Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Teamwork’ Category

Unexpected Rewards

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My first lynda.com course went live on August 25, 2009. As of this writing, very early in the morning on February 17, 2017, I have 48 courses available with two more recorded and in editing. As I told a good friend last week, I’m a sucker for round numbers and milestones. For whatever reason, odometers hitting the next thousand mile mark, new decades, and reaching the next ten on my writing projects means a lot to me. I figured I’d get a card or maybe a small plaque when I hit 50 live courses on lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning, but I wouldn’t have been upset if it was just my wife and I raising a toast the night number 50 went live.

Late last month, a couple of weeks after course number 48 was released, I received a package from a company I didn’t recognize. The package contained a lovely portable game set with chess pieces that looked like real pieces, checkers, dice, and a pack of playing cards, all enclosed in a good-sized box with a two-sided chess/backgammon board that hinged in the middle and was trimmed with the finest Corinthian leather. The package also contained a card from the LinkedIn Learning crew congratulating me on reaching 50 courses.

No, they hadn’t miscounted. I’d had two other courses published, but one had been retired because the online resource it described changed drastically and the other for a combination of reasons that are both esoteric and boring. Those courses no longer appear on my author page, but they do in the LinkedIn Learning internal database. I was going for 50 live, but the team in Carpinteria cared about 50 total.

Researchers who study motivation make the point that unexpected rewards can have a positive impact on worker satisfaction. I love writing and creating online courses, particularly with the LinkedIn Learning team. Their attention to detail and counting my courses in the most favorable way possible makes their gift that much more special.

Depth of Talent

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One of the undying joys of sports is watching an underdog beat a massive favorite. The U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the USSR in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics is one such win, as was the #15 seed University of Richmond basketball team’s win in the first round against my alma mater, the #2 seed Syracuse Orange. Even though those wins were improbable, they came in contests among reasonably well-matched teams. Richmond and Syracuse are both Division I programs, so they could recruit and offer scholarships to elite players.

Few tournaments remain where teams of all levels compete on equal terms. Even the famed Indiana state high school basketball tournament changed to four divisions based on enrollment in 1997. The exception is soccer, or football as it’s called everywhere except  in the U.S. and Canada. Most national organizations hold a tournament where teams of all levels compete. In England, that tournament is the FA (Football Association) Cup. Premier League, League Championship, and League 1 teams get byes through the early rounds, but the lower division sides advance and, on occasion, knock off one of the big boys. It’s unusual for a League 1 or League 2 side to beat a Premier League team, but it does happen.

And then there’s Lincoln. Lincoln plays in the National League, which is, in rank order, below the Premier League, League Championship, League 1, and League 2. According to the New York Times, Lincoln was 81 places below Premier League side Burnley when they played on February 18. No National League team had ever beaten a Premier League side in an FA Cup game until Lincoln pulled it off.

While the win is shocking, it’s doesn’t come against Lincoln’s run of form. They reached the Round of 16 by beating League Championship sides Ipswich and Brighton, so they were clearly playing well. And Burnley is a mid-table club, substantially behind the leaders but well above the cutoff line for relegation to the League Championship. (The bottom three Premier League teams are relegated, while the top two League Championship teams, plus the winner of a playoff between the sides that finished third through sixth, are promoted.) Burnley has the money to attract top-flight foreign talent, while Lincoln fields part-timers who work to supplement their meager football pay.

Upsets of this magnitude make for great stories, but they also point to the depth of talent available to take the field for English sides at all levels of the game. The history of the game, its cultural significance, and the pride that comes from playing well shine through Lincoln’s success. As the saying goes, “England expects.” Lincoln has exceeded those expectations.

Written by curtisfrye

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

In Praise of Room Tone

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As an online course author, I record content that video editors, graphic artists, compositors, and other professionals transform into a final product. I edited two of my own courses, so I can say with certainty that there are plenty of folks out there who are much better at it than I am and deserve to be paid well for their work.

Room tone, a recording of silence in the area where the course is recorded (in my case, a sound booth manufactured by WhisperRoom), lets editors smooth out the rough transitions that result when they cut out part of a track. The team asks authors to provide 30 seconds of room tone so editors can lay it under multiple cuts without too many paste operations.

I use those 30 seconds to reflect on the course I just recorded, remembering the work it took to put the raw materials in place for the production team to work their magic. I say “magic” intentionally–if something seems effortless, you know a lot of work went into making it look that way. As I remember my own efforts, I reaffirm my appreciation for the work the rest of the team does to create, distribute, and promote the course.

Written by curtisfrye

February 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

To Be a Beginner Again

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When I think of what it means to “be a beginner” at something, I think of learning a new language or trying a new sport. I didn’t expect to rediscover the joys and struggles of being a beginner as a writer.

I had just finished Microsoft Excel 2016 Step by Step for Microsoft Press, my sixth Excel Step by Step book, when the publisher approached me to take on Microsoft OneNote Step by Step. I looked at my schedule, swallowed hard, and agreed to do it. I’d worked a bit with OneNote as part of my Office Online Essential Training course for lynda.com, so, while I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t coming in completely cold. Besides, I’m a writer and course developer—my job is to tease out a program’s intricacies and make them clear to the reader or viewer. How hard could it be?

I’ll pause until you stop laughing.

