All entries for December 2010

December 19, 2010

How do you generate mixed feelings in yourself?

Simple really, get yourself a master's project - you'll get scared, excited, anxious and curious, all at once. I think the last time I experienced the same combination of feelings, I was 19, and about to jump out of a plane!

Let me explain. I am one of seven students being supervised by a particular project tutor this year. We all met for the first time last week, to discuss the projects, and how to succeed. The tutor opened the meeting in a very memorable way. He said, "Based on my previous experience, four of you will fail your projects this year". Cue feelings of jumping out of a plane - or maybe being pushed out. With no parachute! Looking around the table at the time, I could see everyone else going through a similar moment. Apparently, in the past two years, 7 out of 12 students had failed their projects. I have no doubt that he's an excellent tutor, and that it was obviously their own faults, but it made me feel a little terrified all the same.

Fortunately, he had some ideas about how we could avoid such failures. The gist of it was, essentially, make sure you spend enough time working on the project this year. Sounds simple, no? Well, kind of. It would be easy, if there weren't another seven modules, 9 PMA's, job applications, and the rest of life to consider (being a student is just one of many roles in mine, sadly...). The tutor pointed out yes it would be easier that way, but it would have around 10% of the value if you weren't trying to balance everything in the course of a year.

Fair enough. So, how do we go about this in the right way. Basically, it will be hard to forget the kick up the arse that this meeting produced, so that's all the motivation I need. As suggested by our tutor, the seven will start meeting on a regular basis to provide a support framework for each other. I missed the first one today, for various reasons, but I think it's a great idea, that I really want to commit to because the value of it is obvious and important to me. Also, we're doing some heavy duty planning - a day by day plan for the rest of the working year being one form of this. From an organisational point of view, I've downloaded and played with the Mind Manager software we were recommended in ReMe. Wow, it's good! A lot of the other blogs I've read have been extolling the virtues too - if you have doubts, just try it!

We were given a mental picture to aim toward. Graduation, a year from now, where each of us goes on stage to collect our degree certificate, with Distinction. Well, personally, I think 7 out of 7 at 70% might be a lofty target. But I've recently learnt, you might as well aim high, because good enough is rarely actually good enough.


December 14, 2010

The Other Kind of Module

Having now had two modules specific to MBE, and two that were not, I am absolutely certain that I picked the right course for me. CBE and PIUSS were run and presented in a way that was quite innovative and unique to me: I can barely recall a dull moment, other than occasionally perhaps during repetitive group presentations! ;-)

FACS was actually really interesting once we got into it. The pre-work was soul-destroying and full of innacuracy that made it difficult and frustrating to learn from, but the tutors made a lot of the contact time so interactive that it made up for it. That said, there were certainly a lot of times when we lectured to (rather than partners in a dialogue) for long periods that put me to sleep. The element of learning by doing was there though.

Having just endured ReMe 1, I remembered why I didn't enjoy most of my undergraduate degree here. So much of it was set up in the same way. A single lecturer attempting to 'deliver' material to 300 tired, bored students, 80% of whom probably spent more time fiddling with their phone than keeping up with what was going on (I include myself here), all against a backdrop of 100 mini-conversations at any given time. I don't think there was a single lecturer who didn't have to pause or ask for quiet more than once, which is rarely the case when people are engaged.

Obviously, from a logistical viewpoint, it probably has to be this way. When you need to get the same information across to so many people, how else can you do it? But while it might be fast and efficient, it is certainly not effective as a means of conveying information in a useful way. Plus, a lot of people have probably been turned off from getting into their literature review, or are not scared at the scope of the task ahead.

So, was it a waste of time and effort? No, of course of not. What I can say - and it's not a bad thing, maybe it was their true purpose all along - is that at least I didn't have to try and read through all that information in one go myself. I feel I have a basic overview of what is required, and where to go to learn more. But I think the lecture style of teaching is outdated, and not really fit for purpose in general.

