Teaching Gears to Be a Better Manager

In the Spring I run a weekly program called ‘Wheeleasy Wriders‘ which teaches newbie cyclists how to go from a painful 20KM ride to thinking that a 60KM ride is a breeze. Although this is a hobby, the techniques that I use are directly translatable into a work environment and the reverse as well – Wheeleasy Wriders makes me a better manager – last week is a good example.

How To Explain The Round Gizmos On a Bike

Many new riders are scared of their gears.  Although a marvel of engineering, they do require a small investment of time to learn how to use them properly.  But using gears effectively is not what this blog is about (however the blogs listed below DO talk about such things).  Last week I took a page out of my work environment and did the following:

  1. I broke the riders into groups of three composed of 2-newbies and 1-experienced rider.
  2. I separated married couples into different groups (more on this later).
  3. My request was that each newbie explain to the other newbie how their gears worked on their bike (as if the other explainee-newbie was going borrow the explainer’s bike).
  4. After a couple of minutes they switched roles and the explainer became the explainee.
  5. The experienced rider was there to listen and provide additional information, corrections and encouragement.

Teaching Focuses the Mind

The result was that most of the newbies self-assessed their gear knowledge higher after the explanation than before.  Why, for the following reasons:

  • They had to actively recall past explanations and externalize the content and concepts.
  • Based on the recall, they had to match the explanations to what they were seeing.
  • There was a small amount of anxiety to get the explanation right.  This anxiety actually helps to better form memories.
  • Anxiety notwithstanding, the experienced rider represented a safety net.
  • The experience rider had to compare their own mental-model of how gears work into two different newbie explanations.  This conversion strengthen their own understanding of the gears.
  • I separated the couples because people who know each other very well can have a harder time communicating.  They use codes, shortened forms of speech, etc. that takes away from the effort to externalize and codify a complex topic (such as how bike gears work).

Giving Training the Gears

I use similar teaching methods at work when I need to train people.  Rather than standing around in a parking lot explaining bike gears, at work this is done through webinars and conference calls.  One of my ‘rules’ is that I actively encourage cheating on my exams. Thus, other audience members are encouraged to help the ‘trainer’ out. Because the audience knows they be asked next to provide an explanation, there is better attention and retention for the content.  I have learned a few cautions/guidelines though:

  • Always Build Up: This is not about ridiculing or embarrassing the person. Before asking the question, be reasonably assured the person can answer the question or be guided to the answer. Only use this technique (or select the person) if the person can feel more positive about themselves after they have done the activity.
  • Be Ready to Move On … QUICKLY: You may discover that you asked a person who simply does not know or is getting flustered by the attention.  If so, quickly move on so that person is not social embarrassed.  Moving on could include: providing lots of clues, going to someone else or changing the subject.
  • Gentle Humour Lubricates: use gentle and positive humour to help the situation. Be careful that the humour is not caustic or ridicules the person. A bit of self-depreciation works for me.
  • Mix Up the Couples: mix and match people who don’t know each other well.  This forces different levels of communication effort.
  • Bit Size the Learning: if possible, focus on only one to two key concepts in each session.  More than this will overload the person and create too much anxiety.
  • Summarize, Crystallize and Repeat the Learning: be sure to repeat the 2-5 key messages from the learning so that the memories can quickly form around these kernels. Memory and learning works best when there are mnemonic devices or conceptual construct to hang the details on.

Good luck with your efforts to train and explain in your organization.  Also, if you want to learn more about riding or how to use your gears, be sure to read:

 

 

Accounting for Questions

On November 17, 2016, FMI Edmonton hosted: CPAs and the Public Service.  Now that CPA Alberta is almost a toddler (16+ months old at time of writing), it is time to ask the question: How Can CPA Alberta help the members who work in the public service?

The problem though is how do you get 118 attendees to agree on which questions are most important?  Traditionally you could open up the floor to questions but then the most brave and most opinionated tend to dominate.  You could ask the presenters to provide an overview, and this was done in the first part of the session, but this also eliminates the audience participation.  The (facilitation) answer: Questions a la Carte!

Got Questions?

