grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Category: task coordination

Guidance, Navigation, and Communication

This is the most normal contact I’ve had today.  Thanks for this bit of structure.

 

While this was not how or where I expected this blog entry to start, after a long absence.  However, these comments are especially notable for me, since they came not from one, but two different people in two different online meetings in two distinct research project contexts.  They were notable not because I was doing something uniquely innovative or novel, but exactly because I was doing something relatively mundane: regular weekly meetings with my students, and regularly scheduled project updates with my research team.  Yes, there were a few technical hiccups, as there often are, but for the most part, they functioned as we always expect them to function.

And that, in a nutshell, was what was most appreciated today.  I think it is no exaggeration to say that very few people alive today remember a similar period of rapid shift from normal to unprecedented, with such a sense of vertigo as we collectively stare into a social, economic, and cultural abyss.  But that is not where I want to focus my emphasis in this entry; there are plenty of places to talk about that.  I want to talk more about what we in the lab have been learning this year, which has become unexpectedly one of the most valuable possible lessons for me (and maybe others, but I will let them be the judges of that).

Fall 2019 was really busy.  I was teaching my two courses (Perspectives on Systems Engineering, or PoSE, as well as Work Analysis and Design) with a bit over 200 students in total.  Two students were finishing their dissertations (Megan on Cybersecurity Incident Response Teams, and Jordan on Spaceflight Mission Support Operations Teams), and three more grad students (and an undergrad) were joining—two from a different department with different cultures and traditions of graduate progress.  I was also faculty advisor to the professional society student chapter.  Add that to my normal level of travel (Japan in August, London in September, Washington DC and Seattle on consecutive weeks in October), and our regular habit of individual meetings (written as “1:1” in my calendar) just sort of fell by the wayside.  We were making progress overall, and I was still having (most of) our weekly GROUPER meetings, so no problem, right?

Well, not quite.  New students need orientation and support to start a new program—even if they are simply completing their BS degree and starting an MS/PhD in the same program.  The culture of a lab changes significantly when the “veterans” leave and the “newbies” come in.  If all the veterans are leaving at once (and living in other cities or even time zones as they finish), who is most responsible for managing the communication and socialization of the important aspects of the organizational culture?  The advisor, of course—even if the lab is fortunate enough (as we have been) to have a set of new student “onboarding” documents.  Thus, it was easy enough for me to think, “well, this is just a little schedule shift,” when postponing 1:1 meetings, it’s HUGE for someone just starting on a new path in a confusing feudal environment.

So, among the last gasp efforts of the overwhelming Fall semester, we made sure that we put a priority on making sure everyone had a regular 1:1 meeting, and that such meetings were a priority when possible.  (Sometimes, from February Frenzy through March Madness and April Anarchy, we might not have 1:1 meetings for everyone at their regularly scheduled time, but we know to discuss that with the travel schedule weeks in advance.)  I was even able to welcome a new international visiting student, and within her first week on campus, we had 1:1 meetings for her as well.  Everyone remember to breathe…

Within the first three weeks of the new semester starting in January 2020, the difference was obvious to the students, and to me as well.  Yes, it helped that I wasn’t teaching in the classroom (“A Professor is ALWAYS teaching!”), but each week, significant progress was being made in the crafting and focus on research projects, social and psychological development, and understanding of what I’m looking for and how to get there.  As a result, when I asked for a “Captain Kirk to Scotty” response from the lab, not only could I get one, but the response seamlessly added into the discussions of each individual’s projects as well.

Scotty-using-communicator

Figure 1.  Scotty: “I need at least three days, Captain.”  Kirk: “You’ve got an hour.”  image from https://movieplus.news/25-false-things-about-star-trek-that-everyone-believed/

Since the lab has been experiencing “distributed operations” for at least four years (remember the students in other time zones part?), we have frequently had at least one member of the lab (including me, when I was working in Washington, DC for a year) “dial in” remotely via Webex, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, ….  It’s not weird, it’s just that not everyone makes it to the same room every week.  So, if there is an illness, or travel, or simply a schedule conflict, “Can we do the 1:1 remotely next Monday?  Sure.”  In essence, regular contact, regular discussion, regular updates had all become… regular.

