Friday, March 31, 2017

How Long Have You Been Up Here?

There is a great mountain bike trail near my house. Actually there are quite a few nearby that really are great rides. Some run parallel to a river, some include several stream fords, and others are steep climbs that lead to awesome views. This one is a nice 3-5 mile ride, depending on where you start and stop, mostly a gradual uphill, which then leads back to a fun 3-5 mile downhill back to the car. There is a dirt road that is groomed in the winter as a cross country ski trail and which a lot of people drive up and camp along in the summer.

What makes the ride more fun than most dirt roads is that there is a single track that crisscrosses the road the whole way. Probably less than 10% of the time are you on the dirt road. The rest of the time is on twisty single track with rocks to jump off and branches to duck and banked turns. Lots of fun.

The thing is, as a multi-use canyon with dogs, bikers, horses, hikers, kids, cars, and all kinds of traffic on both the road and the single track, since it is so close to where so many people live, it's important to watch out to avoid accidents. Because I (and a former riding buddy) never cared too much about the uphill, thinking of it as the slog you have to go through to then enjoy the smooth ride down, I just ride up the dirt road, which helps avoid having to pass people going opposite directions on a tight single track. A lot of other people take the single track up and then back down again. It doesn't matter too much how you get up, but if you want to do some twists and turns up, that is great.

In the fall, the trail starts turning a bit muddy, with the upper sections in the last mile or two usually much wetter than the bottom section. Sometimes the last mile can be so muddy on the single track that you just have to stay on the road, and even the road will have huge puddles on it but they are usually more easily avoided. I was up there around deer hunting season in October, and that was the general condition of the trail. The road wasn't bad, but the upper sections of single track were a mess. I slogged up the road as usual and didn't pay attention to the single track until I got to the turnaround spot. I headed down the single track and found it pretty messy, but I go through okay. Upon descent, each section where it crosses the road is usually a little drier than the previous.

After crossing the road a couple times, I came to a crossing about halfway down the canyon where several bikers were stopped. I wondered what that section of the single track looked like since the upper sections were a bit of a mess, and I was considering just sticking to the road if the single track was a mess. Naturally, I asked the bikers who were headed up hill what the condition of the trail ahead of me and behind them down the canyon looked like. His surprised question in response to my question has stuck with me.

How long have you been up here?

It must have made no sense to him that if I was coming down the canyon that I wouldn't already have seen the condition of the single track probably within the last hour. The only possible explanation in his mind is that I must have been camping out or something to keep myself busy for a few days to not have been through recently and thus need a trail report. This was in spite of the fact that I had no significant gear, just a jacket and a small hydration pack. I told him that I had just come up the road, not the trail, and you could practically see the light bulb turn on. I had come up only within the past hour but on the road, not the single track.

Why was that not the obvious explanation that popped into his head? Because he always rides up the single track. That's just what you do if you're on a bike. Or that's what he does. And what a lot of other people do. But not what everyone does, especially those who don't want to be constantly pulling out of the way of other bikes on the trail headed in the opposite direction.

How often is that our first thought when someone says something or does something that is different than the way we say or do things? The cognitive dissonance can be blinding as we try to process some convoluted explanation for a strange event or behavior, when in fact the other person just chooses to do something that is simply different than how we do them.

How important Covey's recommendation that we seek first to understand, then to be understood. More often than not what we may blow out of proportion and make into something huge is really not what was intended. We would all be better off if there is a possible occasion for offense if we would stop and think about what the other person likely intended and if there isn't a simpler explanation than the knee-jerk story we made up in our mind. No one was offended on the mountain bike trails that day, but there was still a misunderstanding based on two people having different preferences.

By searching for the parsimonious explanation - the simplest explanation, with the least assumptions, that still gets a reasonable result - instead of doing mental gymnastics to make sense of the cognitive dissonance, one's own assumptions may be challenged. And not everyone is ready for that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Simplified, but not too simple

In a couple of classes, we teach a basic project management concept - the Work Breakdown Structure. It's an outline of the tasks that need to be performed, with related tasks grouped into phases. It can get complicated, depending on how many levels deep you want to create your outline, but once you can go two levels deep, you can go further if you choose.

