Friday, January 22, 2010

Thrive and Jive

The best success and hallmark for a team is to thrive challenges and jive together at all times till the end of deliveries. Customers, oblivious to the way deliveries are made, can feel and attest to this fact in their testimonials. I found this profound truth in testimonials received for project deliveries across customers. In couple of them, customer testimonials had the static kind words for on-time deliveries while most of them as if by magic had phrases that defined our own experience. It made me wonder, how could the customer feel us at a distance. The internal project post mortem reveal the same emotions within every team member as well.

One of my favorite project manager (Vicki Boswell is her name) in my first company, once emailed me on a project post mortem that said something like: "Vasan, it is surprising how we have have felt about the project in same ways at different times." I was working from bangalore, while she was managing project from San Diego (I miss this place). I had mentioned the frustrating times, the enjoyable times, the lesson learned at different stages in project. The specifics differ from developer view and manager view. But the net enthusiasm was the same.

Many causes, affect this heart and mind frame of teams in both sides. Few instances when
  1. A project is dragged on for long, due to shift in commitments.
  2. When more than 3 solution options are considered and stay on for an extensive period of time.
  3. When feedback comes at a late stage that circles back the team few steps back.
  4. When "escalations" are used in bad sense of word.
  5. There is a lack of clarity on overall purpose or objective. In my first company the first question senior management ask any resource is "What is the order value of the project and what are you doing about it?" I find it a powerful thriving question to bring bond with business, project and bottom line.
  6. There is lack of a strong voice in the project from either side.
  7. There are no night outs and no fight outs. Every thing going on smooth makes me paranoid. We know something is failing when there is no noise from a running engine. Atleast a good "hum" is required to ensure that all is well.
  8. The project is allowed to drift to satisfaction of multiple people. Developers take their pick to work for day. Architects document functionalities to bring their "uniqueness" and stretch the limits of technology. This is no democracy. Drift hampers jiveness in team.
Thrive and Jive in teams tell you whether the team has a manager or a leader. Building a thrive and jive culture within project teams is project managers responsibility. I look forward to find managers who move away from timesheets, issue fixing, and status reporting to take center stage for building up thrive and jive spirit in deliveries thereby transforming themselves as leaders.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Collective Decision making

Ask questions and let people figure it for themselves. You make a decision, when you ask only relevant questions.

No one makes a decision. Every one just has one key to the decision. The person asking the question has the "master" key and lock.

That is why self-help books talk about the quality of asking the right questions: "Unlocking of potential."

Until you show the lock and use the master key first, all other keys are ineffective. This is a reason why teams fail the promise. They are capable, good, independent show-stealers, but along a single-dimension. Multi-dimensional, bigger goals, larger good are left a lot to be desired to the extent that in a team each stalwart assumes a dwarfed position to meet "their" objectives, not a "rolled up team objective".

Thinking you make a decision by stating an action or getting people to act on your command, is not a decision. It is an instruction to follow. When the team is incapable of a decision, give your instruction. The result should then aid in decision. To get closer, give another instruction. But decisions need to be perceived individually. Consider a decision is made when each member phrase it in their personal "Aha" moment. This is the decisive point which get a larger buy-in power.

Decisions and Instructions clear many "mental clouds". They closely follow each other and lead to results.
  • They steer away from "action paralysis".
  • They remove the clutter away from "multi-choice indecisiveness".
  • They arrest the shift and postponement of issues down the line making it a costlier corrective affair.
A decision tree (Mindmap) or fish bone diagram helps in arriving at a decision. The branches in the tree or individual bones (fish bone diagram) are instruction branches aiding towards a decision. To use the branches effectively, decisions should never be made on reflections. They branches need to be populated with
  • real-data (not perceptions),
  • seek affirmation from peers,
  • ask questions,
  • discuss with people relevant to the roles for a better informed, agreeable, sustained, praise-worthy decision.

Happy Decisions!! and enjoy the decision making experience.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Structure and Storyline: Some Answers for better e-Learning Design

Any media/article (starting from good old news paper and magazine) need to have high initial perceived "value" to garner mind and eyeballs direction. Even before the content is read, a scan of the structure and skimming of the document would reveal the interest level for continuation.

An ordinary paragraph and bullet looking document, can be transformed much better with visuals and side bar snippets. Further enhancements happen with providing action clues for participative reading such as, "
Try this exercise", Can you list down 3 points before proceeding to next chapter", "While you continue to read, think on what other options can the protogonist explore, experience (since that would be you) ", etc.

