Timing is Everything
Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well. The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items. Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students. Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line. The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).
Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve. A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening). I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!). Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting. That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers. The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue. A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April). At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing. As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast. (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.) Yeah, that was some good timing.
Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception). But the topic is never far from our mind. In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete. We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state). We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair. But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?
Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really). As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline. A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question. In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:
Student: Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.
(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset. Don’t do that.)
BSC: What do I need in order to do xyz?
Student: You need A, B, and Q.
(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)
Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:
- Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
- I can do xyz’ by TD.
- I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
- Yes, working
What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab. It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format. But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:
ACTION REQUIRED / REQUESTED, or
The body of the emails would specify details like:
Estimated time to complete: xxx
Date / time needed: dd mmm yy hh:mm
So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time. I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines. Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis. It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance. Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement. But at least, we’re making progress.
It’s about time.
February 29, 2016
Filling in the Blanks
How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry? Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes. It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions. So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.
I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement. Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels. I thought I was going to get the position. I didn’t. In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed. This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before. Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered. Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting). I was a really good candidate for one version of the job. I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job. That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person. An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.
The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically. We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students). We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary. And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise. Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones. Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist). So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing. That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.
Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015. This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus. Great, right? Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders. This is neither good nor bad, in itself. (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.) I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.
Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions. However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days. We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30. But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.
In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons. It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing. One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career. (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.) We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.
More coming soon. I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so. No, really.