Tag Archive: workplace


Yesterday I started listening to “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.  Due to glaucoma,  I now find it easier to listen to audio books than read especially if I have been working on the computer all day.  It takes longer and I have to replay some parts, but I’m enjoying the process.

So far I’m only through Chapter 2  since listening takes much longer than reading (I haven’t yet been able to listen effectively to 1.5 or 2x speed and learn anything).   Much of what Sheryl Sandberg talks about is familiar to me after 38 years in a heavily male dominated workplace like the US Army and Department of Defense.  I plan to do some blogging as I read and will share some of my own personal experiences as I go.  I was partly inspired to write these thoughts by an awesome letter by Phyllis Richman 52 years after the event that changed her career plans.  I would encourage you to take the time to read this letter.

As I listened to Lean In, some key points emerged:

* Chapter 1 – Women have to do better than men in the workplace. Men are promoted based on potential while women are based on performance.  Early in my Army career (started in 1975), it became obvious that women always had to do about 110% whereas men could by with 80%.  I reported to my first assignment with a male counterpart.   I had completed  specialty training by graduating in the top 20% whereas my male colleague had failed the courses once before finally passing.  But that detail didn’t matter – no commander wanted the  female 2nd Lieutenant.  So I was thrown to the least politically astute commander (ultimately to the chagrin of the commander who got the male 1st Lieutenant).   I didn’t know this till about a year afterward when the other commander apologized for his biased mindset.  The lesson learned here is that you never know when your performance can change someone’s mind.

* Chapter 2 – Getting ahead in your career requires taking risks and advocating for oneself – both traits that women are not encouraged to learn. I think this is partly true – women are encouraged to take risks for the family but are expected to be self-sacrificing with no need for the skill to advocate for oneself.     Women are willing to take risks but sometimes get locked into a mental model that says they can’t without upsetting the family.  I think that Phyllis Richman’s letter highlights that even in a family setting, women can take risks to have a rich career and still maintain a great home life.   However, I totally agree with the lack of skill or experience to advocate for oneself.  I have seen this so often with many extremely competent women and experienced it myself.   This is a rich topic worth exploring more later so I’m not going to say much now.   However, about three years ago there was a lot of discussion on Twitter as to why there were more men than women speakers at conferences (especially technical conferences). Many factors played into that but one of the key areas of consensus was that women didn’t advocate for themselves as speakers.  And in most cases they weren’t aware that they needed to or how to acquire the experience to do that.  I know from personal experience that I don’t advocate for myself as I should.  I know my abilities and potential and expect that others should be able to see them without trying to sell myself.  Yet I can recognize when I see women who do it gracefully.  Perhaps this is something where mentors can help.

At the end of 2012, there was a call in our community to write about what individuals learned in 2012 and share it using the hashtag #learn2012. I started thinking about that a lot and put together a draft which I’m just now publishing. I’m not sure the answers are yet clear but here’s my initial draft for #learn2012. Please note that I am not sure if there will be a final draft. My lessons learned may evolve into other lessons that are less temporal.

I would call the first 8 months of 2012 a blur of overwork and stress followed by grieving as changes were made in the summer that stripped away all the activities that I had been engaged in. While there were bright new promises starting in January 2012, they quickly turned sour as expectations were improperly communicated or understood. During this time I put my personal life on hold (more so than usual) and attempted to meet those expectations based on my current strengths. As I have since learned, I needed to stop and question whether those expectations were realistic for my current skill set or needed to be modified. I also needed to determine if I would need to change or grow or learn in order to handle them if they remained unchanged. As a result, I came out of the experience with an evaluation of “minimally successful”. While no one likes being treated as a failure, perhaps I needed that evaluation to shake up my thinking.

At the same time, stress had taken its toll on my health and I was literally falling apart physically. My blood pressure was through the roof and I had gained 30 pounds on top of my other weight. I was constantly sick and finding myself housebound when I went home because I had no energy to do anything or go anywhere. The best I could do was continue to search the internet for new knowledge and engage with communities on Facebook and Twitter. But even the search for new knowledge was no longer satisfying as it didn’t seem to be needed (or wanted?) in the workplace.

Sometimes in order to take actions for new growth or learning, you need to move on. That might be through a new job, new activities or new connections. I chose not to go for the new job which might have even more stress because of new expectations. Since my activities were restricted to the mundane in the current workplace, I looked outside to find new challenges. My first focus was my health and surprisingly my second focus became elearning. Both of these activities would have benefits if I were successful and I would be able to juggle them while still carrying a full work load.