You can write a book about anything if you do enough research, develop a few ideas of your own, and quote liberally from other sources. I just read a business book, Everything Connects, that did exactly that. The main author probably wrote a great proposal based on his experiences as a serial entrepreneur and meditation practitioner, took his advance, and wrote down everything he could about those subjects. My guess is that he produced about 150 pages for a planned 250-page book, so the publisher brought in (or had already hired) a professional writer as co-author.

I also turned to the supporting literature on OneNote for guidance, but there’s not a lot out there compared to the vast, rich resources on Excel. That said, I wrote what I could and discovered a lot as I went along, but I didn’t have an experienced user’s feel for the program. I’m fortunate Microsoft convinced Ed Price, formerly a member of the OneNote product team, to be the book’s technical editor. Ed knows the software in depth, both as a user and someone familiar with the broader customer base’s needs and desires. He added a lot of material I’d considered not important enough to include, changed the emphasis of certain sections of the book to improve its usefulness, and became, in all but name, a full co-author.

I’m grateful for the substantial help Ed provided and hope to make him a full co-author, with cover credit, when it comes time to refresh the book. As a writer it was good, though incredibly frustrating, to write about a program I hadn’t worked with extensively. I had 20 years of skill and discipline to power through a first draft we could use as a basis for critique, but I had several flashbacks to when I was just starting out and lacked the tools I have now.

I survived (with the help of Ed and others), the book will provide good value to OneNote users, and I was reminded how difficult a thing it is to produce a manuscript from whole cloth. I’m glad I agreed to help out, but I’m sure glad we’re done.

NASCAR, Scrutiny, and Success

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There aren’t a lot of NASCAR fans in Portland, OR. I grew up in Rockingham County, Virginia, which is about four hours from Martinsville Speedway and within an hour’s drive of at least a dozen regional and local tracks. I enjoy the competition and, even though some races look like a bunch of guys going fast and turning left for three hours, there’s a lot of strategy and tactics to get right if you want to be successful.

I also enjoy Formula 1 racing, which sets designers and drivers an entirely different set of problems. In open wheel racing, touching another car often means irreparable damage to you, the car you touched, or both. In NASCAR, you can rub, bump, bang, and beat on each other a lot more without necessarily compromising your chances. Formula 1 and NASCAR cars (and drivers, for that matter) also have different weights, aerodynamics, and handling characteristics. Some drivers can race successfully in both types of cars, but most competitors specialize.

Car racing is also a male-dominated sport. There have been some successful female drivers, such as Janet Guthrie who raced competitively at the Indianapolis 500 (an open wheel race), but until recently there hasn’t been a marquee name moving from open wheel to NASCAR racing. All that changed when Danica Patrick, who raced successfully through the junior open wheel series in Europe and in Indy cars in the U.S., made the jump to NASCAR.

Patrick is a skilled racer who has paid her dues, but she’s had a rough transition to the Nationwide series (the second-tier NASCAR circuit) and the Sprint Cup. She’s also a marketer’s dream, with amazing good looks, a winning personality, and the discipline to balance racing and promotional duties effectively. Some commentators claim Patrick was hired for her appearance and not her abilities, but I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. NASCAR, like all major sports, is driven by media coverage. People (and I am a people) like looking at attractive individuals and studies show we remember their messages longer. With media coaches and mandatory sponsor mentions during interviews (“I thought the #666 Dogecoin Chevy SS team put me in a good position to win today…”), criticizing a driver for capitalizing on their appearance is nonsense.

As for racing results, Patrick has struggled. She led the Daytona 500 and finished well in a few races, but her average finish is in the low 20s (out of 40 or so drivers) and she has only a handful of top-10 finishes. Kyle Petty, a moderately successful NASCAR driver, son of driving legend Richard Petty, and media commentator, had an interesting take on Patrick. He was quoted in the USA Today as saying:

“She can go fast, but she can’t race. I think she’s come a long way, but she’s still not a race car driver. And I don’t think she’s ever going to be a race car driver.”

Asked by interviewer Matt Clark why Patrick wouldn’t ever be a race car driver in Petty’s eyes, the eight-time race winner said it was “too late to learn.”

Petty admitted that, even though he won eight top-tier NASCAR races, he never figured out what it took to be a great driver. Even so, he has a point. Drivers such as Tony Stewart and A. J. Foyt grew up running everything they could get their hands on, so they learned general racing skills as well as tactics for each type of car and track. Patrick spent her formative years concentrating on open wheel racing on road courses, so her development was more specific.

Even so, I’ve noticed her car control and race sense have improved. Rather than running consistently at the back of the pack and getting caught in (or causing) avoidable incidents, she’s obviously working hard, listening to feedback, and improving. Will she ever win? Hard to say. There are a lot of really good drivers out there. Will she challenge, especially at Sonoma and Watkins Glen? Probably. As long as she keeps improving and maintaining a positive image for her and her sponsors, she’s likely to have a ride. In the context of NASCAR and its surrounding media environment, that counts as success.

I can tell she wants to win, not just race. She won at every level moving up and, even if she doesn’t have the NASCAR-specific skills required to win consistently at the top level, she’ll keep giving it all she can.

Kyle Petty also characterized Patrick as a “marketing machine” rather than a racer. Her commercial success has certainly outpaced her results on the track, but there’s no public-facing industry where looks and talent don’t operate in tandem. We’re all working so we don’t have to work any more, so I offer Patrick the same advice Darrell Waltrip gives to drivers right before a late-race restart: “Go out there and getcha some.”