The origin for Question a la Carte was the September 2016 Edmonton-FMI Conference on Innovation, where I experimented with ‘Innovation Bingo‘.  This facilitation activity promoted audience attention and participation.  With Questions a la carte, my intention was to take it to the next level.

How It Worked

The morning was reasonably interactive; the audience voted on and select the most pressing questions of interest to the conference attendees by following instructions provided in the Annex.  The questions were thematically broken into chronological categories, in this case a CPA’s life journey starting with their training, work, professional development and ending with life after a career (see the table below).

How: Question Solicitation

Additional questions, question removal or edits were solicited but other than the ones I dreamed up or were contributed by CPA Alberta (thanks Larry!), none were forthcoming. Notwithstanding these results, non-accountants were encouraged to contribute questions to challenge the CPAs at the conference with hard-hitting questions to make the attendees squirm a little bit (in a nice and respectful squirming sort of way of course).

How: Instructions and Reinforcement

The questions were distributed in the pre-conference notes as well as given to each attendees in hard copy along with six small dots.  Additional table dots were distributed for a table to decide together how to apply.

Instructions were provided to the audience on at least six different occasions (a 3 minute overview at the beginning of the conference, reinforced by the key-note speaker and then multiple times by the moderator and presenters).

How: Reinforcement and Reward

Encouraging attendees to vote was accomplished by having their hardcopy stamped after applying their dots.  A stamped page not only made the eligible for door prizes (material reinforcement) by also provided an at-table reinforcement of ‘did you get your page stamped?’ (social or group cohesion reinforcement).

How: Presenter Privilege

Presenters and panelist were given the privilege to identify questions of greatest interest to them.  A colour name tag essentially allowed them to jump the queue and get their question answered irrespective of the group interest in it.

How: Questions and Their Categorization

Question package provided to attendees: 2016-11-17-questions.

Section Description Comments/Notes
Starters Questions relating to how to become or train the next generation of CPAs.  Training CPAs is a larger area of interest post merger.
Salad (Days) Personal; The role an accounting designation has had and/or how the merger will change this. We did not explore these enough.
Entree Strategy and Governance; How can CPAs make better decisions to guide our organizations. This was a core area for the conference.
Entree Standards; Questions relating to how accounting standards guide, serve and constrain us as CPAs. Accounting standards is central to the accounting function
The Kitchen Systems and Process; How CPA Alberta and the CPA community can deliver public services faster and better. Limited number of questions were provided and an area of expansion in the future.
New Recipes Keeping Up; Professional Development (PD) and continuous learning as a CPA. PD is always an area of interest for CPAs.
Digestifs Life after the Public Service; Alumni related questions.  This may be due to retirement or departure from the public service organization. A subject area worth of additional exploration, see November 14, 2014 FMI Conference notes.
Dessert Just for Fun; Don’t waste your dots on these question, but see if you can answer them nevertheless.

What Worked and What to Work On?

What: Response Rate

Worked: Generally the Questions a la Carte worked very well.  Of the approximately 600 dots distributed (5 per person), 365 were applied (for a response rate of more than 50%). Most of the attendees understood what was requested as there were very few process questions on what to do or why we are doing it.

Analysis and Ranking of Voted Questions: 2016-11-17-questions_rank.

What: Questions Analysis

Of the 30 questions asked, the average number of votes for each was 12 with a median of 7 votes.   The top question three questions each received approximately 10% of the total votes and each were from distinct categories or themes.  In other words there was relatively wide-spread interest in most of the questions nor did the presenter-privilege seem to indicate a selection bias amongst the audience.

As a result, I would suggest with some improvements, the Question a la Carte method can be a statistically viable method of measuring small group opinion and preferences for a specific issue.

What: Just for Fun and Table Dots

The intent of the Just for Fun questions was to provide an ice breaker.  Because the conference did not focus on these questions this was a missed opportunity. Similar with the Table Dots, the conference did not sufficiently focus on the use of these dots and as a result missed an opportunity for to increase group participation and an improved sense of the ‘event’.