Back in February, one of our research project teams was having its quasi-monthly meeting.  It’s hard getting people from four universities and a federal agency together for project updates, but we were able to find a mutual window in the schedule: March 23. We don’t know much else about the news and research environment ahead (our project had been already upended by a Sunday morning news story), but we do know that.  As the possible impacts of “shelter in place” and “social distancing” were discussed in early March, GROUPER made a fairly simple decision on March 11, two days before Purdue’s Spring Break: “We’ll just assume all meetings starting March 23, for the first two weeks after Spring Break, will be electronic rather than physical.” At least it seemed simple at the time.

GROUPER studies how people get, share, and use information.  We focus on elements of information sharing, knowledge exchange, and task coordination.  We’ve talked about differences between physical interactions and online communication, and how we manage and moderate our expectations of those online information flows, for over 25 years.  (See here, and here.)  But today, there was an additional value to doing things we do regularly, in a way that we could recognize as familiar and repeated.  And yes, there was a value to me as well.  Guidance and navigation aren’t just for spacecraft, but for explorers of all types; communication is not a luxury, but a human need.

 

 

Inertial Damping

I have been thinking a lot about damping lately.  To be specific, inertial damping.  You know, that aspect of your hybrid electric car’s regenerative braking system that recharges your batteries while you stop?  Or the gyroscopic properties of a bicycle wheel that keeps you moving forward instead of falling over when you turn?  Yeah, that stuff.  People think about that all the time, don’t they?  No?

This is what happens when a geek starts talking about their internal thought processes, and especially since I recently talked about postcards from the future, maybe I do need to explain my terms.  Apparently, one of the first things I need to do is to explain that I am not talking about “inertial dampening,” which, as far as I can tell, is a science fiction plot device highly likely to get yourself into a fight with physicists for dissing their man Newton.    That’s not my focus today.  I’m trying to take a real physics and engineering term, and see how application of that term in a complex human setting helps me design, analyze, or improve sociotechnical systems in a more effective way… because that’s something that engineers do.

Actually, I started thinking about damping a lot based on a question that someone asked me at the end of the Jefferson Science Fellowship (JSF) lecture I gave on January 24.  (For reference, the point of this lecture is to summarize the general area of work that each Fellow does, both for the policy audience of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and for the scientific audience of the National Academies.)  I spoke about information flow and distributed expertise (because that’s something I do), including the challenges of appropriate coordination during event response for either physical (civil unrest, natural disaster) or cyber-physical (network or security operations) events.  I got quite a few questions, as well as invitations for additional discussions with various groups across the State Dept.  This was a very good feeling, in that it gave me the sense that some people could finally hear some of what I have been trying to study and communicate for years.

However, that does come with a price: when one of those people asks a question, can I give an answer that they understand and know what to do with it?  In essence, that was the challenge when someone asked me a damping question.  (They didn’t really ask it as a damping question, but since I am likely to see lots of things as connected feedback control systems, it’s not surprising that I heard it as one.)

If you have a large bureaucratic organization which lives on sending lots of messages to lots of people for their opinion and approval (aka “clearance”), don’t you run the risk of taking too long to respond to emerging, critical timeline events?

That’s a very reasonable question.  And it takes me immediately to thoughts about damping.  Imagine your new event as some sort of input function.  However, the event isn’t always purely evident immediately, and it doesn’t just go from off to on instantaneously.  There might be multiple events that may or may not be related to each other.  You want your response (output function) to match the demands of the input function.  The engineering version of this problem is one of “critical damping”.  If your damping ratio is too high (over 1), your response to the new event is very slow.  Although you may never over-respond to the event, it takes you a long time to actually respond to the event, and in fact, you may fail to do what needs to be done within the deadlines (people need fresh water and shelter and warmth within a matter of hours to days, or they die).  We tend to assume that faster is always better.  However, there is a limit / problem with that, which we now understand from the world of social media.  Someone can respond *too quickly* with *too little* information, and be unable to tell the difference between the actual event that needs to be responded, and some distractor or misinformation.  (Remember, I’m not trying to be political here, but since the lecture was just a few days after the Inauguration, I may have made a reference to a social media event or two.)  This would be an example of having a damping ratio that is too low (close to 0), which is a different problem.  (You might ask what is the inertial property here.  Well, I have talked in the past about knowledge as “little inertial balls of expertise,” in the sense that expertise allows you to devote energy to efficient processing of the world and move to where you need to go in the future.)  People going off on their first impression without checking sources or others’ understanding would be an “underdamped” response (damping ratio too low), which can be just as bad (but in a different way ) than a bureaucratic, “overdamped” response (damping ratio too high) that takes too long and doesn’t want to risk or challenge anything for fear of being wrong.

