Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Being an Effective Team Player

As mentioned previously, I'm enrolled in ODU's Leadership Management Development Certificate this semester. This first track is primarily focused on personal development, and covers topics ranging from time management to effective conflict resolution. This series of posts allows me to reflect and organize my thinking on the topics covered.

LMDC-I Session Four focused on teamwork! Sports metaphors ran rampant, and the discussion stayed upbeat. I did notice that this session seemed to be geared to people who have only limited roles. The Libraries are an incredibly collaborative environment, and we regularly have teams and ad-hoc task forces coming together to complete a project or six. One advantage of that environment is that we're fairly efficient when it comes time to form a group. Tuckman's stages of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) were raised in the discussion almost immediately--but, surprisingly, not by the facilitators. The party line for this session was that self-improvement and the avoidance of conflict ("Maintain a positive attitude at all costs") would result in strong teams, without any sense of group dynamics and learning to "storm" in healthy ways.

Some work was devoted to the nine-role Belbin Team Inventory, generally looking at the notion that the strongest teams often comprise members with varying strengths who can balance out each others' weaknesses. This dovetails with my own sense of "Each to the limits of their abilities," with an inclusive bent that welcomes individuals to put their best/most productive foot forward.

There was also a reminder that nobody can be an effective team member if they've burnt out. Team members need to take care of themselves. I recalled a number of heated discussions from my EMT days about "Looking out for Number One." While my priorities are not quite so life-and-death these days, I think it's important to remember that mantra. If you burn out, you're not helpful to anybody, including yourself. Protecting the core of your being from physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and emotional "low battery" will make sure that you continue to be an effective team member throughout the workday and beyond.

Effective Communication Across Differing Styles

As mentioned previously, I'm enrolled in ODU's Leadership Management Development Certificate this semester. This first track is primarily focused on personal development, and covers topics ranging from time management to effective conflict resolution. This series of posts allows me to reflect and organize my thinking on the topics covered.

Effective communication is a vital skill for leaders, professionals, researchers, and citizens. Everyone can benefit from a clear understanding of the work that needs doing and communication is a make-or-break factor when working with a group. Why, then, are there so many challenges to good communication? In talking with others about communication, I often find myself drawn down a certain rabbit-hole toward the stylistic use of language, with "artful" prose warring with plain-language dicta for my attention. Even when settling on a focus for the tone of the message, how can we affect the ways it will be received?

Understanding communication is perhaps closer to home for me than some others in the class; I spend my days communicating information! (I could be overblown here, and say something like, "communicating truth.") I was pleased to find a familiar touchstone in the Shannon-Weaver model of communication, with which we began our discussion, however briefly. This model says that communication of a message requires the sender of that message to encode it somehow (speech, email, bat-signal, etc.) and pass it via one channel or another to the receiver, who then decodes the message and hopefully returns feedback in a similar process. Along this pathway, signals can be lost, mangled, or simply overwhelmed by noise--any bits of entropy sneaking in and obscuring the message. Shannon's work in information theory was somewhat familiar to me, and in this context makes a great deal of sense: Communication requires effort from all parties involved to make sure the message is transferred accurately.

In the communications segment of LMDC-I, we took a forced-choice "personal style inventory" (I would provide a link, but I cannot find a citation of any kind) that helped us identify our preferred communication style: Achiever, Enthusiast, Analyzer, or Affiliator.

Achievers, or "Control Specialists," are often assertive, active, and decisive, occasionally to the detriment of interpersonal relationships. Enthusiasts, or "Social Specialists," are often big-picture thinkers, but may have trouble coming down to earth long enough to communicate. Analyzers, or "Technical Specialists," thrive with specific projects and structured work, but move slowly when it comes to to change a process. Afflilators, or "Adaptive Specialists," place a very high value on good relationships, even when the building of those relationships delays decisions.

Even without any traceable research underpinning these communication styles, they make a certain kind of sense. At work, I want to focus on projects, not people--I don't need to know the emotional history of a decision, but I do need context to determine my actions moving forward. As a "control specialist" or Achiever according to this inventory, I need to watch out for a few things, including seeming impatient, unsympathetic, or cold. As I said when discussing these styles with other LMDC participants, it's not that I don't care about interpersonal relationships with my co-workers...I just don't care to let them interfere with my actual work. Others in the discussion immediately challenged the notion that interpersonal relationships "interfered"--to their minds, building strong relationships was a priority of their work. Different styles, different strokes. Moving forward, I know I'll be able to put this information to good use as I try to encode messages for people who receive them differently.

The morning wrapped up with a few vignettes to discuss, including some work on active listening. One suggestion I rather liked was that good listening requires one to be all EARS:

Empathetic -- tap into the emotional state of the speaker.
Active -- be wholly present in listening, not simply preparing a response.
Reflective -- providing feedback to the speaker about the message.
Sensory -- remaining aware of anything else going on, closely focused on the speaker

This session provided some useful reminders of listening techniques, and the personal style inventory was helpful. As time goes on, I expect to see more opportunities to use some of these communication methods in my day-to-day work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Taking Control of Your Time at Work

As mentioned previously, I'm enrolled in ODU's Leadership Management Development Certificate this semester. This first track is primarily focused on personal development. Amusingly enough, the only conflict I've had with the every-other-week sessions so far was on the day that the discussion focused on taking control of time at work. As a "make up" assignment, I've been tasked with reviewing some of the trade literature on this topic. Here's what I've found:

A quick google search for "Taking Control of Time" yields the expected hundred-thousand-plus results. I wanted to start with trade literature, of the type that corporate professionals might refer to, so I skimmed through the list of results with an eye to the titles I might be able to use.

