Systemic, Substantive, Assessment: Experts and The US Army

Cheers to Jason Yip, who, in his blog post “Cognitive themes for effective consulting,” adapted the tenets of a US Army program “Think Like a Commander” to consulting.

According to Yip, the Army created this program and identified these tenets to address the issue that their commanders were not applying their training adaptively, but rather routinely, which was causing an issue in the field.

Yip draws the analogy that effective experts should be adaptive thinkers, who can develop a more subtle understanding of any situation and appropriately apply the right tools.

The US Army has a long tradition of trying to look at their activities with an eye towards what has succeeded and what has failed—it doesn’t mean that they always get the analysis, or conclusions, correct, but they make it a point to try to not make the same mistake twice.  Their focus is on assessing their abilities to be effective and to identifying best and worst practices through a thorough understanding of why.

I would like to explore how Tenet 8 should be used in this tradition of assessment and how in taking Yip’s transfer of the tenet (he identified it as Theme 7) we should apply this to our own expert practices.  I will discuss this only in the context of the adaptive expert.

The essence of the Tenet/Theme is to think in terms of contingencies.  This is proactive thinking focused on identifying “risks, mitigation, and contingencies” as Yip puts it, and I’d like to take it a step further by applying the concept of Systemic, Substantive, Assessment.

If we think about assessment we are normally focused on a reactive process.  The assessment is what we do after the event has taken place.  But substantive assessment is not reactive, it is proactive.  It takes into consideration that the assumptions we have made and the logic we have applied may be fallacious, not accurate, flawed, or down-right incorrect because the process forces us to identify tests for these items at the beginning of the exercise.

In the Agile development world, this is analogous to Test Driven Development (TDD) where you setup the tests prior to coding a single instruction.  The purpose is to form your basic assumptions that underlie what you are going to do and why, and then establish the tests for success or failure prior to doing it.  It doesn’t mean that you are going to capture everything at the outset—that is a best case scenario—but it does carry the expectation that you will have a more substantive understanding of the problem you are facing and how you plan to address it.  Then you code.

In the consulting world, this is akin to uncovering and setting expectations with one’s client.  Through this process of examining and defining what will be done and for what purpose, both client and consultant have a framework to systemically assess if the process is taking the direction they desire, and if not, why; thereby, facilitating substantive assessment and a successful engagement.

In the world of startups there is the concept of “pivoting,” that is, that you go in one direction until you have identified that there is a strategic or tactical impasse blocking your further progress or you uncover a path that can catalyze success, and so you take the new direction.  To be successful at this though, you need to constantly assess what you have, where you are going, and why.  While it may feel anathematic—that you cannot have pre-defined precepts, expectations, or tests—success is actually predicated on having a framework to define what is an impasse or a catalyst in your pursuit.

In the above examples the reason why we are doing something is important to us.  It allows us to frame a conversation that will take place systematically.  It gives us the tools by which we can define that conversation.  It will suggest the very questions we need to ask in that conversation.  As experts we have to take into account the very real danger that we have misjudged the situation and are taking the wrong path.

Systemic, Substantive, Assessment is the essence of “rich contingency thinking,” or “consider[ing] risks, mitigation, and contingencies.”  By formalizing the process of thinking ahead and re-evaluating that process and its outcomes, you benefit from the development of a framework and even the definition of the frailties of that framework so that you can test your ability to achieve your goals, as well as testing your assumptions relating to the framework.




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How Do We Make Substantive Changes in Education?

“I never let my schooling get in the way of my education…”

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

How Do We Make Substantive Changes in Education?  Start by looking for a solution in the simple statement of a nineteenth century social critic.

In the mid 90’s I worked with an AmeriCorps program to assist librarians with using the computer as an educative resource in the k-12 school library.  In the late ‘90s, I formed Charmed Solutions, Inc. to provide training to K-12 teachers in how to use a computer in the classroom as a pedagogical tool.  The focus of the school districts at the time was to train the teachers in the software that was being installed on the computers, but by working with master teachers and professors of education we developed a curriculum that:

  1. modeled active learning techniques; and,
  2. manipulated the training activities on the mechanics of the software to become lessons in active learning techniques.

We did this because we recognized that computers could become a revolutionary tool useful in reframing the practical relationship between teaching and learning.  That is, because teachers had to learn HOW to use the tool, you could present the usage of the tool in a way that supported a fundamental change in pedagogy through a definition and demonstration of best practices that supported the usage of the tool in a particular light.