In essence, an effective inertial damper takes energy that comes at you, with bounces and noise and possible confusion that you don’t want to respond too much to, and turn it into energy that works for you in a time frame that makes for the tasks you need to do.  That sounds great, and it’s a very interesting problem to work on.  Perhaps the additional challenge is, How do I apply this to my own life?  As much as I enjoy a string of fist-pumping, high-fiving successes in a non-athletic context,   there is the challenge of appropriately damped responses when shifting from State Dept. to Purdue stuff.  Reminder to Barrett: it’s not good to try to do two full-time jobs simultaneously for long periods, and I am feeling now the stress of trying to complete a large number of Purdue (or Indiana Space Grant) activities after spending all day working on Japan Desk activities.  In fact, that stress might be better described as hysteresis, rather than damping.  (Discuss.)  More accurately, damping is the ability to take the frustration of emails and news feed updates and channel that energy into productive work, such as a book chapter, or journal manuscript, or even a blog entry.   Like this one.

Huddle Up!

(Also known as “Notes on a train,” otherwise described as the experiences of being on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor commuter rail system finishing a work task while watching the cities roll past.)

 

Although it is the middle of football season, my first thought these days when I hear the word “huddle” is not of grass-stained uniforms or winning touchdown drives, but of men and women in suits in an office or conference room with pads of paper.  They are, in fact, one of the primary ways that State Department offices keep themselves organized and updated.  I find these huddles fascinating for that reason; both the similarities and the differences compared to GROUPER meetings are critically important to me.  Yes, the leader wants to hear from everyone, and there can be moments of banter and amusing references to recent activities (including those grass-stained uniforms).  However, what differs is also important, especially as I consider what I’m learning now and what I will bring back to Purdue next year.

 

A primary difference: why is it that a weekly 9-12 person huddle at State can take as little as 20-40 minutes, or that in a schedule-fluxing day, a five-person huddle can be completed in 14 minutes?  I had a sense that the reason had something to do with the experience, expertise, and professionalism of the team members.  At first, I thought it was that these teams were not getting involved in the messiness of the scrum activity of recognizing and responding to problems; I was informed, though, that this was not correct.  Yes, there are problems, and one purpose of the huddle is to inform the leader[1] when there is a situation that needs to be “escalated” in ways that only the leader has access or resources to accomplish.  It’s not the formal structure of an agenda: most huddles I’ve attended only have advanced communication at the level of “9:15 Huddle”.

 

No, the professionalism takes a very different form: one of preparation.  I have begun to notice that, on each pad of paper, there was a set of bullet points set off and highlighted about specific topics.  In each case, these bullet points seem to evolve into “what do I want my person to know about this topic, and what is the BLUF (bottom line up front) that I can share in 10-20 seconds?”  (Lest you dismiss this style of work as old-fashioned just because it’s on paper, keep in mind that some of our meetings are held in rooms where electronic devices are not permitted.)  The leader may ask about a particular topic, or provide additional “top-down” updates, but this upward-flowing expertise is of vital importance.

 

Those who have spent time in GROUPER know that I directly address the distinctions of people, products, and projects in my interactions.  Huddles aren’t professional development focused on people, although one may hear about when someone will be out or unavailable or otherwise tasked.  There is a recognition of ongoing projects, with timelines ranging from days to months.  But there is substantial focus on products: things due this week, or tomorrow, or maybe even in a couple of hours.  (Remind me to write about “paper” sometime soon.)  Huddles usually don’t get moved due to such deadlines, although they may be shortened.  That also seems to be a fundamental aspect of the professionalism—a strong sense of, and respect for, both time and advance information as critical resources for effective recognition and response to dynamic events.

 

So, whether we are working to 2-3 day deadlines for paper, or highlighting preparation for international efforts requiring 4 months of preparation, it’s not just the product deadline cycle that drives efficiencies in huddles.  I can’t generate the type of experience that a consular officer gets when trying to evacuate citizens after an earthquake or during political instability.  But I do think there is a fundamental difference between “what do I need from my person” and “what does my person need from me” that is of significant importance here.  Good huddles tend to focus on the latter?  Stay tuned.


[1] Actually, the term “leader” is rarely used at State.  I hear “principal” a lot, and I will admit that I have a certain reluctance to t calling someone my “boss”.  So, let me use “person” as a very generic term of a member / leader in greater authority and responsibility in the huddle.