Sunday, April 30, 2017


When it comes to communicating with other groups of people, there are two general categories of understanding - language and culture. Now, with specific individuals, everyone has a little different way of doing things, but before you can get to that point, it's important to have the first two down.

In the U.S., we have a very individualist culture, for example. It's all about what can I do for myself and what can you do for me. Many other cultures are collectivist, where it's more about what I can do for others or what we can do together. Neither is better or worse than the other - they are just different. You could go from one country to the other and learn the language just fine but still have difficulty communicating if you don't have the culture figured out.

I was at Wal-Mart a while back and a Hispanic gentleman was checking out in front of me. No big deal, just rolling the cart through and paying for things. After he paid and was about to leave he realized he had put something on the little rack under the main cart. He pointed it out to the cashier. I can't remember exactly how he said it. It was in English, but either the accent or the words he chose made it a little unclear what had happened.

As the cashier was trying to figure out what was going on, she asked the gentleman, "Is that yours?" He responded, "No." This confused her a little more as I think she was maybe imagining that somehow the cart he had been pushing around had something left in it from a previous customer. Whether or not he could sense her rising confusion, he quickly followed up with, "I haven't paid for it yet."

At that point, I was set and knew exactly what was going on. The cashier was just not getting it. As they went back and forth a couple times, her trying to figure out if he did or didn't want the product that by now he had pulled out from under his cart and him somewhat indirectly answering her questions, I stepped in. I pointed out to the cashier that he wanted to purchase the item. He had put it in his cart. He just had forgotten to pull it out and put it on the conveyor belt so she could scan it. As such, it was not his yet. It would not be his until he paid for it. It was his in the sense that he had put it in his cart and was intending to pay for it. (If you want to test this one out, go grab something out of someone's cart, and chances are they will tell you, "That's mine.")

As he left, she thanked me and said something about how she wished she knew Spanish. The interaction they just had was in English, but she knew there was something missing in their understanding. Knowing Spanish probably would have helped, but maybe not as much as she thought.

I speak Spanish and at the time was trying to learn German. I mentioned the program I was using, Mango Languages, which is available free through the library. She seemed interested in it and even wrote down the name of the program. As I explained a little how it worked and how much I was learning from it, I could tell she was losing interest fast. No other customers were waiting, so it wasn't that. I could just see that it wasn't something that was going to be able to hold her attention very long.

Languages take some dedication to learn. The idea of knowing another language was interesting, but not so much the process to get there. Of course, from there, the cultural components are a whole different level, a difficult level to get through using software. Language is the first step, though.

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.