The first article, Lisa Quast's Want To Increase Your Productivity? Take Control Of Your Time, was published on the Forbes website a few years ago, and lists eight steps that busy people might use to wrangle their time more effectively. Most of these steps are common sense, repeated ad nauseam in various media: Set Goals, Prioritize, Plan Ahead, Avoid Multitasking, and the like.

Though the bulk of the tips aren't new to me, two of Ms. Quast's points caught my eye, and bear repeating. First, Find out where your time goes; it's easy to dismiss small distractions as irrelevant to good time management, but by documenting exactly where their time is spent, one can look back and determine which "small distractions" are really adding up. Second, Act like a consultant; When billable hours are key to success, there's often significantly more clarity as to which tasks are priorities.

After reading the Forbes blog post, I wanted a bit more substance, so I spent some time browsing articles in the Harvard Business Review's Time Management topic list. The one that jumped out at me as worth pursuing here was Peter Bregman's article The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings. In it, he makes the claim that "Compressed Time" is often beneficial, especially at work. By halving the time spent on most meetings and other "tactical work", people have higher intensity and focus on the time they do have. (Anecdotally, I've found the same thing to be true on the rare occasions when a meeting here is scheduled for less than an hour.)

The author points to some basic psychology--when time is severely restricted, behavior changes. Meeting participants show up on time, get to the point quickly, and tackle the biggest issues they face. In order to be most effective during these compressed meetings, participants need to be prepared for the discussion that will take place, having read any supporting materials and clarified their thoughts, and facilitators need to have confidence, starting on time and avoiding tangents. Everyone involved in a meeting of this style ought to be able to articulate a plan of action based on the discussions that took place. If next steps remain unclear, perhaps the meeting was not as successful as it could have been, and lessons should be learned for the future.

Finally, I wanted to look (however briefly) at the academic literature, where I found Gold & Mustafa's article Work always wins': client colonisation, time management and the anxieties of connected freelancers. I was intrigued by this article for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its focus on freelancers and telecommuting professionals. Work-life balance and effective time management is tricky enough to find in the world of traditional employment, let alone when mobile communications technologies are thrown into the mix. This article mentions "corporate colonization"--the concept of workplace norms entering non-work time in various ways, including "dictating the use of time"--and goes on to discuss "client colonization," the authors' term for a similar practice among telecommuters. To handle the intrusion of work into home life, freelancers may find that they compromise on various boundaries, creating ways for those boundaries to be permeable (responding to the needs of one aspect of life while immersed in another domain), or flexible, especially in terms of time. The relative integration or segmentation of the work and non-work facets of an individual's life can cause challenges for all workers.

This article, though removed somewhat from the practicality of the others, highlights the challenges all workers may face in managing time. Even in a more traditional work setting, we can learn lessons from the ways that freelancers occasionally feel "always-on" as their lives are colonized by their work. Gold & Mustafa point out that there are differences between focusing on a regimented schedule, and focusing on the completion of transactions and tasks. As we look to time management, it's important to leave some flexibility for new tasks and social interactions, but adherence to a schedule may still make it easier to "leave work at work" when the day ends.

All in all, it's easy to see how time management topics can be something of a rabbit hole into which one may fall. The trade and professional literature is littered with examples, and even the academic writers have much to say on the subject. I think the most important thing a person can do is to become familiar with the various tips and suggestions that can be found, and then synthesize those ideas into a strategy that works for them. Time management doesn't seem to be an area with a one-size-fits-all solution. With an understanding of the work, and the working styles involved, people can create time management solutions that will succeed.

Quast, L. (15 July 2013). Want To Increase Your Productivity? Take Control Of Your Time. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2013/07/15/want-to-increase-your-productivity-take-control-of-your-time

Bregman, P. (22 February 2016). The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/02/the-magic-of-30-minute-meetings

Gold, M., & Mustafa, M. (2013). 'Work always wins': client colonisation, time management and the anxieties of connected freelancers. New Technology, Work & Employment, 28(3), 197-211. doi:10.1111/ntwe.12017

Monday, February 22, 2016

Big Data Basics

I had the pleasure of attending Old Dominion University's High Performance Computing Day last week, a symposium focused on the possibilities of research computing. At HPC Day, the keynote "Data in Modern Times" was given by Zachary Brown, and it was an excellent reminder of some Big Data foundations for all of us.

Summarized from my notes:

"Big Data" is a new construction. In the past [really tempted to say "ye olden times" here] SQL-driven relational databases were enough--users could derive whatever insight they needed from the database with a structured query, and call it a day.

