Thinking about options and failure

We spend a lot of time in sport seeking optimal performance. We tend to be very optimistic about the processes that contribute to this optimisation outcome and are delighted when it occurs.

One of the aptitudes we require is the ability to differentiate the choices of interventions and treatments we share with our support team colleagues, coaches and performers.

Clare Thorp has written about one aspect of this differentiation, overcoming the fear of better options. She notes:

We have more choice than ever in our daily lives — but while choice is supposed to feel liberating, it can often feel exhausting instead.

Clare discusses, among other issues, decision-making styles used by ‘satisficers’ and ‘maximizers’ (Parker, de Bruin and Fischhoff, 2007). Satisficers choose options that are good enough, maximizers choose an option with the highest expected utility.

In a 2017 paper, Daniel Brannon and Brandon Solwisch focused “on how and why maximizers evaluate an individual product based on a salient characteristic—the number of features that it has”.

The proliferation of feature-rich resources for and in high performance sport raises some important issues for the decisions we make and the advice we give. Daniel and Brandon note:

  • Maximizers evaluate products more favorably than satisficers when they have many features (“feature-rich”), but not when they have few features (“feature-poor”).
  • Maximizers are more likely than satisficers to perceive feature-rich (compared to feature-poor) products as a means of signaling status to others.
  • When maximizers no longer perceive feature-rich products as status signals, they do not evaluate them more favourably than satisficers.

They conclude with a discussion of status-signalling:

while past studies have found that maximizers experience post-decision regret because they look back at what could have been, it is also possible that they are disappointed when their purchase does not end up providing them with the positive social comparisons that they had originally hoped for …

It is sometimes very hard not to be part of an innovation momentum. Clare’s post and the literature are helpful stimuli to encourage us to think about how we personally come to make recommendations about innovation and adoption.

I think it is helpful to think about failure in this context too. Enter Sarah Milstein.

Earlier this year, Sarah wrote about How to Fail When You’re Used to Winning. She introduced her post with:

Innovation is a buzzword for our era. It evokes the promise of profiting tomorrow from today’s changes in technology. The word innovation implies a clean, crisp path. That’s a lie. In fact, innovation requires enormous amounts of failure — which then presents leadership challenges.

Sarah points out that “any team that must experiment constantly will fail a lot, and repeated failure almost always depresses people” (original emphases).

She adds:

when your team equates project failure with defeat, many will intuitively address the problem by narrowing the scope of new projects, in order to make them more likely to succeed.

She questions whether this approach is appropriate for entrepreneurial environments. I have always seen high performance sport as an entrepreneurial space and I found Sarah’s ideas resonating with the decision-making literature discussed earlier.

Sarah suggests the following framework for a team to reflect on direction:

  • Develop a written vision and mission statement and refer to them often.
  • Make failure an opportunity for learning rather than for blame.
  • Ask colleagues to share the lessons they have learned from failure.
  • Set a regular time when teams can raise a challenge they’re facing, and individuals can step up to offer relevant expertise or knowledge.
  • Use a spreadsheet, database or repository to track notes, code, and other assets from failed projects that can be reused in future projects.
  • Publicly celebrate incremental progress.
  • Model the behaviours you want.

Sarah concludes:

Your path to succeeding at failure and maintaining morale will not be linear. You’ll stumble along the way and find yourself wanting to pretend you didn’t just trip. But stick with it. Teams that can maintain good spirits during hard times tend to win, and nothing feeds morale like success.

Edwin Thoen has something to share about dealing with failed projects too, particularly involving data:

The probability that you have worked on a data science project that failed, approaches one very quickly as the number of projects done grows.

He suggests:

  • Make failing an option from the start.
  • Plan realistically and include slack for messiness.
  • Keep stakeholders in the loop.
  • Write a final report.

As Dewi Koning indicates finding positives in failure amplifies shared learning.

For much of my professional life I have been drawn to ‘good enough’ approaches. The more I have been involved in high performance sport, the more I have wanted to discuss fallibility in our pursuit of a dynamic performance optimisation. And to own failure as well as success.

I do believe that transparency about innovation decisions and their outcomes is immensely helpful as we all negotiate that very fine line between leading and bleeding edges.

Photo Credit

Milky Way Galaxy seen from mountain range (Stephen Coetsee on Unsplash)

#EL30 Graphing

Week 3 of Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 course is looking at Graphs.

Stephen recommended some resources for this topic. These included:

Vaidehi Joshi’s (2017) gentle introduction to graph theory. In her discussion of graphs, Vaidehi observes “in mathematics, graphs are a way to formally represent a network, which is basically just a collection of objects that are all interconnected”.  She distinguishes between directed graphs and undirected graphs and explains the ways edges connect nodes in these kind of graphs. An example of the former is Twitter (each edge created represents a one-way relationship), and of the latter Facebook (its edges are unordered pairs).

