May 2010


We are all familiar with, and maybe a little tired of, the phrase “think outside the box.”  The phrase has really become a cliche.  You don’t need me to tell you that, but I said it so lets move on.

What does it mean to think outside the box?  When someone says we need to think outside the box what are they expecting happen?  I think when a person says we need to think outside the box they really mean you need to think outside the box.  If thinking outside the box was that easy no one would have to tell us to do it.  In fact, we would probably do it naturally.

Before I go further on getting out of the box, I want to explore where the box came from in the first place.  I read a problem solving book a few years ago that provided useful insights on impediments to effective thinking.  The author asserts that people develop mental shortcuts that enable us to process information more quickly.  These shortcuts are based on patterns the mind stores and uses to process information.  Patterns and shortcuts are helpful time savers with simple tasks such as matching names with faces but it can be a hindrance when we are trying to solve complex problems like buying a car.  If we don’t take time to think through our decision we may rely too heavily on shortcuts and make a bad decision.  I bought a car several years ago and failed to consider my actual driving habits.  I ended up making a bad choice and spent several years getting over it.  It was a painful experience but I learned a valuable lesson.

Was I guilty of thinking inside the box?  Probably.  I was driving an SUV that I thought was no longer cost effective to own.  It was spending a lot of time in the shop and I was spending a lot of money maintaining it.  Did I need to replace it?  I’ll never know.  Did I need to replace it with another SUV? No.  I did not carry passengers enough to need a big car.  I did not live in a place where weather affected my travel.  I liked the size and convenience of an SUV.  I was single so I did not mind the payment (at first).  I loved the idea of owning a new car.  Aha!  There was the box.  In the book referenced above the author states that emotion overwhelms our ability to reason.  I could have purchased a used car and saved a lot of money.  Since I had recently experienced the inconvenience of a series of costly repair bills I decided I did not want another used car.  However, I could have purchased a more economical car and still saved money.

This leads me to what I believe what it truly means to think outside the box, challenging your assumptions.  I believed a new SUV was what I needed.  That belief was based on several assumptions.  I don’t want to deal with the inconvenience or cost of repair.  I was a skier so I convinced myself that my lifestyle demanded an SUV.  Surely gas will always be $.95/gallon.  Challenging any one of those assumptions would have affected my thought process and led to a different buying decision.  I was trapped in an SUV-shaped box and I was not able to get myself out using the tools in my toolkit.

This leads me to the most-recent chapter in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.  It is dedicated to the concept of a mental model.  A mental model represents how we view a situation and the thought processes we use when working within that situation.  Mental models are based in part on a set of assumptions.  As noted earlier in this post, a person’s assumptions are based on their experiences.  A mental model is comprised of tasks and rules used to navigate situations and we all use them to complete common tasks.

Are you struggling with a task?  Are you not getting the results you used to get?  It is worthwhile to examine the assumptions that affect your mental model.  You might be surprised what you find.  In this increasingly complex culture we live in, you might realize your assumptions need to change.

How do you challenge your assumptions?  I introduced a critical thinking book earlier.  In it the author provides several methods for solving problems.  One of them is to simply ask “why?” until you come across something you had not considered before.  Another method is to document the sequence of events in a situation.  The author provides 14 different techniques.  I gave you two of the easier ones.  Some of the others are complicated.  If you’re more into creative thinking, I recommend this book by Roger von Oech.  Its less practical but if you’re looking for an interesting read or struggling with your assumptions check it out.  Its a light read with lots of clever pictures.  The author also has a website if you are interested.

To answer my own question, I don’t think anyone can truly think outside the box.  To be an effective thinker, a person should not take anything for granted in their thinking, consistently challenge their assumptions, and be open to ideas that differ from theirs.

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What is human performance technology (HPT)?  If you search for it on the Web you get broad promises about fulfilled potential, optimal performance and better results.  But what does it look like?  How will you know it when you see it?

HPT can seem simple or complex depending on who is explaining it.  I admit to doing a poor job at it more than once.  I have found it easier to explain through case studies.  A few weeks ago I read an article describing changes the US Army has made to basic training.  This project is a good case study to introduce some of the principles of HPT.  The process used by the Army illustrates several standards of human performance technology developed by the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).  In this post I will focus on some of the principles that are clear in the project.

ISPI describes HPT as “a systematic combination of three fundamental processes, performance analysis, cause analysis, and intervention selection.”  Confused yet?  Simply stated, performance analysis is examining optimal and actual performance with the intent of defining both.  Cause analysis is looking at reasons why people fall into the optimal camp, the actual camp, or somewhere in between.  With the performance gap defined and the cause identified, it is time to select the appropriate intervention.  In the Army example, I will focus mainly on the performance and cause analysis.  Since the Army is committed to the face-to-face training model, there were few opportunities to choose another training model.

There are ten principles of performance improvement.  The first is focusing on results.  To accommodate changes in the modern battlefield the Army has been moving away from large scale troop engagements in favor smaller semi-autonomous teams.  To equip modern recruits for this approach, basic training also had to change.  Conditioning needed more emphasis.  The type of weapon used and how it is used has changed.  The focus on small team engagements means interaction with local populations is increasingly important.  All of this also placed a premium on individual decision making.  Based on the article, the intended result of the updated basic training is a self-directed decision maker capable of interacting with local populations to engage the enemy with a small but highly effective team.

