(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 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.
 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.
October 23, 2017
Expanding the Territory
Now that I have returned to Purdue, I am back to experiencing some of my past habits and activities as a faculty member. In my previous entry, “Crossing Paths,” I mentioned my trip to North Dakota for the Space Grant meeting; last week, the travel was to Austin, Texas for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) meeting. After being in Washington for a full year, it was both refreshing and curiously strange to be back at an academic conference. More than anything else, I was able to enjoy re-connecting with colleagues and collaborators and others in a community that I have been an active part for over 25 years, rather than the valuable (but disconcerting) experience of learning a new environment and new norms in an unfamiliar context.
A year away from something so immersive as one’s primary research community does permit a new experience and view upon one’s return. It is not just that my presentations took on a slightly different tone due to the experience of writing for diplomats; I was thinking about the presentations differently, colored by my growing understanding of what it is to speak on policy topics. I was very glad to see GROUPER alumnae and hear of their successes; I enjoyed watching the current students present well and receive appreciative comments from the audience. That was much more satisfying in many ways than actually being the one presenting all of the papers. It’s an interesting expansion of perception and shift in perspective on the territory (dare I say legacy?) of one’s career. Interestingly, I could also hear it differently this time, aided by the alternative experience of last year. Where has the influence gone, and how has it traveled from its headwaters? Does the river notice its impact on the stones as it flows?
I recognize that some of what I missed while in Washington was the regular opportunity to work with and mentor people whose personal and professional trajectories could be increased. What I could begin to notice in Austin was how much influence my past efforts have had on others, even when I didn’t realize previously that what I was doing would affect them in a lasting way. In retrospect, it’s not surprising, but at the time, I found myself at a loss for words when I was introduced to a promising student by someone who had already been positively influenced by their interactions with me. I wasn’t actively recruiting new students… but I would be pleased to have such exciting and passionate people to help explore new projects and possibilities.
Another area of recognition during the past two months since I returned from Washington was the change in context to describe the applications of our work in the lab. Yes, it’s easy to excite other space folks about the NASA research on Mars exploration analog projects; pilots often don’t need to be convinced about the value of our aviation weather information studies. But policy impacts? Can’t we just leave that to others? As I have learned, the answer is “no”. The connections won’t be evident to all, as we’ve already learned from the story of Cassandra and “postcards”. What is the broader context of connections, within and beyond the communities that already sense the value of what we do?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised about this, but nonetheless, it has taken me a while to process this change in thinking due to my experience in Washington. My conversations while in Austin did not just cover the next steps for the HFES, but next steps for national science and technology policy. The research discussions were not just posed in the context of a single principal investigator grant to a directed funding agency call… but possibilities to address broader elements of engineering’s role in society. What justification would you provide to say that your research was worth funding to people who weren’t specialists in your area, or even in STEM research in general? (Oh. This is exactly what is being proposed in the U.S. Senate.)
I happen to like GROUPER’s statement of why we exist… however, I’m biased, and I already know what it means to talk about “human processes of information flow, knowledge sharing, and task coordination”. But what is that good for? A very similar question was asked by, and of, the National Academy of Engineering (now renamed as part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM) to explain the role of engineering research and technology development to address 14 “global Grand Challenges” facing society in the 21st Century. Speakers at the Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) in Washington in July asked members of the audience to think about how their work might address any of the Grand Challenges: in essence, a call to consider expanding one’s territory of impact. And when I brought that question to the lab, an interesting insight emerged.
GROUPER research addresses seven of the 14 Grand Challenges.
Five of these are pretty obvious: PERCH research on brain injury recovery and personalized medicine for chronic care directly touches on “Personalized Learning,” “Reverse-Engineer the Brain,” and “Advance Health Informatics”. CORAL and SHARK work on secure supply chains and network operations center teams hits on “Secure Cyberspace”. These projects, together with our STINGRAY work on spaceflight operations, provide examples of “Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery,” particularly discovery conducted by interdisciplinary teams of humans. In addition, there are two more areas that benefit by GROUPER’s ability to capitalize on connections. It’s not just the individualized brain trajectories and chronic care models, but the discussion of Systems Engineering to support improved information architectures for non-text references, that helps address the push to “Engineer Better Medicines.” Improved information architectures, improved network operations and event responses, and better cognitive framing for addressing uncertainty in event prediction and response all assist in the effort to “Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure”.
That’s a very big territory. There’s more to do, not less. Who else wants to go explore and map such beautiful frontiers?