In many e-Learning courses, we tend to structure Course->Module -> Lessons -> Topics for any given content.Do they share a credible analysis or is it based on a single dimension to make them smaller/atomic LMS-friendly "standard compliant" chunks ? Many answers revolve around theories, standards, models. These are one-dimensional as the structure and storyline is content based. Rather shouldn't structure and storyline should be "User-based"?

A better structure stack could be:
1. Lead -> 2. List -> 3. Build Up -> 3. Break -> 4. Recap -> 5. Climax/Conclusions -> 6. References/Credits

Most e-Learning courses never contain the "references/credits" section. After taking a course, I am not sure, how credible the source is. In case of custom content, giving due credit to a senior management or an accepted subject expert in the company, gives the much needed brand anchor to the study. In case of catalog content, an approval from a known authority or a preface enables users to sift this master piece from the clutter.

Similarly the standard mostly used is:
Pretest -> Objectives -> Content -> knowledge Check -> Summary -> Post test while designing an instructionally sound course, but it does not give any credence to existence of storyline. A better instruction model could be:
1. Introduce Gap (Minimal Information) and exercise -> 2.Set actions -> 3. See and Follow Through -> 4. Dramatize ->5. Summarize ->Test and Analyze

Stating and rephrasing the content as smaller instruction pieces is what is considered "prevalent" Instruction Design. This is primarily, many time, the reason why SME's consider ID work frivolous. It has been very difficult to convince customer centric Subject Matter Experts that their role is in "defining" the content, while the Instruction Designer is to structure and story-base it for reaching out. "Dramatize" is the key differentiator between an ID and SME. ID to emphasize content need to dramatize portions of content. The tools available are phrases, quotes, questions, leading text, images, audio, background score, animations, exercises.

The best answer I expect from a designer is "My structure is what a user tells me they are comfortable with, and storyline is what the user desires to feel about the content material they already know or might have seen."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Structure and Story line: What suits business e-Learning

"The essential fabric required to pursue a study are good structure and engaging storyline." Academic titles follow the same fabric, but biased towards making them administration-friendly than student-friendly. Students enroll in a program and hence would continue to pursue the objective irrespective of quality or hardships.

This post sets off to make a correction in the e-Learning spectrum. In context of web, administration friendly can be taken for search engine friendly courses vs user rated useful courses.

e-Learning, premises on 2 qualities (based on Knowles/Andragogy theory).

1. It is a self-directed study: No matter, there is a schedule/time table, when in e-Learning, you need self-direction. How much Learning Environments support you, it requires "your" time for undivided attention, self-introspection and self-reflection. The key in e-Learning is "self". Contrast this with a classroom enrollment, where learning is centered on "peers" and collaboration.

2. We need multiple views of same information for better comprehension: From Andragogy principles, it is well understood, that more we grow professionally, the more dashboard views and multiple data representation aids are required. This lets us faster application of mind to ask right set of questions and perform on the job.

In our daily lives, we naturally do the following:
  • We read the details for the heading that attracts us in morning news paper. (Self-directed)
  • We buy a book by its cover and/or the last page testimonial and/or synopsis and/or through a good review earlier.(multiple views)
  • We buy shelf items that are stacked at eye level (self-directed)
  • We feel and weigh a package by hand to determine the worth. (multiple views)
To address the above qualities, "The essential fabric required to pursue a study are good structure and engaging storyline."

1. STRUCTURE : Areas of conscious attention for a "structure" design need to be in
  • Concentrated Positioning: I call it the "vastu effect on learner. Having one-liner paragraphs, phrased bullets with sparse meanings, scatters away the energy.Having a paragraph of rich text makes you take a serious note. Having bullets with sentences reinforced with powerful graphics and little live animation, makes the recall stronger. Having auditory walk through of on-screen movements leads to cinematic experience.
The credence to your content is with respect to position. What I see first, gets in memory lane first and fast.