What: Change:

  1. Improved Statistical Analysis: I would record the participation rate more precisely, for example by providing a numbered mail label applied to the pages.  In addition, I would do a better job of estimating acknowledged non-responsive records (e.g. I did not vote nor did the key-note speaker).  Finally, I would place the posters in an area with more physical space as the back wall proved to be intimate but very crowded (and perhaps a bit of a safety concern).
  2. Virtual Dots: Rather than physical dots, digital dots or an online response could have been developed.  My inclination is not to do this as the tactile reinforcement outweighs the minor improvements in administrative processing.  However, if the group was two or three times the size (e.g. an audience of say 300+) then more automated data gathering would make sense
  3. Just for Fun: I will likely drop this element or else make it a stronger part of the key-note speakers ice breaker activities.
  4. Table Dots: I will highlight this more strongly next time including giving specific time to the tables to come to a consensus and have the moderator reinforce group behaviour.
  5. Physical Space: I will provide at least a 3 metre pathway around the sheets and perhaps also use larger dots to increase the visible impact.  This may include having the dots in the meal area and then making an ‘ceremony’ of carrying it in so as to increase the group ownership and affiliation with the voting process.

A Blog Annex – How to Play Questions a la carte

Going out to eat helps to build bridges and create a sense of community in a group.  In addition to a good breakfast, you are invited to participate in ‘CPA Questions a la Carte’. How does it work, simple – you get to pick the questions that our panel will consider.  To do this, you will have been given some personal dots. Simply place one or more dots next to a question you would like addressed.  Don’t see a question, no problem, order it online via Sli.do (see page 8 for instructions).  In addition to personal dots, each table will receive group dots.  Prior to the end of the mid-morning break, discuss at your table how best to divide these up amongst the questions.  For example, you could have one person stick all of the table-dots on their card or you could divide them up evenly at your table.

To make sure the kitchen (e.g. the panel) gets your order, go to the back of the conference room.  There a master menu will tally up the various dot-votes.  A CPA server will stamp your order, with this stamp you are now eligible for some great door prizes at the end of the session.

 

SharePoint – 101

I like SharePoint, it is not a love-level relationship but it has matured definitely to the like stage.  Through this and future good-intention blogs, I want to put down what I think are some pretty cool ways to use SharePoint and just as important, some good ways to use the tool.

SharePoint, huh?

If you are reading this and have never used or heard of SharePoint, go onto some of my other postings on this website.  Unfortunately SharePoint is kinda hard to explain and so therefore I will assume that you know about the following things:

  • Its general architecture (e.g. there are farms, sites, sub-sites, lists and items)
  • Its typical structures (lists, libraries, workflows, webparts, pages, search, etc.)
  • Who uses and how access is managed (e.g. super-administrators; site-administrators; users with contributor, read and other access)

If any of the above is makes you go huh?, sorry I can’t help you but I can point you in the right direction:

  1. Wikipedia has a good over-view description.
  2. Read the Microsoft Sales Stuff.
  3. Take a course, there are lots out there including those from Microsoft.
  4. By a book, Chapters or Amazon sells lots, and
  5. Most importantly – start using it!

How Not to Use SharePoint

… but before you start using SharePoint, here is something to recognize about how not to use SharePoint.  Don’t use SharePoint as a glorified Network File System.  It can do so much more, so why do so many people do so little with it?  Hopefully the next few blogs will give you just some examples.

How to Use SharePoint

In my ongoing effort to remember what the heck I have done, I have the good intention of writing a series of blogs about some cool uses of SharePoint (and associated technologies).  Check back to read about cool stuff or to see a post of shame of good intentions gone bad.

  • SharePoint Wikis as a Desk Reference Tool
  • Data Dictionary (of SharePoint and other stuff)
  • Looking up a Look Up of a Look Up
  • Managing Sites, Structures and People (a poor man’s content management strategy)
  • Using SharePoint as a Budgeting Tool

Business Case Example

I have used SharePoint for a variety of uses including:

  • An internal facing team-site with a handful of users having access
  • A highly restricted decision making site with very sensitive information
  • A status reporting system for dozens of project teams who in turn need to consolidate their work into a few sentences for an executive office
  • A ministry briefing binder in which hundreds of documents were managed that had varying degrees of sensitivity and right of access
  • Widely available budget site in which budget clients uploaded their working papers for consolidation
  • A project site composed of numerous teams working on a complex system transition

For the purposes of this and other blogs, I will use a fictional example of a budget site in which internal clients need to submit content and documents.  This example will centre around a government organization and specifically one that primarily manages projects but also manages contractors, contracts and staff.

