Values-based Decision Making

In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.”  I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow.  The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.

This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program.  One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values.  We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week.  The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.

The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers.  The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.

My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:

Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to  be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat.  The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.

Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea.  The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads.  However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor.  The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.

When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values.  In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students.  Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well.  If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case.  And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.

Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots.  It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students.  At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).

The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important.  Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information.  In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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Emails and Saving Mental Bandwidth

At the start of 2019, I wanted to conduct an experiment.  I had grown irritated with the volume of email in my personal account.  Each day, I would wake up to 10 or so new emails from various retailers with information on promotions, offers, and deals.  I had tolerated these emails for sometime because I liked to keep abreast of potential deals that I could take advantage of.

However, the emails weren’t just morning updates.  I would keep my personal email open at work and clear emails throughout the day, which forced me to continuously switch back and forth.  I wanted a better way of managing the inflow of messages without unsubscribing to emails that genuinely were bringing me information I would want when planning upcoming purchases.

I took some time and set up around 60 filters to automatically route messages from my inbox to a separate Promotions folder (I know Gmail can handle this, but I wanted to be intentional with the process).  I also unsubscribed to a bunch of lists where I never opened the messages.  It was a lot of front end work that took a few days to complete, but slowly my inbox got quieter.

emails
As of March 18th, 2019

Now, after 3 months of progress, I have seen between 1,500-2,000 messages get routed away from my inbox.  2,000 messages that I never read, and didn’t have to make a decision whether to open it or automatically delete.

I don’t think of this as some sort of productivity hack.  At most, I’ve saved maybe an hour of time in 3 months, so it’s not like it’s a quality of life adjustment.  Instead, the value I find is in the mental bandwidth saved from not having to constantly switch back and forth through email.

It’s a signal and noise ratio issue.  So much of my time is spent wading through a lot of noise that is distracting me from focusing my attention on what’s important.  On the best of days, I do my best to fight off my inability to focus on work and maybe carve out some meaningful time by avoiding things that have been designed to draw me towards them (I’m looking at you, social media and YouTube).  Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes my monkey brain gets the best of me.

There are two strategies to deal with this.  You can either intentionally focus the signal, or you can do what I’ve done in this instance and try to turn down the noise a bit.  Too much noise can interfere with the signals you are trying to pick up.  While email is hardly a signal-killing thing in my life, it’s a steady trickle of distractions that I’ve started intentionally cutting to make room in my attention for more important things.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

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I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking (part two)

Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook.  I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.

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6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis  will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will  grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.

This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be.  By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person.  I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.

I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things.  For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others.  There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.

Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can.  Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan