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May 16, 2008

Breaking Training

Yesterday I took an all-day training course based on Barry Oshry's theories on organizations. This is the same stuff that Steven Sinofsky blogged about a few years ago: the idea that organizations have tops, middles, and bottoms. Tops "own" delivery of something, bottoms do the actual work, and middles are those who are neither tops nor bottoms. It's not that people are always fixed on one role (they rarely are), but that at various times people act in those roles (or "occupy those spaces" in the vernacular of the course).

The learning of the course comes from the realization that people in each space have predictable conditions acting on them. Tops deal with complexity and responsibility; middle suffer "tearing" (rhymes with caring--it means being pulled between multiple goals); and bottoms suffer vulnerability and disregard. Like any such classification system, the goal is to recognize other people's situations and work to ease their condition (this is what personality classification systems like Myers-Briggs or the Insights colour wheel are trying to drive; Oshry's work is about how people's position in an organization affects them, but the facilitator did comment that about 20% of how people behave is based on their underlying personality, not their top/middle/bottomness).

I agree with Sinofsky when he says that three days is too long for this material; I thought one day was too long (there was also some stuff about customers, who suffer from neglect, that appeared bolted-on and didn't strike me as particularly perceptive). I think 2 hours would be fine, or you could read one of Oshry's many books on the subject (if it has the word "system", "organization", or "middle" in the title, it's about this). I'll emphasize that I DID find it to be insightful and I know one group of middles, in particular, that I am going to try to "integrate" (which is what middles need to do).

More interesting was Sinofsky's description of what happened when he went through a 3-day version of the course (called the "Power Lab") at an offsite in Cape Cod, with a group of other Microsoft senior leaders: "Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that a group of Microsoft people managed to 'break' the simulation. We had the 'facilitators' in tears and ended the game two days early. It was torture." Sinofsky, to his credit (and with the benefit, at the time, of eight years of hindsight), appears to have mixed feelings about the fact that the Microsoft people broke the simulation, but I suspect that others were quite proud of the fact.

As it happens, I had read Sinofsky's blog entry (linked to above) the day before I took the course; I found it when searching for information beforehand. When I read it, my assumption was that "breaking" the course really meant "obnoxiously refusing to fully engage in the exercises"--not particularly difficult to do if you care to try, and nothing to be proud of unless your role model is a three-year-old. When I got to the course yesterday, I learned that the facilitator had actually been involved with the infamous 1997 Power Lab that Sinofsky was at, and he confirmed my suspicions. Evidently the assembled Microsoft crew quickly decided that they were the cleverest people anywhere in Massachusetts, and set out to prove it to themselves by behaving in an incredibly condescending manner towards everyone that was helping to facilitate the exercise. Given this, the facilitators called off the training partway through. Luckily, a few of the participants realized later that the arrogance displayed in Cape Cod MIGHT JUST POSSIBLY bleed over into how other people perceived Microsoft, and started an initiative to change the culture within Microsoft, which ultimately wound up being the true lasting effect from the Power Lab. So in the end, the Lab "broke" the Microsofties, not the other way around.

The reason I find this fascinating is because there really is something in the culture of Microsoft that inspires people to try to "win" any training simulation they participate in (I suppose using brainteaser questions in your interviews for years and years might bias in favor of hiring people like that). We see this even in the benign exercises we do in Engineering Excellence training--people trying to figure out the gotcha, and being so obsessed with showing off their intelligence and not making "mistakes" in front of others that they refuse to fully participate. The goal of trying to outwit the designers of the training them becomes a meta-exercise, which reduces the learning from the real exercise (we try to mitigate this by giving the typical "you only get out what you put in" disclaimer ahead of time, but it doesn't seem to help much). I have observed this, in particular, the more technical the audience is--when you have a bunch of sales or HR people in the room they seem perfectly content to follow wherever the instructor chooses to lead them, whereas an audience of devs is prone to make snarky comments like, "I see, this is your opening exercise--OK, I'll play along with it this time."

Now, I do have to say that the tops/middles/bottoms training in general is somewhat in-your-face and amplifies any such latent tendencies to want to break the training. Ours was relatively mild--we were led to believe that our performance before lunch would affect the quality of the lunch we were allowed to eat, which I think is inappropriate, but not particularly life threatening (as it happens I enjoyed the peanut-butter-on-flannel-bread sandwich that I actually ate more than I think I would have enjoyed the chicken and rice dish that was later made available to me). In addition, the exercises involved groups of people and the discussion afterwards had an undertone of "tell me what you didn't like about how another group behaved" which made it more confrontational then I thought necessary, but again only enough to make some people a bit uncomfortable, not enough to flip their "disengage" switch. You do hear stories of very extreme versions of this training, where the participants are classified as elites, middle class, and immigrants (or similar) and by the end of the first day they are attacking each other with handmade weapons (see the Stanford Prison Experiment website for another example of this). This would seem to be overkill, since as I mentioned, the basic idea is pretty simple and can be driven home, if necessary, with a half-hour exercises involving zero threats to your physiological needs. I don't know how extreme the Cape Cod Power Lab was, but from Sinofsky's comments about not showering and starving, it was at least somewhat immersive. In such an environment I might also be inspired to try to break the game--not necessarily to show how smart I am, but just to get a decent meal.

Posted by AdamBa at May 16, 2008 09:19 PM

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Life by diagram. So simple-minded.

Fortunately, success has nothing to do with work.

But, senior management keeps those mindless affirmations flying . . . it's not arrogant to meet condescension with refusing to be manipulated.

Posted by: bipolar2 at May 18, 2008 10:23 AM

Most training course designers know about the research that says humans place more value on things that they have had to work hard to get than things they got easily. This includes knowledge.

By forcing you to do something out of the ordinary the course designers hope that you will value the knowledge they are trying impart more highly than you would if you sat and listened in a classroom. The most common approach I've seen is to ask the students to work late one night (which is often presented as a way to get through the material in the time available). I've also seen courses that trump up exercises that ask you to divulge some deep dark secret or discuss some aspect of your personal life. Modulating access to food is just another aspect of this.

When such trickery is being employed it's hard not to want to respond in some way, although when I've done it I've tried to remain positive, like taking food and drink for everybody into the obligatory evening session or, on occasion, publicly questioning the motivation behind the extra work (like anything, the best defense against psychological tricks is knowledge).

Posted by: Andrew at May 19, 2008 05:11 PM