A student was for some reason offended that as part of the discussion of the WBS, my colleague used a simple example of making a peanut butter sandwich. For the case study the students complete as part of the course, it's much more complex than that, obviously. But before being able to apply the concept of the WBS to an advanced situation, you start with applying it to a basic situation. It's a common technique that many of us use. You take a very simple task that many of us do all the time, such as making a sandwich and break it down so that you can focus attention on what matters - in this case, the WBS. I will sometimes do an example with cooking a steak and making a salad. Nothing big and fancy, but people understand the basics of cooking and realize that you want to time things right so that both parts of the meal are ready at the same time. Even people who can't cook understand the annoyance when the waiter at a restaurant brings some people their food but some of the plates aren't ready yet. I usually let the students choose what example they want to use.

Instead of splitting their attention between two topics - the WBS and programming an ERP system (or doing construction on a skyscraper or whatever other more complex example you might want to come up with), you just focus on the WBS. If someone doesn't know what an ERP system is, you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time dealing with that when you should be focusing on the topic at hand.

The funny thing about making a sandwich is that it's simple on purpose, but when you're done with breaking it down, you realize it's not as simple as it seems (although maybe this student didn't catch this point). The idea is you take something everyone knows and you help them break it down to a level of detail that goes a little beyond what they normally would write in order to establish what assumptions they may be making without realizing it. This transfers to other more complex projects very well.

Get out a piece of bread, but what if you're out of bread? Are you baking your own bread, too? You have to start with a build vs. buy analysis first to compare the quality of and time to bake the homemade bread to your options to get to the store and buy some.

Is the bread already sliced? How thick?

Put the end of the knife in the jar of peanut butter, oh, but did you open the jar first?

Are the stakeholders expecting bananas, sprinkles, toasted bread, seedless jam? Anyone who has made a sandwich for a toddler knows the struggle.

If you have an example that is too complicated, then the students can get distracted by something that is too hard and they don't understand the example well enough to be able to challenge assumptions and pick out what might be missing. Using a simple example lets them focus on the concepts being taught and how to break down the work instead of on trying to figure out the example itself.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Career Day at the Middle School

My sixth grader, Landon, had a career day in one of his classes recently. He could either interview someone about their job and write up a report about it or a certain number of people could invite someone to discuss their career in the classroom. He opted for inviting me to talk instead of him having to write a report. Smart. The following are my notes that I prepared. The asterisks are where I was asking a question and would throw out a piece of candy to anyone who would answer. Two or three kids raised their hand for my first question. As soon as they saw the candy flying across the room, 90% of the kids raised their hand for every question.

How many of you know what you want to be doing 20 years from now? What? *

How many don't know?

That's okay. About 20 years ago, I remember a professor telling me that many of us would have jobs doing things in 20 years that didn't exist at that time. How awesome is that to know that some of you will be doing things that don't exist today?

20 years ago I did have an email address, but most people I knew who weren't university students didn't. At the time, only a few people had cell phones. If I needed my parents to come pick me up from somewhere, how do you think I let them know? * I'd use a payphone, and if you didn't have a few coins to put in to make the call you called collect which meant that the person you were calling would agree to pay a ridiculous amount of money to accept your call, and it would record your name, and then ask the person if they were willing to take the call. So if you were a fast talker you could just say something like comegetmefromschool, and then it would call and your mom would hear "Will you accept a collect call from 'comegetmefromschool'" and then she would hang up and come get you. That was the old school method of voice texting. You all think that's so new, but it's been around for a while.

So now I work for WGU. Anyone want to guess what that stands for? * Western Governors University. I teach college courses in business, technology, and project management. The school is completely online, and it did not exist 20 years ago. I have students all over the country and even in some other countries. I work from my office in my basement. Are you guys pretty busy outside of school? Do you ever have things that keep you from getting your homework done or that you'd rather be doing instead of coming to class? What? * WGU was designed to help adults who are working full time to get their bachelor's or master's degrees on their own schedule. So instead of having to come to a class at a certain time, you just slip in your studying wherever you can on your lunch break, on the train, waiting to pick their kids up from soccer practice, or late at night after the kids go to bed.

In order to teach in college, I earned three degrees. If any of you want to follow in those footsteps, you probably have another 15 or 16 years of school ahead of you. I know some people who just did degree after degree straight through, but I stopped and worked for a while in between each, which I liked because it gave me some more real world perspective instead of only knowing what we talked about in the classroom. I worked for a manufacturing company that was spread across three different states, did quality assurance testing at a company that made videoconferencing equipment, managed the database of alumni and donors at USU, and then moved into teaching. One of my favorite jobs was doing quality testing. Why do you think that is? * Because I got to be creative and try to find ways to break things and tell other people to fix what I broke.

What are your favorite classes? Why? * One of the things I like to talk about when I teach is how the things we discuss can be used in real life. A fun thing to do is ask your teacher how you would use what they are teaching you in real life. They really like it.

One of the things I teach is project management. Who knows what project management is? * One concept is the difference between operations and projects. Logan High is a good example - from an operations perspective, they have people who teach classes, play sports, clean the bathrooms, and that kind of thing. Every year, the same thing. But what's been going on at Logan High these past couple years? * Construction. That is a temporary situation, which means it's a project. It has a beginning and end with a transformation taking place in between.

Because projects have limited resources and need to achieve a specific result, a project manager helps define what they call the triple constraints - money, schedule, and scope. If you increase or decrease any of those three, it affects the others. If you try to do something faster, what happens? * It probably costs more money. What if you increase what you are trying to do during the project? * It will probably take more money and time. And if you are running out of money, how do you deal with that? * You have to reduce what you expect to accomplish.

With limited resources, it's important to use those resources efficiently. Landon and I were cooking dinner on Sunday. We made biscuits and gravy. You should have him make some for you sometime. One of the things we made sure to do was manage our critical path. It took about 15 minutes for the meat and gravy to cook. It took about 5 minutes to mix up the biscuits and 20 minutes for them to bake. Overall, how long is that? * 15+5+20 = 40 minutes. Well, instead of doing the gravy first and then having it sit there for 20 minutes and get cold or burn, we made the biscuits first. Why? * So we mixed up the biscuits for 5 minutes and put them in the oven for 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes, we made the meat and gravy. We did the same amount of work, but by managing the schedule efficiently, we got dinner done in 25 minutes instead of 40 and everything was hot at the same time. Now imagine a 3 year project to rebuild Logan High School taking 2 years or 4 years because of good or bad management of the schedule. That's where having a good plan and a good project manager comes in. The PM takes a large project and breaks it up into small pieces, schedules all those pieces at the best possible times, and then helps the team stick to the plan until the project is over.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Confirmation Bias

This has been a different year. Even halfway through the year people were talking about how crazy 2016 is, and it hasn't disappointed. From the many celebrity deaths such as Gene Wilder, Prince, and Alan Rickman (many more, not a comprehensive list) to the Cubs winning the World Series to Donald Trump winning the presidency to snow in the Sahara Desert, it's been a wild ride.

I don't like doing year end reviews before the year is over, because crazy or amazing things can happen all the way through the 31st of December. Those who created their lists during the first half of December would have missed the last item I pointed out above - snowfall in the Sahara:

Crazy! Beautiful, but crazy! Of course taking it to social media, the crazy takes a different turn. Instead of just enjoying the crazy beauty of nature, it turns into a political discussion related to climate change. And of course everyone sees just what they want to see. Those more concerned with the environment point this out as an indicator of climate change, and those more concerned with government overreach point this out as an argument against global warming. I will say that from a scientific point of view, the idea that global warming could not lead to snow in a place that is usually hot is actually a little backwards. Theoretically, global warming can lead to more moisture in the air, which can lead to snow, so it's not just about the temperature itself, which is part of why the other side has started referring to it as climate change instead of global warming. That doesn't stop me from making jokes when it's 10 degrees outside about how much I'm looking forward to global warming.

The issue is that neither side is really supported by this isolated event. Whether or not climate change or global warming is a thing, snow in the Sahara does not make or break either case. A consistent pattern one way or the other would lead more toward something measurable, but it's a rare enough event that I don't think we have enough information. It also snowed in 1979:

And if you look around there are reports of possible snow in the Sahara in 2005 and 2012. Four times in over 40 years hardly a pattern makes for either side.