If you look at teaching as a shaping of the brain, and there being a significant inertia inhibiting the reshaping of that brain, then distracting the brain from the fact that it is being reshaped can become a powerful tool in overcoming that inertia.  The participants’ emotional vulnerability generated by their fear of HOW to use this tool was just that kind of a distraction, and motivation, to put them into the right frame of mind to embrace a new method of teaching.

Working within the existing training structure, we delivered week-long and weekend-long intensive training programs.  We tried to engage the district staff to educate them as well, but there was no infrastructure to support a systemic and sustainable practice or even measurement of success or failure of this kind of initiative.  Working from the outside, as consultants, there was not enough political capital to affect the kind of infrastructure changes that was required.  At the time, there was also a political shift within the schools to bring this training in-house, so we ended these endeavors.

While it might be difficult to garner the social support for investing in a change to the fundamental structure of teaching and learning, it is much less socially difficult to find resources to invest in technology initiatives, which, if well designed, will come with the political, organizational, and fiscal support that makes such investment successful and effective.    A successful implementation of technology has a multiplier effect when it comes to effective change.  This multiplier is a result of the recognition that technology is disruptive and a successful technology initiative requires additional support to be sustainable and systemic.

So how does one effect revolutionary change when the infrastructure does not support measures to do so?  A decade later, New York State implemented a policy decision requiring colleges of education to become accredited by a peer-review professional body, separate from the college/university level accreditation.

There was a critical process to this accreditation that was grounded in research methodology.

  • Create a conceptual foundation of what constitutes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of a good teacher
  • Continuously test and measure your success of preparing graduates that meet those qualities
  • Continuously test and measure the underlying validity of that conceptual foundation—that is that teachers who embody those foundational qualities ARE IN PRACTICE effective teachers

I have worked with universities and colleges to facilitate the data driven decision making that supports this process.  This recurring data-driven assessment improvement cycle is exactly what education should be about and ironically many schools of education find it difficult to implement because it is CONTRARY to the way we think about teaching and learning.  But this is neither the fault of the researchers nor the educators of our teachers; rather, it is due to the inertia of a system that will resist all change unless that CHANGE IS EMBRACED and implemented in a systemic, sustainable, and AGILE fashion.

Nevertheless, many professors of education and K-12 teachers have been able to shirk the shroud of socialization and model the very behavior that they espouse.  Many of them went into education for the very purpose of trying to change the system from the inside.  One can find entire departments or colleges that are successful in training the next generation of teachers.  Further, this next generation of teachers is even being hired based upon the successful mastery and demonstration of these qualities, techniques, and tools.

But this is not the end of the story.  Simply throwing newly educated teachers into the system and expecting changes to occur is not going to be effective in implementing systemic and sustainable change.  There are too many OTHER factors at play.

For one, our education process is not a two party system (teacher and learner).  The ecosystem of learning includes expectations of teaching and learning that have been ingrained and reinforced for influencing stakeholders over periods of two, three, four, five, six, and more decades.  These are grandparents, parents, testing agencies, state agencies, school administrators, textbook companies, professors, trustees, school boards, and different classes of learning institutions (K-12 may go in one direction, but will higher education follow suit?).

But even in a two party system, and even with relationship of power titled towards the teacher, it is not a cut and dry relationship.   A recent change made at Harvard in the large introductory classes that moved from the traditional lecture to a more active learning methodology identified that while the professor and the grad students were prepped for the change, the students themselves were very unsure of the format change.  Para-phrasing one student interviewed by NPR:

I was worried about having to learn and develop brand-new techniques for this class when I had developed and mastered very successful ones that have brought me to this point in my career.

So, in certain scenarios, professors, schools, departments may not have as much power in effecting a change as they wish, if they desire to effect that change in a vacuum.  Students may refuse to attend a particular class, or school if they feel threatened by that change.  We need to look at all the stakeholders in the system to determine and what are their motivations, risks, and rationales behind their behavior, to identify how best to achieve that change.

Further in discussing a practice of pedagogy and how to support an effective approach to teaching and learning we must realize that a) that there may be more than one effective practice; and, b) an effective practice in one situation may not be effective in another.

There are realities that have catalyzing influence—negative as well as positive—and these pressure points, if they can be tapped and manipulated, may facilitate change across the entire ecosystem.  This is not as impossible as one might expect and we see it in the study of systems that happen in nature.  The best examples will be found in the study of ecology and how our manipulations of these large and complex systems can result in success and failure through expected and unexpected outcomes.

As Twain, in his usual tongue in cheek manner, so clearly defines for us, what is most important for us to understand in order to function in the world—our education—is rarely a simple and proscribed series of teachings on the ways to do things—our learning.  If one wants to revolutionize education, one must understand, address, and test the facets of the system in which it takes place, and quickly adapt one’s delivery to what one learns along the way.

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Technical Sales and Delivery Ecosystem

I conceived the Technical Sales and Delivery Ecosystem (TSDE) as a way to formalize, package, and deliver across the entire organization a methodology for approaching Sustainable Business Development.  I plan to lay out the theory and actions that one has to take to embrace this strategy and then operationalize it across the entire organization.  As individual strategies and processes there is value in each, but as a complete whole it contains greater value than the sum of its parts, which is due the multiple components creating a multiplier effect.

This is not uncommon in ecosystems where, while on the surface it appears that the relationships are linear and direct, the reality is that the complexity is much greater.  This complexity can work against you just as much as it can work for you, and the TSDE is one way by which to address the complexity of achieving Sustainable Business Development.

When one thinks of a top sales-person they think of fast-talking, cold-calling cubical dwellers (FT3CDs) “making their numbers” through volume, but anyone in business development knows the statistics point in another direction.  Not to put the FT3CDs out of business, they like everyone have a place in the Ecosystem, but, when it comes to sales, up-selling, cross-selling, and re-selling existing or previous customers are more efficient.

This begs the question: what is critical in up-selling, cross-selling, and re-selling existing or previous customers?  If we can master the answer, then we have a leg up on our competition and our market, and this is simply summed up as “customer satisfaction.”  Now I don’t want to minimize this because systematizing customer satisfaction is not always evident across all business units in the organization.

The underlying rationale that drives TSDE is:

Everything an organization does to maximize customer satisfaction drives these kinds of sales.

TSDE is a systemic methodology to facilitate sustainable drivers across the business units of the organization by providing formal processes to align practices against the ideal of excellent customer satisfaction for the purpose of generating additional sales from an existing customer.

For some divisions, while this may appear to be a basic and intuitive endeavor, it may not be as ingrained and successful in practice as one might think.  As an example, is a metric on customer satisfaction with your Delivery Team one of your Sales Team’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?

Well, shouldn’t it be?

The underlying philosophy of TSDE indicates that if your sales efforts to up-sell, cross-sell, and re-sell are going to be effective you rely on happy customers, and your delivery team is who produces your happy customers, therefore to make your efforts in sales more effective, less costly, and less risky your Sales Team should be monitoring your Delivery Team’s performance in delivering customer satisfaction.  The metaphor of the ecosystem should become a little more apparent at this time.

Roy Pellicano, Business Development, Technical Pre-Sales Support

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A System Architect Does Not Need To Be A Developer

Of course, not being a developer and having successfully performed in the role of system architect I hold this belief for obvious reasons.  There is an impression that to be a successful architect one has to be an experienced developer, and nothing is further from the truth.  One only needs to have, from a technical standpoint, a deep understanding of the technologies available and how they are applied, for what reasons, and with what limitations.

I liken the difference between the two to the building trade and that of architect/engineer, and builder, which I think is an apt analogy, because business users can easily grasp not only the similarities and differences of the roles, but also the subtly between the role and the profession.  That is you may be a builder, but still have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to act as an excellent engineer.  Further, you may be an excellent engineer, and not able to build an excellent birdhouse.

One reason for this is that system architecture is seen as a technical role and not a business role, and therefore it is expected to require development experience; and, while it is a very technical role, it does not require that the architect be a developer.  Further, and to be clear, because the knowledge, skills, and dispositions between the two roles are different, not all developers may be successful architects.  So what makes a good architect?

1) Understands the business.

A friend of mine had this beautiful apartment in a gorgeous building in one of the most desirable parts of NYC.  It turned out to be a very difficult apartment to sell, because, it was built in a time where people had a different concept of living space.  The kitchen was no-where near the dinning room, and there was a huge sitting room in addition to a formal living room.  It was built in a time of servants and formal entertaining, and today’s culture is much more informal and people desire open space designs where the functional areas are a part of the living space.

The point being that the apartment did not address the business requirements of its users and therefore no matter how many desirable characteristics it had, as it did not address a fundamental needs of buyers, it was a difficult apartment to sell.

2) Understands the tools

One day when I was living in NYC I was running late for a long-distance bus traveling out to the country.  I could not miss this bus as they ran but once a day and I could not be a day late for where I was going.  I had the choice of jumping on a city bus, taking a cab, riding the subway, or getting on my bike.  All of these vehicles of transportation could get me where I had to go, and if I had all the time in the world I would have taken the subway, but under pressure I decided to take my bike.

Of all the modes of transport at my disposal, each had its pros and its cons and I knew I could make it in time with my bike and I was not at risk to be side-lined by a problem with transportation delay, which was common in those days with all the other forms of transportation; and as far as I was concerned the biggest con of all.