Professional Development and Good Intentions

As a professional accountant, I am happy and obligated to record and report on my Professional Development (PD).  This is in particular because I have always liked the Certified Management Accountants Competency Map.

CMA Competency Map

CMA Competency Map

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge I have had over the years is the best way to record PD!  I have tried spreadsheets (an accountant’s best friend), online databases and just about everything in between.  One the one hand LinkedIn seems to offer a solution (discussed in a previous Blog: LinkedIn – Do I have a Deal for YOU!) – on the other hand, I hate to leave my professional reporting obligations in the hands of an American company.  In the end, I have landed on a simpler solution – put them on my website.

So, dear brand new Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada/Alberta;

Starting January 1, 2014; I promise to record my PD activities on my website (Phrankisms > Phrank’s CPLD) and make them publicly available.  I further promise to use this webpage to promote the concepts and benefits of PD within in my community.  Finally, I encourage my friends and colleagues to gently remind me when I fail to follow through on the above promises in a timely manner.  A libation of their choice (coffee, tea, stronger) is the incentive to identify PD that I have missed.

How about you?  Do you have PD reporting obligations and if so, how do you tracking and manage them?  Send me comments, email, etc.  with your strategies.  And keep your eyes open to see if I have missed any PD!

Maximizing a Secondment Experience

This past Friday I met up with a fellow Government of Alberta (GoA) employee by the name of Henry (name changed to protect the innocent from bad blogging) who is soon off to Washington DC for a two-year secondment with an international banking organization (the Bank). Henry wanted to pick my brains about my secondment experience with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a few years back. I thought the advice I gave him so good that I figured I would take some notes on the off-chance anybody ever asks me again (hey, it could happen).

Before, During and After

As it is always good to start with a definition, thefreedictionary.com defines it as:

2. secondment – the detachment of a person from their regular organization for temporary assignment elsewhere.

From this definition, a secondment involves three parties. Henry; the GoA or the ongoing employer; and the seconding organization – in this case the Bank. Secondments also have three distinct time periods: the time before you go, the time on secondment and then the return. While good to think of them in three distinct periods they should nevertheless have a constant theme – the Value Proposition to three parties involved in the secondment.

Before the Before – The Secondment Circumstances

A secondment happens because a person has:

  • a) applied for a position possibly unbeknownst to their current employer,
  • b) the ongoing-employer encouraged the person to apply, or
  • c) the person was requested by the seconding organization.

There is a subtle difference between these circumstances. Henry was encouraged to apply to the Bank position by the GoA. Thus his boss (his home Ministry) is behind him 100%.  In contrast, I have found myself in both circumstance a) and c). In 2003 I had sought out an opportunity to work in Munich Germany – type a). Unfortunately the employer at the time did not grant me a leave of absence and as a result I quit that job to go to Germany. In 2010, the IAEA sought me out to assist with an accounting project – type c). In this case, I was able to secure a leave so as to take the secondment. What changed in the intervening seven years? I had a better understanding of how to sell the value proposition of the leave to my ongoing employer.

To support this value proposition, it was critical that the IAEA email/write to my boss and describe the circumstances behind why they specifically wanted me and the value to the GoA of my involvement. This provided credibility to the experience and started the process of making my experience a larger organizational experience.

Before – Start with the End in Mind

Henry, assuming you have the full endorsement from your Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), it is now time to start planning for your return from your secondment. Steven Covery calls this ‘starting with the end in mind’. Envision the first day/week/year of your return from the secondment and define how you want to be thinking about success for the experience. To help you with this visioning, enlist the aid of your boss (and your boss’ boss); ask questions such as:

  • What are the three critical things you want me to accomplish while on this experience?
  • What is the number one problem for our organization the seconding organization can help us with?
  • If you were me, what would be your personal and professional priorities for this experience?