Vaidehi suggests a number of resources to provide details about graphs, one of them is Jonathan Cohen’s slide show Graph Traversal. He defines a graph as a “general structure for representing positions with an arbitrary connectivity structure” that has a collection of vertices (nodes) and edges (arcs). An edge connects two vertices and makes them adjacent.

A second resource shared by Stephen is Fjodor Van Veen’s (2016) Neural Network Zoo. In his post Fjodor shares a “mostly complete chart of Neural Networks’ and includes a detailed list of references to support his visualisation of the networks.

A third resource continues the visualisation theme. Vishakha Jha (2017) uses this diagram to inform the discussion of machine learning:

A fourth resource recommendation is Graph Data Structure and Algorithms (2017). This article aggregates a large number of links to graph topics. It includes this explanation:

One of the E-Learning 3.0 course members, Aras Bozkurt, exemplified this theme in this tweet and in doing so underscored the skills available within self-organising networks :

It was a great way to end and start conversations about graphs.

Photo Credits

Title image is from Gonçalves B, Coutinho D, Santos S, Lago-Penas C, Jiménez S, Sampaio J (2017) Exploring Team Passing Networks and Player Movement Dynamics in Youth Association Football. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0171156. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171156

Other images are frame grabs for the resources cited in this post.

Critical friendship as everyday #RUOK

Here in Australia, it is #RUOK Day today.

It is the 10th anniversary of the start of #RUOK. The aim of the organisation that coordinates the day and the year-round events that make RUOK an everyday activity is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

For the past five years, I have had the immense good fortune to be a critical friend to coaches, teachers and educational technologists. Throughout that time, I have been guided by John MacBeath’s observation:

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998: 118)

My critical friend conversations with coaches explored the very public nature of their work and the implications of their roles for their families, their friends … and themselves. The five years of conversations enabled us to go to some very private places that challenged and celebrated their lived experience.

My conversations with educational technologists took place at a time of organisational change and uncertainty about the institution’s direction. Our conversations discussed the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty.

All these conversations were held in confidence. I did receive funding to do this but I was clear that there would be no reporting of individual cases only of generic conversations.

On #RUOK Day I am sharing parts of one of my reports that arose out of critical friend conversations with educational technologist and shared with the institution’s leaders. It considered how we might value each other rather than engage in rhetoric about caring.


Introduction

This paper addresses being valued in an organisation that learns. It is a commitment to equitable and respectful treatment of all members …

In writing this, I am mindful of Miller Mair’s observation:

Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things. Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not point to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance.

I am mindful too that I am writing this specifically for two colleagues who have trusted me to produce this narrative.

The higher education institution is adopting a raft of business intelligence tools that monitor and report on staff and student performance. In organisations that have a mechanistic approach to performance these tools prioritise surveillance over care, and treat individuals as objects of study rather than subjects of appreciative inquiry. I believe that the institution is in danger of becoming such a mechanistic environment. I am hopeful that the University’s conversations about strategic direction is able to reduce this danger as might genuine consideration of staff performance review processes.

My view is that the institution can let go of aspirations to be “national leaders” or to be highly ranked in a variety of global indicators. The rhetoric of external recognition could be enabled by respectful, deep listening in our lived experience at the institution. Process would deliver outcome in an institution that avows to “walk-the-talk”.

This requires the University to value our staff. Recently, Brenda Leibowitz (2017) proposed:

… given that so many academics are intrinsically motivated to teach well, they should not be viewed as mere instruments of policy and strategic exigencies. Instead, they must be treated as academic partners whose role as professionals should be respected. Their importance must be acknowledged and they must be seen as accountable, responsible, thinking and feeling beings – not workhorses chasing global rankings for the benefit of their institutions’ reputations. (My emphasis)

The institution has promoted a narrative of engagement and retention for its student cohorts. I think this is vital for our staff too.

In the last year, I have become extremely concerned for the mental and physical well-being of some colleagues. I have a sense that unless significant changes are made in how we value each other we will continue to live in a threatening rather than enabling organisation that could learn to be different.

We can gain ground (and lose it) and this requires an agility in leadership that trusts and values colleagues whose role it is to engage and retain. There can be space for bottom-up renewal as well as top-down imposition.

I believe each of us has a responsibility to exert our agency to be valued and to value others.


My aim in writing the paper was to give voice to concerns that remain unspoken in fearful employee-employer relationships.

It was nourished by the idea that RUOK conversations are an everyday, formative commitment.

When I have my critical friend conversations, I have in mind conversations I had with Gavin Larkin many years ago.

Today is a very special day to remember him and his journey to support us all in the adventure of caring and being cared for.

Photo Credit

RUOK Mate?