Rather, what we have is a clear pattern of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when a person has an idea they hold to be true, and any evidence they see is molded around their world view to help them confirm what they already believe to be true. One side thinks the snow proves man is changing the world's climate, and the other side thinks the snow proves that we are not.

This is what in statistics we would call an outlier. The problem with outliers is that sometimes we ignore them because they are such a strange occurrence that it ruins our simple model even though it's important to consider what would cause that extreme case. The other problem with outliers is that sometimes we focus too much attention on them and treat them as if they are regular cases instead of just abnormal phenomenon. Statistically speaking it probably should snow in the Sahara once every couple decades.

Confirmation bias is related to cognitive dissonance, which is the idea that when confronted with conflicting evidence contrary to our existing view, the tension must somehow be resolved by either dismissing the new evidence or by adjusting it (often subconsciously) to fit the previous belief. For example, I haven't said if I think climate change is a thing or not, but people with strong beliefs one way or the other will tend to have one of two responses to what I've written. They will either apply what I've written about how this doesn't prove anything just to the other side's argument if they believe what I'm saying or if they don't like what I'm saying they will read it as though I agree with the other side and say that I'm actually wrong about the weakness of the evidence.

Think through what I've written and by identifying how you react to my position that the snow doesn't mean as much as you think it means may help you understand where your own biases are positioned. Only by recognizing and understanding your own bias can you do anything about it.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The King-men vs Freemen Battle Continues

As we approach election day tomorrow, a scriptural story comes to mind of a military and religious leader who was trying to protect his people. Factions within the country would overturn their freely elected government and establish a king. Of course those in favor of a king were those who had royal blood (whatever that means) and would be able to take power over the people.

At the same time, enemies from another country were attacking. Rather than give in to the King-men and settle things internally after taking care of the outside enemies, the Freemen took care of the internal threat first. Only having cleansed the inner vessel could they have the strength to stand up against external forces.

It's important not to take the comparison too far, since we do live in a different day and time. We settle disputes in a different way than they did two thousand (or even two hundred) years ago. But watch how those in power spend more time trying to keep themselves in power than they do truly governing according to the will of the people and with the people's interests in mind. It seems that half of what incumbent politicians spend their time doing is raising money and campaigning for themselves and their friends. They set up systems where the longer they have been in office, the more power they have.

From term limits to random committee chair assignments to instant runoff voting to abolishing closed door meetings to publicly funded rather than donor funded elections, there are many steps that could be taken to level the playing field. But as much as the two major political parties fight against each other, they know that they both need to maintain the status quo of an uneven playing field and collude to maintain power between the two of them. As long as legislators can create their own rules, which right there is your biggest conflict of interest, the field will remain uneven.

Not Just a Water District

If a vacuum salesperson comes to your door, would you write a blank check, leaving it to the experts to select the best vacuum and what to charge you? As a smart consumer, you would make the decision yourself after reviewing their proposal and competing options, even when they tell you the offer expires if not accepted immediately.

Regarding the water district for Cache County, shouldn’t we do the same and analyze the proposal? Surprisingly, there is no binding proposal. We are only voting on whether there will be a water district. Like a contract that says you can’t hold them to anything the salesperson just told you, we are voting for the creation of a water district which mirrors Nancy Pelosi’s defense of Obamacare, “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it.” Contrary to the claim in a recent letter to the editor, voting no is not doing nothing but rather actively looking for the best proposal.

There are draft bylaws, which will only be finalized and approved by the appointed board after the district is created. The initial board will be appointed, not elected, and they may or may not choose to allow boards in the future to be elected. Future boards will likewise be able to change their own bylaws. They will assuredly not place term limits on themselves.

I don’t think anyone is acting maliciously, but there are no protections in place in case that happens in the future. We can hold future boards accountable by not reelecting them, if the board chooses to open themselves to elections and if we are willing to vote them out. Lyle Hillyard, a signatory in favor of the district, has yet to be held accountable for being the Senate sponsor of the 2011 bill that would have hidden a significant portion of legislators’ electronic communications from the public. This was at the same time that Hillary was running her private email server to hide her communications from the public, which she has not been held accountable for either. Hillyard has not utilized his seniority to push the legislation that would allow the county a seat at the table on water issues without a water district, which should be a simple option.

