Work out loud week, June 2016

It’s international work out loud week, so here I am, working out loud. There are no rules that I could find, so I’ll make them up.

My current plan is to put all the days on this one page and focus on the decisions I’m making.

Why do this?
I like to learn from the ways that other people make decisions, what things they consider, and what factors they have to deal with. I’m doing this in case other people also like to eavesdrop on decisions being made.

For me, life is a series of decisions. We’re either deciding how to react to something, or we’re hoping to bring something about and having to decide the best course.

Why not blog it?
People who subscribe to my blog are looking for ideas that are concise and immediately useful. This will be a rambling free-for-all and not what they signed up for.

My current projects
This week is atypical because I’m starting another session of my scenario design course. So there will be more reaction and less “How can I achieve world domination?” planning.

Other projects I’m currently juggling are a book, which should go out for Kindle formatting soon, and the development of self-paced materials to help people practice applying what’s in the book.

Ongoing tasks include responding to lots of emails, looking for ideas to share, and writing up ideas for future blog posts. I recently overhauled some sections of my site, so I’m still tweaking things there as well.

6 June, Monday

Questions I’m considering today:

How can I speed up module 1?
The course that starts this week has one 90-minute live online session each week for four weeks, plus homework in which participants apply what they’re learning to a real-life project. Participants download a PDF book and handouts, and they have online practice exercises with links to more info.

I try to use the online sessions to help people change their mindset, which is the biggest challenge. We do that through a lot of discussion using the chat. Information that “normal” facilitators would turn into bulleted slides goes into the handouts or online support material.

In the first online sesssion, I ask people to share some of their prework, if they’re willing. The prework addresses some tricky stuff, so I want to give it enough time. As a result, I’ve decided to trim some of the more generic discussion, like “What’s a scenario?” and “How do they help?”

The “What’s a scenario?” question needs to stay, because I’ve found that people come to the course with different definitions, and we all need to get on the same page. The discussion also gives me a sense of where people are in their assumptions about feedback and question types.

I do this by displaying a (supposed) scenario question and asking, “Is this a scenario? Why or why not?” and people type furiously away in the chat. The discussion is useful but probably too long. Decision: Cut some of the examples, especially ones that send us down rabbit holes about media use, which is the focus of a later module. Leave the overall structure intact.

The “How do they help?” question is less useful. Decision: Keep the mini-exercise that helps people practice deciding when a scenario would be useful. Ditch the more presentation-like stuff; people can read it in the handout.

How can I help people avoid the culture shock of a very lively chat?
Increasingly, people who aren’t familiar with my materials are signing up for the course. This can give them culture shock.

For example, they assume that the online session will consist of me presenting information, with time for questions at the end. Instead, I post a lot of (I hope) thought-provoking questions and have people hash out the answers in the chat, because the focus of the live sessions is changing our mindset, not delivering information. Also, I tell people that they can ask questions at any time, and they do.

I’ve received feedback from a handful of people that they would prefer a traditional presentation, not discussion, and that I should restrict questions to the end because the chat is too lively. However, most participants seem to prefer my current approach, and I’m not eager to change it.

What I’ve done so far: I’ve rewritten the marketing materials to emphasize the liveliness of the chat, so people who need the traditional approach don’t sign up. I added copy that encourages them to familiarize themselves with my main ideas before they sign up, and I’ve added sterner wording about the amount of homework to make sure that people who register aren’t expecting four “webinars.”

Today’s pseudo-decision: Create a demo reel of sorts. Either gather anonymized snippets of various sessions (tricky) or host a free public webinar that uses the same approach and post a recording of it. People who don’t like a lively chat will see that my style isn’t a good fit for them and can choose a course from a more traditional provider.

This is less of a problem for me than it would be for someone who’s required to work with a particular audience. I can choose my audience, to an extent, by using my marketing to attract Group X while dissuading Group Y.

There’s some more thinking and lots of interesting comments about using the chat in this blog post.

How can I help people see when they’ve created a “training” goal, and not a business goal?
A common mistake in the first step of action mapping is for L&D people to write a “training” goal. It might look like this: “Widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as all salespeople complete sales training.” Or: “All widget polishers will achieve Polish Level 5 as their mentors better demonstrate the polishing technique.”

These goals start with the assumption that training is part of the solution. This short-circuits the most important and money-saving step, the analysis.

Decision: I cover this problem in the book, but the book is a lot to read. I’ll probably pull something pithy out of the book and put it in the handout, plus be on the lookout during module 1 for training goals in the chat.

 

7 June, Tuesday

Questions I’m considering today:

How much should I worry about offending people?
Before I click “publish” on a blog post, I run through a little mental checklist: “Did I check all the links? Did I add the tags? Who will get offended?”