3) Understands what makes a good solution

It was the first episode of Project Runway and the designers were competing with each other to create an elegant evening outfit out of $50.00 of food that was chosen within one hour.  Twelve competitors raced the clock and their decisions throughout pushed them to the edge of not only their creativity, but also their ability to execute their vision.  Finally, no matter how good of job they thought they did, it was ultimately up to someone else’s subjective decision.

It must have been a dog lover who popularized the phrase, there is more than one way to skin a cat, but that is the essence of being a system architect–there is probably no single way to solve a problem and what makes a solution “good” is subjective to the specifics of a particular situation.

An excellent developer is someone who is able to build well written code, which I will not qualify here, but in so doing, they have to understand the technical problem that has been put in front of them which may be a logical problem, a functional problem, or an analytic problem.  In so doing, developers begin to gain an understanding of the above components of system architecture and in much the same way that a builder gains an understanding of design, engineering, and architecture so that they can step into each of these functions a developer can step into the role solution architect.  But in the same way that an architect/engineer can create a beautiful building and identify how it should be implemented and have never picked up a hammer, a system architect can build a technical solution without experience as a developer.

Roy Pellicano

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An amazing application to visualize the business impact of IT infrastructure

Cirrant Partners, Inc. just hosted Mr Cuthbertson of AssetGen at The Digital Sandbox to illustrate how his software could help a company visualize its IT infrastructure.  I know you already do this through Visio.  Well, so does he.  The only difference is that his technique will save you tens to hundreds of hours of work.  By maintaining three simple Excel spreadsheets you can immediately update every Visio diagram of your IT infrastructure. 

How about the ability, with the addition of a fourth spreadsheet, to tie every business and application in the organization to that map.  That’s right, now you can see at the touch of a button every application, every business unit, every mission-critical process that will be effected when you bring that server down for maintenance on Friday night.  Even if the one tech who knows about the obscure relationship is on vacation. 


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Reality is contrary to self-reported data….

This is why one needs to seriously analyze all data points that one uses in one’s decision making. Maybe not so surprising is the revelation…

“The researchers say survey data showing large losses from activation are skewed by participants’ misreporting and low response rates. “

I suppose this should not be such a revelation. Just think about the aspersions cast upon eyewitness reports. Similarly, any data that is self reported that tie’s into one’s emotional being or sense of self is likely to be misrepresented–and without malice.


From The Harvard business Review

MAY 20, 2011

Reservists Gain Financially from Being Called Up

Contrary to survey data showing that U.S. military reservists lose income when they’re called up, a study of 1.4 million reservists shows that activation boosts average earnings by $9,252, or 23%. Jacob Alex Klerman of Abt Associates and David S. Loughran of the RAND Corporation say earnings rise as the number of active days rises: For reservists serving 271 or more days, the average increase is $23,844, or 60%. The researchers say survey data showing large losses from activation are skewed by participants’ misreporting and low response rates.

Source: What happens to the earnings of military reservists when they are activated? Evidence from administrative data

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Intrinsic Hypocrisy within a Cohesive Value Set

There is intrinsic hypocrisy in all humans.  The simple reason is that people change the order of what they value at different times–and these modifications can conflict.  This effect can easily be observed by contra-imposing the rationale for decision making during a rational time versus during a time of extreme emotion.   While it appears as if the person is being hypocritical, the reality is that conflicting, or rather, non-complimentary, values are being used to support decision making.

These values, while non-complimentary, are valid for the person to hold, but because of the particular circumstances the primacy of one is overshadowing the other, which may have held prior primacy.  The complexity of this interaction multiplies as one increases the number of values–although it is not a linear reaction–that is two values may have a greater likelihood of potential conflict or non-conflict than two other values.

One set may be complimentary and the other non-complimentary, where the former has a very low likelihood of conflict, but the latter have a high likelihood of conflict.   Further there may also be a third value which acts as either a mitigator or an exacerbator; and we can extend this designation to externalities, such as a crisis that may exacerbate the conflict between two values.

This hypocrisy is not necessarily a bad thing; although, the fact that we have been educated to believe so causes people to deny the conflict rather than recognize and embrace it.  This denial often leads to rationalization rather than understanding.  To fully understand why something is being decided, it is important to uncover the root reasons–absent of a value judgment.  Labeling this intrinsic hypocrisy as bad, when it should, in fact, be expected and normal, distorts the assessment process.  As much as it is a reality, once labeled “bad,” it will negatively affect a full understanding of the decision making process.

Now while the problem is not in the conflict, there is obviously a tension that needs to be addressed so that we can not only recognize the conflict, but manage it.  I will address this in a future piece.

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