To add balance here though, the mindmapping session was great - not because the concept is new (it couldn't possibly be to anyone on MBE), but because it opened it up in my mind from being a brainstorming tool, to something you can actually use to structure sections, PMA's, projects, etc. The aspect of the software that allows you to effectively create a full writing plan when you export to word is pure genius!

Overall, it makes me so thankful for the Learning Environment the MBE tutors have developed. Probably, because it's actually possible, and even quite likely, that you will learn something within it!


December 07, 2010

The best Learning Organisation experience I've ever had! – An epic tale

Doing my PMA on LO's got me thinking about whether I could claim to ever have had a true experience of anything like that, prior to joining MBE, which of course is nothing if not an organisational learning environment for us all. 

Senge's Fifth Discipline spoke of how most of us at one point or another in our lives have been part of a team that may not have been much to start with, but learned together and went on to be extraordinarily excellent. I looked back at my life: I couldn't find much in most of my jobs (excluding maybe my present one which certainly demonstrates a lot of the characteristics), or in sports teams I have played in. There were maybe a couple of times during school or at uni where certain group projects, but these were often short lived. Just then, a really striking example hit me: my band at Warwick, The Black Dogs. I really wanted to share it with you all. This is going to be a long one, so only stick around if you have some time! :P

We started in my first year here (so, Oct 2007). A few of us, with varying musical influences (from classic rock and blues, to indie, punk and funk) got together, wanting to form a band. Most of us were self-taught, and had a really strong passion for our instruments because no-one had ever made us learn, we just desperately wanted to (personal mastery in action). Also, most of us had never played in a band before! It started slowly...

We ran for a year, trying to come up with original songs, doing cover versions, but not really getting anywhere. With hindsight, I can see that time wasn't wasted. We were learning. About ourselves, each other, the local music scene, and all the while, our ability to play our instruments and write music together was improving.

But it wasn't quite working - we were limited by two of our members. One (the bassist) wasn't committed, missed practices and was always late. Why? I'm not sure. He was what we referred to in CBE as the 'walking dead'. We tried to turn him around for about 6 months, but at that point, we could all see (systems thinking) he was holding us back. Moreover, he was rarely willing to compromise on his style to work for the benefit of us all. He had to go. Another (the drummer), maybe wasn't quite up to it. Again, his style conflicted with the rest of ours, and technically, he wasn't proficient enough for our purposes. To boot, he had a fear of playing live! While a keen member, he knew it wasn't working either, and chose to leave. There are no hard feelings between any of us, I still see them both around campus to this day. The drummer even helped us in another capacity - he later designed our logo.

So we were left with a big hole in Jan 2009 - ask anyone, a rock band with no rhythm section will struggle! Myself as lead guitarist, a very close friend as the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, and another on keyboard. I had always been the one playing the leader/facilitator role - I set out to head hunt some new musicians, with the benefit of now knowing a lot more people on the scene. We re-branded at this point, changing our name to what it now is.

I quickly found a new drummer, a fresher who'd been playing for 15 years (aged just 19!) and proved to be a whirlwind behind a drum kit. It took a lot longer to find a bassist, but through contacts, I eventually managed to do it. We all got together and jammed, and it seemed promising - the new guys clicked well with us, their influences and styles were so much more similar. I can now see that our mental models were better matched, not just musically, but also in what we wanted out of the experience.

As a band, when they joined, we had two songs complete, after a year. Within the next three weeks, we had another two complete, and had booked in for our first gig, as well as entering the university's Battle Of The Bands competition. Talk about transformation! What happened in that time you ask? I can barely explain it, everything just started to work. We met regularly, whether to practice, or to socialise and plot our domination. As I mentioned, our mental models matched closely, and with some further surfacing and improvement, we were able to align them even better. Our influences narrowed from what they were initially to something new, a compromise that worked for us. We had broken down barriers between our mental models and created something new - a shared vision, built together, that we were all serious out succeeding in.