In September, I started on a new lifestyle health plan that meant building up a team of health professionals to assist me. I still have a long way to go but so far I have lost 55 pounds and almost 28 inches while growing stronger and able to handle stress more effectively. Unfortunately, I also discovered problems with my eyesight that resulted in two laser surgeries in March 2013 for glaucoma and continued problems even after the surgeries. I am continuing my quest for health but it is tempered with the knowledge that I may have further challenges ahead.

Elearning would not have been my first choice for an alternative activity, although I do thrive on learning from others in my social media networks like Facebook, G+  and Twitter. But in August, I joined a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in machine learning that others in the community were taking. While it brought back some good memories of monitoring research efforts in the early 2000’s, I was not able to wrap my mind around linear algebra. I tried several other MOOC classes but linear algebra or the need to learn a new programming language kept defeating me. Then I started the Gamification course taught by Kevin Werbach at the Wharton School/UPenn. It was challenging with an element of creativity that drew me in. The same thing happened with the Design: Artifacts course by Karl Ulrich also at Wharton School/UPenn. These two classes engaged both my critical and creative thinking. I’ve written a bit about my experiences with MOOCs on this site, but the one thought that I walked away from all the early MOOC classes was that I hadn’t fully engaged with the collaborative communities that were available. I may explore the possible reasons why in later posts. But as Thanksgiving approached, I received an email from the instructors for the e-Learning and Digital Cultures (EDC) course taught by the University of Edinburgh. They encouraged us to gain familiarity with various collaborative tools prior to the start of the course and use the hashtag #EDCMOOC to acknowledge that use. One of the students established a closed Facebook group and G+ community which enabled small groups to connect and interact before the course started sharing knowledge on tools, techniques, cultural insights, tradecraft on elearning and getting to know each other as “fraingers” (strangers who met online and became friends without ever having met in person). It reminded me of the early days between 2005-2008 when the same could be said for the virtual community that was being formed in our community.

So what did I learn:
1. Continually being a change agent is exhausting. Sometimes you need a break to recharge and maybe reinvent yourself.
2. Collaboration is time-consuming.   As a mindset, collaboration is sorely underutilized in our community – even by those who may be natural collaborators. Most of the focus is on the tools rather than on the mindset that makes collaboration successful.
3. Collaboration is the foundation for digital learning. If you walk away from a MOOC having only watched the videos and completed the assignments/tests, then you have achieved only half the learning that is possible
4. Leaders and managers need to be involved in collaboration

I have no earthly idea where these lessons learned will take me. I find myself sadly bored these days in the workplace as I see the same problems still unsolved after 10-20 years. And chaos masquerading as change. So I doubt that these lessons will have value there. I think my best value will be to continue to work broaden my horizons through my health journey and working on elearning as time and eyesight permit. The idea of broadening my horizons is summarized in a great tweet that I forgot to write down attribution: “ Creativity shouldn’t be focused in one area for too long. Just as runners need to cross-train, people need to broaden creative horizons”

Comparing a MOOC to the Classroom

For three days last week I was participating in an advanced writing workshop. This was a very small class of eight students with two instructors.   Learning  in the class was dependent both on the knowledge of the instructors and the knowledge/professionalism of the students.

The format included an overview of the background tools/techniques needed to write effectively within my organization followed by practical exercises reviewing papers from both the instructors and the students.   Initially we reviewed/graded the  papers handed out by the instructors individually and then collaborated in teams of two on a joint review.  This was followed by a open discussion of both an initial and revised version of the paper.  After this we brought in our own papers and graded them while going through two other student papers.   This was followed by different teams of two collaboratively discussing their review.   The open discussion started with the first author giving his/her personal grade followed by the team who had evaluated that paper.  Other students were then invited to add anything that they felt was missed.   Once the review process was completed, students were given the time to update their papers and send them around for review in the same process by the same teams.

Although not familiar with many of the specific topics in the papers, I found both the class format and the associated resources (e.g. checklists, tradecraft materials) to be very valuable in learning to effectively evaluate both my own writing and others.  And the feedback was critical in helping me focus  my  own writing which tended to cram too many points into one rambling mess.