You don’t have to accept all of their advice but you should accept those that align best with your own ambitions, interests or priorities. The benefits for you to start with the end in mind includes:

  • It reinforces the fact that you will be returning to the ongoing employer.
  • It begins the process of making your secondment a shared experience with the organization.
  • It helps you to define the ongoing value proposition themes.

I have been focusing on your employer Henry but don’t forget to do the same thing for your friends and family. What does your wife want to have accomplished in the same time period? Can you offer to host family members so as to share the experience? Can you take your children and can they take part in the international school experience? For myself, here are the goals I had when I went to Vienna:

Goal 1: Family & Health

  • Setting up circumstances to share this experience with my wife and son
  • Maintain my health so I can continue to be productive
  • Experience the Austrian cultural life as much as a non-German speaker can

Goal 2: Exit Gracefully the IAEA

  • Contribute positively and effectively to the project
  • Over the course of the year, complete about 90 ‘things’ well to support the project

Goal 3: Re-Enter the Government of Alberta Gracefully

  • Re-charged, reset and ready for new challenges.

Goal 4: Prepare for Future Opportunities

During the Secondment

In a very short period of time you will be living the dream – the secondee in Washington DC. Then, in a few months the honeymoon will end. At this point you will start to feel (at least a bit) depressed, in limbo, out of touch and isolated. Fortunately the cultural difference between Washington DC and Edmonton are not as extreme as say Edmonton and Haiti. Nevertheless, more than likely you will be living in a small apartment, working in a small cubicle for seconded staff*. And the permanent staff members and those around you will have their own lives and families to go home to.

* small aside, I had a great office and room-mate while working for the IAEA – nevertheless I have worked in some crappy places as a consultant.

So feeling tired, out of sorts and a bit crummy is normal; expect it, deal with it and get over it. A two-year secondment means that you will have 780 days on the ground. 780 is not a large number and it will go by fast. Nearly 25% of the time will be the weekend or statutory holidays (and you will be working a few of these, trust me). 10-15% of these days will be vacation/leave (guard these jealously!). Now you are down to 500’ish work-days. Be clear with your new boss what you want to/can/must accomplish in those 500 days.

Just as important, for the weekends and leave days, what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to visit every memorial/museum in the city, drive the entire east coast of the United States, explore the Southern United States – set a goal and have a great time accomplishing it!

At the same time though, don’t forget about your ongoing employer. While I was in Vienna I tried to provide a monthly ‘blog’ to my home Ministry. Generally I would alternate between a technical themes (e.g. on accounting, governance structures, etc.) and personal matters (e.g. Christmas markets, cycling or Vienna wall murals). Contact your communications person and establish a writing schedule, possible themes – and then stick to them! Amongst other things, it will force you to better understand your experience, your organization and it will give you some great memories (see the links at the end of this Blog).

After the Secondment

Here is a curious fact Henry – a week or so after finishing the experience, it will be as if you never left. If you don’t plan your return carefully this fact can lead to a sense of loss or make you question why you went in the first place. In contrast a well-planned return can give you a sense of closure, purpose and context for the experience. Here are some suggestions for a ‘gracefully re-entry’ to your Ministry:

  • Keep your goals up to date. The will evolve and change, that is okay, but keep focused on why you took the secondment in the first place before, during and after its completion.
  • Keep in touch with your boss, organization and co-workers. See the blogs discussed above but include a few phone calls to your boss, emails to co-workers, etc. to stay in touch.
  • Share the experience by presenting it. Plan to do a series (e.g. 2-4) brown bag lunches on your experience. Space them out every 2-3 weeks. During the presentation don’t forget to profusely thank your boss and the organization for the experience.  I have included links to the three presentations I did below.
  • Stay in touch with the Bank and its family of employees.  They are part of you and your network now.  And of course, if they need a good accountant who writes blogs, I can send you my resume….

So Henry, that is my advice in a nut shell. Your secondment experience will go by fast! Best wishes to you and your wife and make the best possible use of your 780 days. Also, don’t forget to include me on your blogs about your experience!

 Sample Blog and Presentations

(Links fixed, 2013-11-27)