Proponents of the district are downplaying the new dam that the water master plan calls for. Why not discuss it openly? If we need Fourth Dam in Temple Fork up Logan Canyon, and the water district is what will pay for it, let’s say that, so we can make decisions with all available information instead of allowing elected and appointed officials to give us only part of the story and so we can have necessary protections ensured rather than hoped for.

As long as Utah political leaders continue to make decisions in closed-door meetings, do not build in protections against conflicts of interest, take money from loaded special interest groups, and hide information from their constituents, we will continue to see trust in our government degraded. This isn't about a water district. This is about true leadership, or lack thereof.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Misplaced Modifier

Misplaced modifiers are one of the more fun grammar errors, since they can turn a normal sentence into something awkward or silly to those in the know but sound perfectly normal to others. Basically, the rule is that you want to have a modifier, such as an adjective or adverb or prepositional phrase, as close as possible to the word or phrase it is describing. If it's too far away with other things in between, it can be misunderstood to describe the adjacent word or phrase instead.

Just yesterday, a radio DJ was doing a trivia question. The answer went something like this:

One third of American children are forced to play musical instruments by their parents.

Can you spot the mistake?

The misplaced modifier above is the prepositional phrase "by their parents" which is presumably meant to add context to the verb "forced" since it is the parents doing the forcing. The way it comes across is that we don't know exactly who is doing the forcing, but it appears that they are being required to stand right next to mom or dad while practicing or performing. They're probably not being required to play their instruments right next to their parents but rather are being forced *by their parents* to play musical instruments. At least anyone who has had a budding band or orchestra student hopes as much.

Another good example is the following:

The doctors repaired the boy's leg that was broken during surgery.

So was the leg broken while in surgery and then later it was repaired? Or was it repaired during surgery after being broken elsewhere? If instead it was stated that during surgery the doctors repaired the boy's broken leg, that would clarify that it was repaired during surgery as opposed to being broken during surgery.

The biggest deal with this type of grammar error is that it doesn't seem like it's an error. In fact, from a syntax perspective, there's nothing wrong with it. It's the logical perspective that turns this type of unclear writing into a grammar issue.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Parking Lot

I'm not one for having meetings just because there's supposed to be a meeting. There should be a purpose.

Now, that doesn't mean you want to overly plan every meeting. Sometimes you just need to get together as a group to talk, and you may not need an ultra-detailed agenda, because the point is to have some time to just see how everyone is doing.

But there are times where it's important to stick to working through specific problems and close out lingering issues. How do we know what type of meeting we're headed into? Well, we have an agenda.

Ideally, the agenda is sent out in advance, so everyone can prepare for it. This is important for the introverts, so they can think of what to say in advance and for the extroverts to have a chance to get past their knee-jerk reactions and filter themselves a little to what is most relevant to the discussion. Otherwise, the extroverts process out loud, while the introverts process silently, and by the time the introverts have decided what to say, the discussion has already taken place and we're on to the next topic.

In addition to publishing the agenda in advance, an important tool for facilitating discussion is called the parking lot. For those who have coworkers who like to hijack the agenda and take the meeting in a direction other than what we planned, the parking lot allows the meeting facilitator to acknowledge that there is further discussion that may need to happen on a different topic, while still keeping us on the published agenda topic.

The idea is that discussion circles around a given agenda item, and when someone mentions something that is off topic, no matter how important it may or may not be, the facilitator acknowledges the comment, thanks the commenter for it, and then either asks permission to place the comment/topic in the parking lot or just simply states that they are going to put it in the parking lot. Then, the important part, is that with a bit of a flourish, the facilitator writes it down. This can be on a white board up in front of the room or just on a piece of paper on the conference table or even a note window in a virtual meeting.

By acknowledging the off topic comment both verbally and in writing, there are two results. The first is that it is made clear that the agenda will not be hijacked and that particular line of conversation is over for the moment. The second is that it is made clear that you care about everyone's needs. Maybe that item will be on the agenda for next week's meeting. Maybe it will be taken care of in a one on one with just that person later. Maybe there will be a few minutes at the end of the planned discussion to circle back to it. Because it is written down, it won't be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Light bulbs burn out, so we make them replaceable. You don't have to buy a whole new refrigerator or light fixture just because the bulb is out. It's called failing gracefully.

