown. A 30 minute ride got us to the bus stand and we were on our way to Melaka.

At about 9 AM the bus (24 RM two-way ticket) trudged into Melaka Sentral, the city's main interstate bus station which isn't really close to the tourist hotspots. So, we took a connecting town bus, to get us to the Portugese Square hosting the historic Dutch Christ Church. From that point on, it was us hopping from one sight to another in Melaka including the Porta De Santiago, the Sultanate Palace, ruins of St. Paul's Church, the Maritime Museum, the Independence Memorial, St Francis' Church and of course the Menara Taming Sari (a.k.a the Melaka Tower). The tower surely was the icing on the cake as you'll see from this 360 degree panoramic photo I took from the top of the ride. The Menara ride is quite expensive by Malaysian standards though 40 RM ($12), is still cheaper than similar experiences in the west.

The food in Melaka was something to write about as well and not just when it came to the price. At 11 RM ($3.4) we ate all that you see on that tray above. Quite a lot for that price, huh? But as I said, the price wasn't all - the food was so tasty that it blew our minds. I strongly recommend the Jonkers 888 restaurant on Jalan Hang Jebat as the place to have lunch at Melaka. They are quick, and yet very crowded by locals which is always a sign of good, affordable food in a foreign land.

So, that pretty much ends the story of our first day in Malaysia, a visit to a heritage town, dotted by some amazing local food and lot of great photo ops.

Day 2 - Kuala Lumpur
Anyone who says there's nothing to see in KL is either out of their mind or has never bothered to step outside the tourist hot-spots. Kuala Lumpur is truly Asia's meeting ground in terms of culture. There's so much to see and do that a day just doesn't suffice. Let's just say we skimmed on the surface of this magnificent city. Now don't get me wrong - KL isn't huge. It's about a third of Bangalore's area and twice the size of San Francisco, so that should give you a notion of size. It packs a lot into that little area though -- food, entertainment, shopping and sightseeing put together. The fact that we were based out of Chinatown made a lot of the sights quite easily accessible on foot, so again that's a reason for you to stay there if you're in KL.

We had a packed day planned and I can't tell you what all we crammed in to get the most out of the day. The photos have got to tell the tale (when I manage to get them on Flickr). I will say though that I was disappointed by the Menara KL. 38 RM ($11) seemed to be a bit much for the very limited views from the observation deck atop the tower. Again, it isn't much when you compare it to the John Hancock Tower or a similar sight across the world, but by Asian standards it was too little to do for too much of a cost. Some of the places we saw/ visited in the day:
  • KL Railway Station
  • Central Market
  • Meredeka Square
  • Abdul Samad Building
  • Masjid Jamek
  • Masjid Negara
  • KTM Building
  • Museum of Islamic Arts
  • KL Bird Park
  • Menara KL
  • KL Convention Center
  • Petronas Towers
That's quite a bit to see in a day and by the end of it, we were craving some serious nutrition. So we made our way to Restoran Yousuf's opposite Central Market. Yousuf's is a popular nasi kandar establishment in the parts. The phrase nasi kandar, came about from a time when nasi (rice) hawkers would kandar (balance) a pole on the shoulder with two huge containers of rice meals. The natural evolution of that practice is the nasi kandar cuisine in Malaysia which gives root to delicacies such as Nasi Goreng, Nasi Ayam, Nasi Lemak, 'fish-head' curries, the breads and the various spicy sauces in Malaysian Indian cooking. A regular favourite happens to be the Nasi Roti - a light pancake tossed around and folded by hand before being shallow fried in a pan. Nasi rotis come in different varieties and I strongly recommend the Roti Pisang - a banana pancake. If you feel like something savoury, try the Roti Canai with some of the nasi curries. At Yousuf's a big meal for two can't set you back by more than 12 RM. Remember the name and if you need recommendations of what to eat, talk to me!
I've thoroughly enjoyed my first two days in Malaysia, despite the rain. If the start is anything to go by, I can tell that Malaysia's a fairly complete Asian experience with all the influences it brings from Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and Thai cultures. I wish I'd planned more time in this country, though I do think I'm going to return here for my rejunevation leave next year. I still have a few days to go before I leave this country. Next stop - Penang and Georgetown!

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
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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



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