teaching

Discussions that Seed the Roots of Creativity

Posted on

A few months ago I purchased Fitbit watches for my children and myself. My goals were twofold. First, I was hoping that they would motivate all of us to be more active. Second, I wanted to foster a sense of competition (including fair play and winning) within my children. Much of their pre-High School experiences focused on “participation,” as many schools feel that competition is bad. Unfortunately, competition is everywhere in life, so if don’t play to win you may not get the opportunity to play at all.

It is fun seeing them push to be the high achiever for the day, and to continually push themselves to do better week-by-week and month-by-month. I believe this creates a wonderful mindset that makes you want to do more, learn more, and achieve more. People who do that are also more interesting to spend time with, so that is a bonus.

Recently my 14 year-old son and I went for a long walk at night. It was a cold, windy, and fairly dark night. We live in fairly rural area so it is not uncommon to see and hear various wild animals on a 3-4 mile walk. I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my kids things in a way that is fun and memorable, and in a way that they don’t realize they are being taught. Retention of the concepts is very high when I am able to make it relevant to something we are doing.

That night we started talking about the wind. It was steady with occasional gusts, and at times it changed direction slightly. I pointed out the movement on bushes and taller grass on the side of the road. We discussed direction, and I told him to think about the wind like an invisible arrow, and then explained how those arrows traveled in straight lines or vectors until they met some other object. We discussed which object would “win,” and how the force of one object could impact another object. My plan was to discuss Newton’s three laws of motion.

My son asked if that is why airplanes sometimes appear to be flying at an angle but are going straight. He seemed to be grasping the concept. He then asked me if drones would be smart enough to make those adjustments, which quickly led to me discussing the use potential future of “intelligent” drones by the military. When he was 9 he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but once he saw how much work that was he decided that he would rather be Transformer (which I explained was not a real thing). My plan was to use this example to discuss robotics and how you might program a robot to do various tasks. I wanted him to logically break down the actions think about managing complexity. But, no such luck that night.

His mind jumped to “Terminator” and “I, Robot.” I pointed out that there is spectrum between the best possible outcome – utopia, and the worst possible outcome – dystopia, and asked him what he thought could happen if machines could learn and become smarter on their own. His response was that things would probably fall somewhere in the middle, but there would be people at each end trying to pull the technology in that direction. That seemed like a very enlightened estimation. He asked me what I thought and I replied that I agreed with him. I then noted how some really intelligent guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are worried about the dystopian future and recently published a letter to express their concerns about potential pitfalls of AI (artificial intelligence). This is where the discussion became really interesting…

We discussed why you would want a program or a robot to learn and improve – so that it could continue to become better and more efficient, just like a person. We discussed good and bad, and how difficult it could be to control something that doesn’t have morals or understand social mores (which he felt if this robot was that smart it would learn those things based on observations and interactions). I told him about my discussions with his older sister, who wants to become a Physician, about how I believe that robotics, nanotechnology, and pharmacology will be the future of medicine. He and I took the logical next step and thought about a generic but intelligent medicine that identified and fixed problems independently, and then sent the data and lessons learned for others to learn from. We’ll have an Internet of Things (IoT) discussion later, and I will tie back to this discussion and our Fitbit wearable technology.

After the walk I was thinking about what just happened, and was pleased because it seemed to spark some genuine interest in him. I’m always looking for that perfect recipe for innovation, but it is elusive and so far lacks repeatability. It is possible to list many of the “ingredients” (intelligence, creativity, curiosity, confidence (to try and accept and learn from failure), multi-disciplinary experiences and expertise) and “measurements” (such as a mix of complementary skills, a mix of roles, and a special environment (i.e., strives to learn and improve, rewards both learning and success but doesn’t penalize failure, and creates a competitive environment that understands the team is more important than any one individual). That type of environment is magical when you can create it, but it takes so much more than just having people and a place that seem to match the recipe. That critical mixing component is missing.

I tend to visualize things, so while I was thinking about this I pictured a tree with multiple “brains” (my mental image looked somewhat like broccoli) that had visible roots. Those roots were creative ideas that went off in various directions. Trees with more roots that were bigger and went deeper would stand out in a forest of regular trees. Each major branch (brain / person) would have a certain degree of independence, but

Salvador_Dali_Three_Sphinxes_of_Bikini
Salvador Dali’s “The Three Sphinxes of Bikini”

ultimately everything on the tree worked as a system. To me, this description makes so much more sense than the idea of a recipe, but it still doesn’t bring me closer to being able map the DNA of this imaginary tree.

At the end of our long walk it seemed that I probably learned as much as my son did, and we made a connection that will likely lead to more walks and more discussions. And in a strange way, I can thank the purchase of these Fitbit watches for being the motivation for an activity that led to this amazing discussion. From that perspective alone this was money well spent.

Why do you want to teach?

Posted on Updated on

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.

There’s a story in there – I just know it…

Posted on

I was reading an article from Nancy Duarte about Strengthening Culture with Storytelling, and it made me think about how important a skill story telling can be in business, and how it can be far more effective than just presenting facts / data. These are just a few examples – I’m sure that you have many of your own.Storytelling

One of the best sales people that I’ve ever known wasn’t a sales person at all. It is Jon Vice, former CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Jon is very personable and has the ability to make each person feel like they are the most important person in the room (quite a skill in itself). Jon would talk to a room of people and tell a story. Mid-story you were hooked. You completely bought what he was selling, often without knowing what the “ask” was. It was amazing to experience.

Years ago when my company was funding medical research projects, my oldest daughter (then only four years old) and I watched a presentation on the mid-term findings of one of the projects. The MD/Ph.D. giving the presentation was impressive, but what he showed was slide after slide of data. After 10-15 minutes my daughter held her Curious George stuffed animal up in front of her (where the shadow would be seen on the screen) and proclaimed, “Boring!”

Six months later that same person gave his wrap-up presentation. It was short, told an interesting story that explained why these findings were important, laying the groundwork for a follow-on project. A few years later he commented that this was a very valuable lesson because the story with data was far more compelling than just the data itself.

A few years ago the company I work for introduced a high-performance analytics database. We touted that our product was 100 times faster than other products, which happened to be a similar message used by a handful of competitors. In my region we created a “Why Fast Matters” webinar series and told the stories of our early Proof of Value efforts. This helped my team make the first few sales of this new product. People understood our value proposition because these success stories made it tangible.

What I tell my team is to weave the thread of our value proposition into the fabric of a prospect’s story. This both makes us part of the story, and also makes this new story their own (as opposed to being our story). This simple approach has been effective, and also helps you qualify out sooner if you can’t improve the story.

What if you not selling anything? Your data has a story to tell – even more so with big data. Whether you are analyzing data from a single source (such as audit or log data), or correlating data from multiple sources, the data is telling you a story. Whether patterns, trends, or correlated events – the story is there. And once you find it there is so much you can do to build it out.

Whether you are selling, managing, teaching, coaching, analyzing, or just hanging out with friends or colleagues, being able to entertain with a story is a valuable skill. This is a great way to make a lot of things in business even more interesting and memorable. So, give it a try.

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

Posted on Updated on

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…