Cars used to have two brake lights. In 1986, the law changed to require a third brake light, which makes the brakes more visible and also gives you two working lights if one is out. Very graceful.

Brake lights have two elements in them - one for when the brakes are engaged and the other slightly dimmer one when you have your lights on at night. Most bulbs either only have one way they can be inserted or the connectors are such that however you have inserted it, it makes the appropriate connection.

My car has a brake light that has two ways it can be popped in. Depending on which way you put it in, you have a 50/50 chance that you have it backwards and one of the two lights doesn't light up. The brake light will engage, but the other one will not.


This design had to get through both the engineer that built it and the QA personnel who double checked it to ensure it would function properly. You're telling me none of the QA team ever popped the light in the wrong way and was surprised that it didn't work properly?

Obviously it was caught at some point. The real question is who didn't care so much that they approved that design when a slight rotation of one of the guide tabs would make it so it only goes in the correct way?

What do we do with our customers, students, coworkers, or others we work with that creates a similar problem that a tiny one time adjustment would fix forever? What were we too busy doing that prevented us from making that change?

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Over the past 9 years or so since starting this blog, I have had a goal of publishing at least once post per month. I totally missed July, so I'm posting this with a July date to make up for it. Cheating? Maybe.


I have missed a few months here and there, some at the beginning when I didn't have as firm of a goal of publishing every month, and other times when the time has just gotten away from me. I always make a backdated post a day or two into the next month to make up for it. Other months I have written at least once a week and probably more.

July was just crazy busy, and so was the first half of August. Here's what I was doing in my day or two grace period when I could have been late posting for July:

That's my thinking spot on a cliff overlooking the shore of Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the continental US (in Yellowstone), which we accessed with an 11 mile canoe trip in to our camp site. Preparing for and going on the scout trip took precedence.

So did my goal fail? It depends on how you define your goal.

Too often our goals are some massive accomplishment that we have less control over than we like to think. Hint: if your goal requires that someone else do something, it's a bad goal. If you set a goal to climb Mount Everest, is that a bad goal? I'll say that it is. There is too much you don't have control over, even in the best of circumstances. A better goal would relate to physically preparing yourself to be in shape to climb and to learn the skills necessary to pull off such a feat.

Scott Adams talks about goals as being bad and suggests replacing them with systems instead. He tells the story of failing multiple times to climb a certain mountain near his house. When he instead focused on a system of getting in shape, less on the specific goal of hitting that particular summit, he was actually able to achieve the goal.

I tell students all the time in my classes that when they get overly focused on the fact that they are having a hard time learning the concepts they are studying that they need to focus less on memorizing the concepts and more on how they might use or currently do use those concepts in their daily life. I've had students tell me that they don't care about learning - they just need to know what to do so they can pass the test. Thus, as they focus too much on what they need to do to pass the test, they fail the test. When they embrace the concepts and think about how to use what we're talking about and really learn it, the side benefit is that they will be able to pass the test, because they have learned it better than trying to study it out of context.

But I think Scott Adams makes an artificial distinction in contrasting systems and goals. I know why he does it. By branding it as something different, it's easier to accept a different definition than what we traditionally think of. A goal is traditionally always something big at the end, so focusing on the steps along the way needs a different name to make it stick (and to sell books).

Call it a system or whatever you want, but it's still a goal. It's just a good goal instead of an unattainable goal. It's not that climbing a mountain or having all your students pass a class is unattainable in that there is a 0% chance of those things happen. It's that there's not a 100% chance of those things happening, because things out of your control may prevent them. There may be a snowstorm when you plan to summit, or a student may not study as thoroughly as they should have.

The steps along the way are, or should be, the goals in the first place. Providing a study hall session the week before the final exam won't guarantee everyone will pass, since not everyone will attend or do their due diligence. But you can accomplish your goal by providing the session and inviting everyone to it, thus giving the opportunity to others. Scott would call that a system. I just call it an attainable and relevant goal.