But as I finished this class, I was thinking about how it compared to the two  massive open online courses (MOOC) that I had just completed.  In these two courses,  the peer review process was key in completing the course.  Each student was assigned to review the work of 5 other students and provide written grades based on instructor protocols.   You could not pass the course unless you had also completed the minimum 5 evaluations per assignment.    In some ways the process was very similar to that of the classroom where we reviewed student efforts.   However, there was no opportunity to interact personally  with the other four members of the review team or the students you were reviewing.   That later created some frustration among students who felt that they were unfairly judged and given significantly lower grades with little feedback.  Additionally, there was no continuity throughout the course.  While this meant that we were able to see more students, it also meant that you weren’t following a student’s ideas from creation to completion.

I think that for MOOCs to be truly effective, they must provide better opportunities for interaction during the course beyond the forums.  Somehow, the same type of small group interaction that occurred during my advanced writing class should also occur during a MOOC.  This way learning not only occurs from knowledge shared by the instructor but knowledge shared by the students.  The technology exists to permit that experience with applications like Google+ hangouts, Skype or getStudyRoom.com.   The biggest drawback may be the global nature of the student body that limits real time interaction because of schedule conflicts or different timezones.    It will be interesting to see if the #edcmooc group can solve this lack of interaction through the community that has been forming since November.

Once upon a time there was a government employee who was a little bit handicapped.  She walked with a cane because her knees and ankles would periodically give out.  And sometimes her asthma got so bad she could barely walk anywhere.  But for the most part she handled it well except for those days when she sat cramped and hunched over a computer for 12-14 hours (without overtime pay) to do the work that was assigned as well as the collaboration that was pure joy.  During this time a new organization was formed that brought new changes.  They seemed to honor the work that she was doing since they kept giving her more to do.   Yet they would tell her not to work so much overtime as they gave her another assignment and then the responsibilities of an additional job that was currently vacant and out for a hiring action.  On top of this came the issue of the parking pass.  Parking was at a premium near the buildings where they worked.  And there were very few handicapped spaces as there were many senior supervisors who needed to park close.   So she would generally arrive very early and park in the covered garage, walk slowly up a single flight of stairs and take a covered walkway to the building.  This was the closest path to her desk.  And while the stairs were sometimes painful, the walk was not too bad as long as she left after just 8 hours of work.    The supervisor talked to the building manager who said that if she would bring in a special letter signed by the doctor (who had already signed a DMV form for a handicapped sticker), then they could issue a special permit parking pass for the handicap slots in the front of the building.  Now this area was uncovered and a longer route to get to her desk.  But she got the multi-page documents needed to create the form letter that doctor would sign and promised to get it signed when she next saw the doctor. And she continued to park in the garage since the parking pass didn’t seem very important except possibly when she went to an off-campus meeting and couldn’t find a parking place when returning.  Yet every time the boss and the boss’s boss saw her, they asked about the parking pass “because they cared about her health”.   Yet every time she saw the doctor, she was more concerned about her health which seemed to be getting worse.  Then came a series of incidents in the spring where messages kept getting more mixed and negative. She was continually told she was “brilliant but ….”. Our employee became so confused and  hurt that stress started to weigh heavily on her health and limiting her ability to sleep or think.  And then she started receiving new guidance that marginalized her ability to do her work –  guidance like having to ask permission to go to a meeting or send out anything unless it had been approved by a supervisor.   This meant that she could not collaborate very effectively or plan any actions. This hurt most of all because she treasured those moments where insights were shared on many topics.  Yet when she asked for permission via email no one responded so many opportunities were being missed or ignored because the supervisors didn’t think they were important.  And asking in person became difficult because there were only 3 people she could ask and they were not readily available.  And they did not always share the results of their decisions. Throughout this period,  the parking pass became a symbol of the mixed messages she was receiving. The supervisors kept bringing it up and talking about how much they cared about her health.   They never realized that they were putting out a mixed message that getting the parking pass was more important than the employee.   Another mixed message had happened a year before when she asked for a rotational assignment and was told that they couldn’t afford to let her go because they might lose her billet in the change-over in the personnel system.   So today when asked about the parking pass and told that they cared about her health, she realized that she would need to get the pass even if she never used it.   For they saw the parking pass as a failure even though it didn’t matter one bit to her when compared to being treated as a child and ignored until they needed her expertise that came from many collaborative partnerships formed over the years.  Collaborative partnerships that were now being diminished.

So how should employees how handle mixed messages?   How should bosses and managers ensure that they aren’t guilty of mixed message leadership?  Love to hear your thoughts.