Because this is the internet, people like to inform me when they think I’ve been insensitive. I’ve been told, for example, that the ninjas in the slideshow from 2008 look like terrorists and should be removed. Or that one military example out of 17 is too many. Or I shouldn’t sell information; all information should be free and if I need an income I should get a job. Or helping corporations is evil; I should work only with education and non-profits. Or by pointing out the science against learning styles I’m saying that all people should be treated like robots.

Today’s well-meaning message came from the same demographic as most of them: a person with a university address. I used to work in the academic world, but I left it, thoroughly. At the risk of being insensitive, I invite you to imagine me burning all those bridges with the world’s biggest and most awesome flamethrower. In other words, academia isn’t my market. While I read every suggestion for improvement and respond to some of them, I give priority to feedback from the people in my intended market.

So here’s some advice to myself and the two people who might be reading this: When you get a message about your insensitivity, look at who sent it. Is that person actually in your market? They could certainly be making a point that deserves your consideration. But if their point seems a little fringe, and it’s not coming from someone who would actually buy what you do, consider putting it in the pile labeled “Strange Messages I Have Received” and moving on.

How many email reminders should I send to course participants?
The course that starts this week has a course home page that only registrants can see. On it is a big table showing what we’ll be doing each week, including the dates and times of each live session. Each week I add links to that week’s meeting room, handout, and session recording. The goal is to reduce the number of emails I have to send, and it mostly works. I’ve decided to tweak it a bit this week.

When someone registers for the course, often months before the first session, they immediately see that home page. The page includes a link to their prework and encouragement to get started on it. It also has step-by-step instructions on how to connect with WebEx.

Two weeks before the start of the course, I send an email to everyone reminding them of their prework. The email includes a link to the home page again.

Here’s what I used to do next: An hour before the first session, I sent an email reminding them of our session, and in that email I included a direct link to the WebEx meeting room in case the previous email had no effect and the person hadn’t logged in and gotten the link already.

This resulted in some people saying minutes before the session that they didn’t know how to use WebEx, they couldn’t access the course home page to get the handout, they forgot their user name and password, etc.

So this month I’ve added an additional reminder email sent a day before the first session. It says bluntly, “Now is a good time to make sure you can log into the course site” and includes again a link to the course home page. We’ll see how that goes.

I think the problem is that people are used to getting individual emails reminding them of each thing. Apparently it’s normal to send an email saying “Do your homework” followed by one saying “Here’s the link to our room and handout for this week” followed by “Our session starts in an hour and here’s the link again” followed by “Here’s a link to the recording for today’s session,” with all those emails repeated each week. I’m trying to reduce the email noise and just put all the links on one page.

 

8 June, Wednesday

Today my main focus was preparing for and running a 1.5-hour virtual session, followed by editing and uploading the recording of the session.

How should I provide technical support during an online session? How much of it is my responsibility?
This is an ongoing question. Today, a few people had trouble connecting to the WebEx audio. Most people solved their issues quickly, but one never got their audio to work.

Today the problems seemed focused on one country that’s been problematic before, so I asked participants there to report in the public chat how they had connected their audio. Unfortunately, their techniques didn’t work for one person.

My informal policy is that I’m responsible for providing the highest quality technical experience on my end, but that I can’t individually solve problems that happen on the participants’ computers. I have a fast connection, use a platform that the highest percentage of my clients have had success with (I’ve been through a few platforms!), and play music for 15 minutes before each session so people have a lot of time to connect and test their audio.

During those 15 minutes I display a slide that says that music is playing, and if they don’t hear it, they should click X or Y. I also deal with questions about audio in the warm-up chat, but once the session starts, I’m reluctant to take time to solve individual problems.

One option is to hire someone to be online at the same time I am, who can provide individual support through private chat while I run the session. I’m not super keen on that idea because we have smallish groups, and it’s rare that someone has such major issues that they never get connected. Today’s instance is only the second time in three years.

Most participants work in organizations that have IT departments, who would have the best people to ask for help. People at smaller organizations could click the support link on the WebEx site.

Decision for now: Next time, in the reminder email for the session, I’ll recommend that people sign in early to test their audio with the music that will be playing.

 

9 June, Thursday

Today I looked at how to improve my site’s ranking in Google search results. Later, during today’s online session, I ran a successful test of one of yesterday’s decisions.

How has SEO changed since I last paid attention to it? What are the top changes I should make?
I did some quick research online and also posed the question to a local mastermind group that I’m a part of, during our lunch today.

My main decision is to make my site more mobile-friendly, which is now a factor that influences ranking.

One challenge of sorting through recommendations is that the research that many people cite often doesn’t distinguish between B2C and B2B. For example, several people recommend adding YouTube videos to your site, or creating YouTube videos about your keywords. However, about half my audience is blocked from seeing YouTube. I’ve also learned from experience that the people who find me on YouTube tend to work in education, while I’m targeting the corporate market.