  • Calibrated Variability: Driving through curves is fun than pushing the gas through straight highway. Isn't it ? Hence variability is important.For example, a screen with auditory and animated introduction, followed by screens with emphasis on text, followed by activity screens, followed by screens with bullets, followed by screens with visuals, ending, say, with an auditory summary aid in variation and help our cognitive ability of differential attention. It is difficult to give stream lined attention beyond few seconds (remember adult learning principles). But please remember: "No breakers". The variability should not be sudden. It needs careful calibration.
This, feature, is the USP of e-Learning and fundamental difference with respect to instructor led materials and text books.
  • Hooking Theme: Being a self study, e-Learning courses needs to be "pleasure-centric" than "pressure centric". Hence a benefactor to hold the hands to make the next movement is a mandatory requirement, oft missed(not out of course but lead into the course). This will treat learners as individuals with respect. The overarching theme for designers, gives a consistent start on a positive note than a serious action note.
  • Riveting Context: In "Made to Stick" Heath brothers talk about "knowledge gap" as a means of play to gain attention in making messages stick. Same applies to e-Learning content. To make the objectives stick,
    • preface it with a context and
    • preamble it with tangible benefits.
  • Color and Size: It is without argument accepted theory about how we carry our instincts for color preferences and size attractions. A dark background and a bold bigger font text in contrast color at top left, is header and important. (remember, Positioning also plays a role). A differential colored text is spotted first and sticks more than the paragraph itself. The area allotted to picture vs text determines the spatial arrangement we make in our memory for remembering the lessons.
More graphics makes us recall the graphic relation with real world, while more text makes us read and remember the phrases to adapt action on ground based on similarities.More than aesthetics, color and size are instruments to be used with caution and optimally towards learning purpose.

2. STORYLINE : Areas of conscious attention for a "storyline" design need to be in
  • Timing the Lead: In Made to Stick, there is a story on a journalism class to write leads. It is a classic and true eye opener. For more details, read the book. It is a definitive good read. The crux is that a "Lead" is what I anticipate and should get it first before moving on.Tamil Movies give a good learning dimension in this point. All leads while introducing "Super star" Rajnikanth are examples of good leads. The essence of such leads can be seen in the
  • Palpable anticipation of the timing of hero entry in the audience,
  • The unbridled enthusiasm of enjoyment for closing in the introductory moment in the audience,
  • The introduction is dramatic enough to literally move people from seats to the dance floor
  • The predictiveness of the hero entry is almost certain in the first frame
  • Vividness: Post the lead, the vividness needs either time, place, event or people. Look at traditional way, when we tell a story to our kids. They mostly start with
    • Once upon a time...
    • In an ancient village, there lived...
    • It was hot afternoon when a crane was thirsty....
    • In a forest, there lived a lion king....
Same best practices can be applied to designing a study.As Heath brothers in Made to Stick speak about the "Concreteness" quality. Concreteness or Specifics are easily related and hence actionable. However too much specifics will make you miss the big picture. Hence specifics followed by brief generics, pegs the reference frame for holisitic view. Then bring in more specifics and close the loop towards conclusion.
  • Climax/anticlimax/Conclusion: As the proverb emphasizing experience states,"The proof the pudding is in the eating", the best of the study is reserved to the last. The final part needs to be memorable for the entire sequence to be useful and beneficial. In story/movie parlance, this is climax/anti climax ending. What people walk away is remembering this last sequence to give a rating. What we recall in exam is what has been deeply ingrained in our memories through visualizations and linkages.
Thus summarizing through linkages, analogies, moral makes a good sense to end a story in style.
  • Predictability and Rhythm: Well, we normally know the ending to ALMOST ALL stories.
    • Victory over Evil.
    • Triumph of good.
    • Heros trash villains.
    • Seperated relatives get together
Isn't all of them saying the same thing.While predictability is same, each sentence makes a different rhythm and conjures different images. May be bring up a unique movie title for each of the titles How is it possible ? Indian Classical Music has seven basic notes. The combinations and permutations are numerous, each sounding different for normal listening. Similarly predictability for each written notes, courses, graphic, text, animation, video and auditory combination is more or less same: e-Learning courses needs to be "pleasure-centric" than "pressure centric". While,each course has a different rhythm towards the same end.

The importance is to have predictability and Rhythm in courses. Absence of rhythm in making a bad mix of text, graphics, animation, audio would result in jarring effect affecting the study process.

Think about it. When ever the above attributes are present, we must have
  1. gleaned an insight,
  2. learned a nugget at a time,
  3. improved our wisdom to react to changes,
  4. look at humor and compassion side in adversity.
How many times, have you thought of users for structure and storyline ? In what ways have you devoted time to structure and storyline in designing courses ? Do visual designers define and enable good structural views than pleasing aesthetics ?

Many such queries will go a long way in delivering better e-Learning course ware. Thoughts please!!

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