I started gardening in 2010. The most I had ever done before was the lonely tomato plant that died due to lack of watering. I decided to start small with a container garden on my front porch where I would be forced to see them every day as I came and went. I found it to be rewarding and yet frustrating much like the job that I do. Plants grew at their own pace with some spurting up and others dying. A lot of work goes into planting, weeding and watering just for the moment that they bloom with great beauty or bountiful food harvest. The same can be said for projects that I try to do to improve analysis in both my agency and the community. As I looked back over my very short gardening journey, I have realized there were some lessons learned from gardening that were relevant to the workplace. I’m sure that there are more lessons to come but these are the initial lessons I have found in reflections about gardening.

I planted a number of marigolds and some bulbs (lilies, dahlias) along with many herbs and other perennials that caught my fancy. Since it is a container garden, my first lesson learned was that I could not go beyond certain boundaries. So just as I had to limit what I could grow, I need to think about the same thing at work. What limits are realistic (constrained by the environment) and what limits should I ignore (small minded thinking or lack of resources).

At one point I had marigolds in three separate areas that were growing very differently. In one area the leaves were being stripped from the plants. All that seemed to be untouched were the flowers. In another area, they were growing strongly and reblooming time and again.  What could I do to fix the problem?  The following lessons concern mostly this incident but there were some following this.

1. Don’t hesitate to ask questions from many places: I found that I would ask the same question of Google, my Facebook and Twitter networks, and gardening shops. Google was generally the fastest but it didn’t comfort me when my gardening went awry. Gardening shops were not much help; perhaps I need to spend more time building a relationship with one of them.

2. As I investigated the possible reason for the demise of my marigolds, I was directed to take a flashlight out after 10:00pm to see what might be wondering around. As I investigated my garden, I found new insights by changing my point of view to a different time of day. Something that is very key in the workforce – it is too easy to get locked into one point of view especially if you have expertise in that area. {Garden note: I did indeed find slugs and went in search of ways to get rid of them. Again I turned to Google and my networks and got directed to SLUGGO and Beer bath. I tried them both and seemed to have resolved the problem. I don’t know which worked best but at least they died happy.}

3. A key lesson learned came from pondering why marigolds in one part of the garden were doing so well while in the other part they were being systematically decimated in another area. The place in the garden where I have the most problems is the area that I didn’t properly clean out. I decided to use the old leaf debris as ground cover/mulch. I liked the look but it is filled with old debris and therefore those things that are harmful to growth. So in order to nurture new growth and create a healthy environment for long term growth it is essential to get rid of those things that have served their purpose in the past. That is definitely the case with our workplace. While there are many good things that need to be kept and cared for, there is also old debris – old ways of thinking and doing and old technologies – that need to be cleaned out.

4. As time went on, I found that another plant near the dead marigolds was now being eaten. The slugs seemed to be back eating my plants again. This led to a little reflection on how fighting slugs in the garden compares to fighting sluggardly thinking in the workplace. Only temporary successes with current methods; you must be constantly vigilant or tender shoots (aka projects) get eaten alive. But SLUGGO and beer baths did not seem to help so I took another evening trip to the garden to find a new threat – some kind of brown bug. I tried to find out what it was but it remains a mystery although I did try Neem Oil. Not sure whether it worked but the plants seem to be a little better. Just as in the garden, you need to be vigilant and try new methods to combat what seems to be each new threat –prepare a defense in depth in order to nurture growth.

5. Today a very large branch crashed down across my driveway near the front door. Fortunately it didn’t hit any of my garden or power lines or the house. I’m truly thankful I was not parking in that spot today (I often do). The branch seems in good condition but it is so large that I cannot move it. But looking at that branch, I realized that sometimes conditions occur over which you have no control. Perhaps the branch was weakened from past storms; whatever the reason it came down. The same thing often happens in the workplace where events occur that cause people to fail and offices to close. The best thing that can be done is to be thankful for what didn’t occur (e.g. damage to my house, garden, or car) and to consider if anything could have been done to prevent the damage that did occur.

Two good comments came from folks reading a few of my thoughts. They gave me a laugh so I’ll repeat them here.They’ll remain anonymous because I truly forgot who wrote them.

*Heh heh! Had I known that a can of Sluggo on my desk (when applied judiciously) would have helped nurture projects……

*Management sprays RoundUp and calls it MiracleGro……

Jabulani Does CIC

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