How can I encourage WebEx participants to log in earlier so their audio gets sorted before we start?
Success! (Or so I like to think.)

Today was the first session for another group of course participants. Often, the first session is delayed as people have trouble connecting their audio.

The solution: The reminder email that I sent one hour before the session had the subject line “Scenario design: Come early for jazz.”

The body of the email said our session would start in about an hour. Then I added, “I’ll be in the room 15 minutes before the session starts, playing vintage jazz. Come early and enjoy some music while you make sure your audio is working.”

The result: People began logging in 15 minutes before the session. When we still had a leisurely 6 minutes to go, more than half the people were in the room and had their audio already connected.

During the session, there were none of the usual questions about how to connect to the audio. Either today was a fluke, or persuading people to log in earlier helped a lot.

 

10 June, Friday

Today’s focus was on giving course participants feedback on their projects, plus creating a worksheet that will help action mappers interview SMEs.

How can I help action mappers change how they interview SMEs?
Subject matter experts (SMEs) tend to focus on what people need to know and how each task should be done correctly. However, many performance problems are complex and won’t be solved by injecting knowledge and procedures into people’s heads.

If you as a designer take the SME through the analysis that I recommend, the SME will usually see for themselves that the problem is much more complex than simple ignorance. But SMEs often don’t have any experience with what has to happen next: When you’ve decided a practice activity will be helpful, they’ll need to help you understand the cultural issues, emotions, problems with tools, and zillions of other factors that affect how people perform the task. They can’t just say, “Here’s how it should be done.”

I’ve been working on an activity planning document that helps guide the activity-design discussion with a SME. The activity being designed is most likely a scenario question with multiple options, with the feedback showing the consequence of each choice. It needs a lot more context and subtlety than an abstract knowledge check.

The planner will help capture not only how the task should be done, but also why it can be hard to do it that way, plus the three most common mistakes people make and why they make those mistakes, to create realistic and useful distractors. The planner also captures the consequences of each option. For all of this to work, the activity idea itself needs a lot of contextual detail, and each consequence needs detail as well. This is way more work for the SME than the usual, “Is this list of steps correct?”

The planner also records what information people need to make a good choice and when and where that information will appear (as optional help during the choice? in the feedback, as part of the consequence? only at the very end, in a debrief? etc.). Finally, it records why these design decisions were made.

The idea is to give designers and SMEs a tool that will help them move from “Here’s what they need to know” to “Here are the mistakes they’re making now and why they’re making them, and here’s what they should do instead and why it’s hard, and here’s how they can practice it so it becomes less hard.”

I posted a draft of the planner for the course participants to try out and hope they’ll have suggestions to make it more useful.

 

Was working out loud helpful? Not for me, not in this format.

That’s it for work out loud week. It was a worthwhile exercise for me because it helped me appreciate my local mastermind group even more.

A few people on Twitter said it was helpful to read what I wrote here, but mostly it felt like I was writing for no one. I already keep a sort of work journal, so I was just doing what I normally do but in public and with complete sentences — and with just as little effect on the world.

I was disappointed that posts using the #wolweek tag on Twitter seemed to be about the idea of working out loud. I didn’t see many people saying, “Today I’m doing X and I’m doing it like this because…” or “Here’s a draft of a thing I’m working on.”

If I were working in an organization and we were encouraged to “work out loud” to break down silos and share lessons learned, I think we’d need more specific guidance on what was meant by “work out loud.”

Face-to-face + structure is better for me: I’m a member of a small mastermind group of business owners. By coincidence, we had our lunch during this week. As a result, I could compare what I did here (describe my thought processes for strangers on the internet and get a few tweets like, “interesting!”) to what we did at the lunch.

The lunches are structured: Each person gets a chunk of time to describe something they’re struggling with and to collect ideas from everyone else. The questions can range from “Here are five logos I’m considering. What do you think?” to “I’ve been trying X and I’m not sure it’s working…” You get several different perspectives, and a solution proposed by one person can quickly grow as others add to it until you not only have a solution, you have a new product idea.

Also, brainstorming a solution to another person’s problem often helps not only them but you as well, because you can get ideas for your own business while trying to help someone else with theirs.

Finally, there’s a huge psychological boost to being among people who have gathered specifically to play with ideas and focus on each other. Importantly, we all see this as a give-and-take session, not a “give without caring how you benefit” practice that, while noble, can lead to burnout.

I love the internet, but doing this sort of sharing face to face and in a more formally balanced way is about 90 bajillion times better for me. So I could see writing this way as an occasional exercise, but I’ll prefer doing it over food with friends, using a structure that encourages mutual support and idea-swapping.

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