learning

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10 I spent one Picture of a Suzuki motorcyclewinter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ.

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design! A few fruitless Google searches later I wasPicture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. People would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration. Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system. By the third month the system was trouble free. It was a great learning experience. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives).

This reflection made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template. We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with technology out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy. My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell. Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two. But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continual improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 50 to 100 years and see the full impact, but my guess is that I will see some of the effects in my lifetime.

 

 

Why do you want to teach?

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I’ve mentioned in the past that I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.

Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and wanting to improve, I asked a lot of questions to understand why things were done the way they were, and learn as much as possible. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art, two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”

At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he told me was right. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. It really was a lot like art from that perspective.

What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met many of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching your children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and help them do more than they ever thought was possible.

But, those aren’t the people that the rest of this post is about. This is about corporate trainers, training companies, and consultants that engage in training, and people who just view training as a way to make an easy buck. Good content is expensive to create, and good trainers need to have subject matter expertise and a passion for what they do (similar to good teachers in any context).

The book that I am currently reading is, “Leadership and Training for the Fight” by Paul R. Howe, a retired U.S. Army Special Operations Master Sergeant. The focus of the book is on mindset and mental discipline – two things that I believe are very important (which is how I stumbled across this book).

While there is a lot of good content in this book, there was one section that struck a chord with me. So, here it is:

“Why do you want to teach?

Before you can begin teaching, you must ask yourself the most basic question: Why do you want to teach? Are you driven by ego, your self-esteem? Do you merely like to hear yourself talk, or do you have a genuine desire to pass information along?”

To paraphrase the rest, adding my own take, take the time to first figure out why you want to teach. Is it to bolster your ego to feel important? Or, does it look to be an easy road to a steady paycheck? These things don’t add value for your students, and most will easily see right through you. A good reputation is hard to get and easy to lose – words to live by in my book.

However, if you are looking to honestly help, are willing to continue to learn yourself to be the best that you can be, and able know when you are in over your head so you can look for help – then that is a great start. Every time you are handed a lesson plan try to make it better than when you received it. Finally, give it your all and really try to make a positive impact. It only requires a bit of work ethic and pride.

Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful.

Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help people grown and improve. To me, that’s the right reason to want to teach.

Connecting the Dots Faster

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When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and connect the dots faster.” What you quickly learn in business is that this is a great skill for anyone to have. Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be more effective and potentially much more valuable. You develop the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value. Additional knowledge and skills helps us become more effective, no matter what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but cannot clearly and simply articulate. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn?” People learn in different ways so there really is no best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best helps you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Even bad books can have their value.  Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read.

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). I believe that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win. My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it might help you get a different or better job in the future.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was extending my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This lucky coincidence enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions. I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own kids, so to me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you want to learn about, or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or inexpensive training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and a chance to learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few of my personal favorite free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…