To account for these changes and achieve a successful outcome, the Army needed to adopt a systematic approach.  These are are reflected in HPT principles 5 – 10.  These six principles are similar to the instructional systems design (ISD) process.  ISD has been used successfully for years to analyze specific learning challenges and develop learning goals and objectives and to develop the appropriate instruction to meet those goals and objectives.  In this post I will only focus on 5 (needs assessment) and 6 (cause analysis).

ISD starts with a systematic analysis of the performance problem.  The Army surveyed the troops who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan to learn what was needed in the field.   They also studied the characteristics of recruits.  The survey analysis found that some skills taught in basic training could be removed.  They also learned that cultural awareness was important.  Analysis of the physical demands of modern warfare required a different approaches to conditioning.  One of the biggest findings was a need to equip soldiers to be effective and confident decision makers.

The combination of all these factors led to substantial changes to basic training.  Long distance runs have been replaced by short sprints.  Stretching and strengthening core muscles is emphasized.  Recruits use the actual  weapon during they will carry for marksmanship training.  Marksmanship has also been spread across the ten-week program instead of one intensive block.

Army analysis f0und that recruits, mostly all are millenials, are more adept at “juggling information” and “aware of global affairs” than previous generations.  They also have shorter attention spans and are less physically fit.  From a performance perspective, these are constraints that must be accounted for when developing the appropriate intervention.  The Army dealt with these issues by using a team approach to learning where recruits had to solve problems together and rely on one another’s strengths.  They also challenge recruits by frequently changing the conditions of a task and adding complexity.

Taking a systematic approach is more time consuming.  Successful organizations never stop reviewing the performance of the individuals, teams, and what they produce.  The ability to recognize and respond to market trends requires a thoughtful and intentional methodology.  HPT provides a framework where organizations can develop tools and methods that take into account the various inputs and constraints that affect performance.

How does your organization assess performance issues?

Does your organization apply a systematic approach to performance?

Do you have a program for analyzing the performance of your direct reports?

What are you doing to ensure they have the tools and training to perform at the highest level?

Does every performance problem get solved with training?

If you can’t answer these questions with confidence, click here to find a certified performance technologist near you.

I started reading The Fifth Discipline last week.  The author identifies “component technologies” required to become a learning organization.  They are systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.  I’m reading a first edition released in 1990 so some of the examples seem outdated.  Additionally, what may have seemed advanced 20 years ago is commonplace today.  Despite the effect of time there are some insights that are worth consideration.

I want to address the idea of developing expertise, what the author refers to as personal mastery.  Everybody has interests that extend beyond their daily work responsibilities.  As a learning professional I am responsible for developing learning interventions (frequently referred to as training) to address performance gaps in my organization.  In any given week I might have 2-3 short-term projects to complete and several larger scope projects.  My training and experience enables me to apply a systematic approach to these projects that will ensure we achieve the desired result.

Although I am always staying current on learning trends, I am also interested in user-centered software design.  This is frequently referred to as usability.  User centered design includes end users in the design process to ensure the final product meets their needs.  I am by no means a usability expert.  However, in my organization I might have more expertise than anyone else.  For that reason, I add value above and beyond my regular duties.  However, I can only add value if people know about my expertise.

How can you use your interests to add value to your organization?  First, you must invest in your interest area.  To be viewed as an expert, you must strive to be an expert.  What do you read?  What web sites do you visit?  Who are the significant thought leaders in your interest area?  You don’t have to have all the answers.  Sometimes it is enough to be able to provide resources to others.  One definition of expertise is knowing more than the person asking the question.

The second way to become an expert is to refine your skills.  Look for opportunities to apply what you know.  It is not enough to be well-read.  If you are going to add value you must be able to apply your skills.  This does not mean you have to be assigned a project.  That won’t always be possible.  However, in any given week you will have opportunities to improve your skill set.  Take advantage of them.

Finally, share you expertise.  Get the word out through any channel at your disposal.  One of the purposes of this blog is to share perspectives I have regarding workplace performance.  I include the URL at the bottom of my email messages to encourage others to read and join the conversation.  The more I people read the more they know about me and my expertise.  As the site develops I plan to add links to other sites I visit to stay current on my regular job duties and other areas of interest.  This will help people be more efficient at finding answers since they won’t have to ask me directly to get answers.

I just listened to a Harvard Business Review interview with Alexandra Samuel.  She is an expert on the use of social media. You can listen to it here.  If you are interested in using social media to share your expertise she provides excellent insights on selecting the proper social media outlet for you message.  She also notes that social media is best at connecting people, as opposed to establishing a corporate identity.  She also notes that the effective use of social media requires a person to be authentic and transparent.  For me that requires me to share what I know and acknowledge what I don’t know, which is a lot.  It is important for me to accept input from others.  I have not mastered the art of social networking but through this blog I hope to learn as much as I help others learn.

Please share your thoughts on expertise and how you develop yours.