These days, there are a series of factors, often known as the "Many V's" that help define, or operationalize what people mean by "Big Data." Zachary focused on three:


New data is coming in fast. Often too fast to store without some processing to determine what's worth keeping.


There's so much data that it's unwieldy to handle with standard or legacy methods.


The data isn't neatly organized. It may be very text-based, it may include lots of different attributes, or may otherwise not fit into nice boxes for analysis.

As a side note, as data science evolves, other organizations and pundits are suggesting other V's. It's important to note that the original 3V's were measures of magnitude, as discussed here. "Strategy V's" attempt to address facets of the problem such as Veracity--can the data be trusted? To what level?; Value--Why are we bothering to work with the big data anyway?; Variability--do we understand the context of the data?; and (my favorite) Visualization--how can we present the data in a way that carries meaning? More on all 7 V's here

The keynote continued by addressing ways to "counter" each of the three V's:

To address the needs of Big Data in…
We must be…

Agility, in regards to Big Data, focuses far more on finding the right tools for the right job than on "Agile" software development, or on other "Agile" methods. Embarking on big data analysis can be overwhelming, so preparing to "drink from the firehose" requires dexterity.

Scalability addresses volumetric concerns by planning in advance to create an architecture that can be extended as needed if data continues to grow. Many of the data tools available today work across computer clusters--multiple machines working together to run analyses. That type of architecture works well with a few machines, and just as well with dozens, depending on the needs of the researcher.

Flexibility tackles variety by taking a range of methods to work with Big Data. Unstructured, text-based data? Use machine learning. Messy data? Tools like Open Refine can help scrub your data. Flexible methods allow data scientists to adjust their approaches to suit the problems at hand, rather than cleave to a one-size-fits-really-very-few method.

All in all, the keynote at ODU's High Performance Computing Day served as a great reminder for the various concerns surrounding Big Data, some key aspects of defining "Big Data" as a concept, and some strategic thinking to address the challenge of Big Data. Next steps include putting these reminders into practice as we all handle Big (and smaller) Data in work and life!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Management, Fish, and the Art of Being Present at Work

This week I attended the kickoff session of a six-week professional development opportunity, the Leadership Management Development Certificate (track one), here at Old Dominion. The morning's discussions and activities have prompted a lot of thought, and reflecting here will force me to organize my thinking in ways that might be helpful.

First, I really appreciate a few things the facilitators did to make us all feel welcome--introductions, icebreakers, and a discussion of "agreements" that would serve as ground rules and guidelines for all the sessions in the program. The facilitators also pointed out the "parking lot," a large flipchart designed to capture topics that didn't quite fit into the current discussion. By designating a place to capture those tangents, interesting-but-not-relevant discussions can be "parked" and picked up later when time allows. I'd like to try that model the next time I facilitate a similar workshop--by giving the discussion a place to rest, participants can focus their attention on other topics without worrying about forgetting the "parked" discussion.

The bulk of the morning was focused on the Fish! philosophy of workplace management. Though Fish! has been around for a while, it's always nice to have a reminder of the four main ideas:

  • Choose Your Attitude
  • Play
  • Make Their Day
  • Be There
(The fish is secondary.)

"Play" can take many forms at work, but the important takeaway is the notion that you can--and should--find a way to play and have fun at work. This leads into "Make Their Day," which says that a little extra attention can make a permanent difference in somebody's life. Attitudes can be infectious, and and we all can "Choose [Our] Attitudes" to make sure that we have a positive outlook, and can then share that with our coworkers and the communities we serve. Finally, we all have the option to "Be There"--being present in the day, in the moment, and in the actions we take.

The general tone of the philosophy boils down to the notion that if you love your job, it's going to show, and affect others in positive ways. That we're more productive when we're happy, and that it can help us avoid stress. People are always watching each other, and just one positive agent in the room can radically change the tone of the entire discussion.

Particularly resonant for me was the final point, "Be There." In the last few years, I've more-and-more tried to live mindfully, staying in the present moment as much as possible. Sometimes, it's a lot trickier than it sounds. There's always more work to be done, projects piling up, and a work-life balance to strive for...but when the lists get overwhelming, I'm learning to pause, take a deep breath or three, and dive back in, chipping away at the pile bit-by-bit until I'm happy with the work I've accomplished.

I'm sure there will be more lessons, more reflection, and more to discuss at the next five sessions of LMDC. For now, though...it's time to be present.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

That'll Teach Me...

I've often been one to overestimate my energy level and capability to DO ALL THE THINGS! There are so many great opportunities, cool ideas, and intriguing projects in the world that it can be really tricky for me to prioritize everything.

This blog was a wonderful place for me to ruminate while I was in graduate school, and still hosts the bulk of my casual writing on librarianship and information topics. That said, I'm slowly starting to write and publish professionally, and the bulk of my time is spent "on the ground" practicing librarianship, not just thinking about it.

So, no more promises to start blogging regularly again. You'll still see occasional pieces posted here, and I have no intention of "retiring" this site, but frequent updates are likely a thing of the past, at least for a while. Thanks for reading, and do keep an eye out for changes as this site transitions to more of a static home for my work on the web.