And, oh the fun we had. I can't explain it really, but in and out of the practice room, we just clicked. We had worked out what our system needed to thrive, found it in the right people who gave us the foundation for our ballsy, bluesy, folk rock. Jamie and Nick (the newbies) could lay down a groove together, to match something Pem had written. Pem, Nick and myself could adjust the rhythm and melody to fit the song. Dan and myself could then embellish with lead parts, onto which Pem projected his fantastically strong voice. The result, an adding of value on a remarkable scale, from the sum of our instuments and skills to music that meant something to us (and others) on an emotional level. It felt good!

That year, we went from nothing to reaching the semi-finals of the Battle Of The Bands competition. We also made a name for ourselves and were invited to play many more gigs. That was repeated last year, although we reached the finals of the competition instead.

My overall experience. We went from something I had dreamt about as a teenager to one of the more popular and successful bands at Warwick last year (I know, it's a small pond!). I never really had the knowledge and awareness of terminology to understand what had transpired naturally there, until now. If you like, you can listen here: http://www.myspace.com/theblackdogswarwick

I recommend you turn the volume up.

Have any of you ever been part of an LO? Are you often hoping to be again, or wondering how you might re-create those conditions? Tell me your story! And thanks for reading this epic!


December 04, 2010

Finding your own way

The time is nearing for submission of the first PMA. I am a little worried - I lost about 2.5 days of work this week due to illness, which has left me with a lot more to do this weekend than just the final editing, formatting and reflection writing I had planned. Still, it's coming along.

One thing I have found time and again with this topic is that there are so many potential definitions of what Learning Organisations and organisational learning. Every time I come across a new one, I start questioning what I previously read on the subject. While this is a good thing, it is also extremely annoying! It has lead to a lot of false starts, and the need to find new information to back up new ideas I have found. Also, it becomes ever-more clear that perhaps the reason for this is because no Learning Organisation is ever the same - they are all unique, so what applies to one will have very little to do with another, for the same reason that TPS only really works for Toyota.

So, to become one, and pursue excellence through the various possible frameworks, possibly the biggest challenge during the self-assessment process is working out what separates your company from others. Understanding those differences might be the key to transforming successfully. You have to trust yourself to find your own way to excellence, if you ask for the directions someone else took, you'll almost certainly end up in the wrong place and lost. There is no real prescriptive approach.


December 02, 2010

Taguchi DOE, and how I wish it wasn't used.

The day spent learning about Taguchi methods for experimenting (DOE) was very interesting. I’ve often wondered how practical it is to try and isolate problems by changing only one factor at a time, especially in complex situations, where there are so many possible variables, that there are a hundred or more possible permutations. This approach allows you to identify what is important in an incredibly efficient way I feel.

The BAE session the next day was useful in putting it into true manufacturing context. But, I found it hard to get through the session. I intensely dislike so-called ‘defence’ companies. Really, is there a more abhorrent use of intelligence than for the creation of materials designed solely for the purpose of ‘keeping order’? Or killing people, as I see it. I spent a lot of time wincing, particularly when listening to Roger’s description of developing warheads the size of dustbins! I do not ever want to work in the arms/defence industry, or towards anything else that is deliberately (or even not) designed to harm people – it is just contrary to my world view.

I did like that he was quite aware of all this – some people who work on these kinds of projects have no appreciation for the effects of what they are doing. Roger seemed to have a remorseful tone, and said that it was something you had to think about. His view was that what BAE Systems and others do is a necessary evil, as if we are asking people to risk their lives on our behalf, we have to provide them with the tools that give them the best possible chance of coming back alive. While I’m not sure if I can agree with the necessity of going into unjustifiable wars, I can understand his outlook. I don’t really mean to preach or offend anyone affected by the issue, I just couldn’t live with myself if it were me.

Back to Taguchi. I asked if DOE was used more as a problem solver in industry (the main context I had seen so far), or if it was ever used during the design and development stage to make better products. I was informed that some companies (Ford, Xerox) do use it the latter way, but at BAE, it had never really become embedded. A lot of the time, what happened, is that when it was applied, it brought success to those who had used it, and they moved up the chain of command or out of the company.

In my opinion, good! I don’t really want them to figure out how to murder people more effectively...


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