Selfishness and unintended consequences

The 5 Whys is a simple technique for looking at problems—if you participate in community discussion groups, the issue of property taxes will undoubtedly come up. Here is my take on the problem applying a 5 Whys analysis:

Why are property taxes increasing?
Because home values are going up.

Why are home values going up?
Because more people are willing to pay more money to buy a home in our community.

Why are people willing to pay more money to by a home in our community?
Because the demand for homes in our community exceeds the supply.

Why is the demand for homes exceeding the supply?
Because we won’t allow new homes to be built.

Why won’t we allow new homes to be built?
Because people won’t support policies that allow for new development.

I’ve seen this play out in California, and the unintended consequences for the community will be devastating. Maybe not next week or next year, but eventually, the market price will force people rooted to the community out, and it’s not the “transplant” from the Bay Area or Los Angeles or Portland or Seattle or “name a major metropolitan area here” who will be at fault, it will be us. Our children will pay the price.

One of the main reasons I returned to Utah was simple economics. From a family point-of-view, I could not see my children being able to enjoy the same, high quality of life I had experienced if they chose to stay in California. The cost of living was too high, and this was driven primarily by the cost of housing. Why were housing prices so high? (See above)

The residents of Holliday, Utah unanimously rejected a new development on a vacant mall site that would have added a 775-unit high rise apartment tower and 210 single-family homes which would have included higher density townhomes. These would have been new places to live for young families and first homes for others. The development would have added office space for businesses as well as dining and entertainment options for the local community. But the residents didn’t want to change; they didn’t want something different in their city; they didn’t want to open up their community to others who can’t afford a $700,000 home.

I only hope that my city of Millcreek is less selfish and works to find solutions that allow our children (and newcomers) to live next to us along the Wasatch front.

Unwritten rules?

Working with graduate students in higher education is a satisfying experience, and it is rewarding to watch their personal growth as they progress through their program of study—once a student is in our program, I see it as my job to provide guidance and make sure they don’t get stuck. It is upsetting to the student, but also to me when they get stuck or leave the program because they fail to follow a documented process. Even though there may be a breakdown in the process, individuals are responsible for becoming knowledgeable about the requirements that impact them. But what about undocumented procedures or “rules?” I struggled this week to resolve a complicated issue and part of the problem—I figured out at the end of the process—was that I did not have all the information. There were unwritten rules.

At the height of my frustration, I thought this was a problem only found in academics; however, after giving myself time to reflect, I realize it is a problem in industry settings as well.

So my question is why? Why do we have unwritten rules?

Of course, it could be that there are no rules, just guidelines that are intended to be flexible based on the situation. This distinction is an important point. Guidelines provide flexibility for both parties in a negotiation which may not be the case with rules. Until it is written down, I would argue any process is just a guideline and negotiation is an option.

Where the rules are documented, there may be unwritten exceptions—situations that warrant deviation from the normal process. Unwritten exceptions recognize that managers (or administrators) encounter problems that deserve consideration based on the merits of the case. But why are they unwritten?

I think this is an issue of trust. Do you trust people not to abuse the exceptions? In organizations that work with high levels of trust, a defined process that evaluates exceptions remove the possibility of arbitrary application or favoritism.

Documenting exceptions provides a level of transparency and levels the playing field for those not inclined to challenge the status quo. Individuals who are reluctant to ask the question “why?” effectively lose out on options that are available to those willing to test the system. I doubt this the intent, but it can be the result.

As managers, we have a choice on how we set up the rules. I would argue that we should write them down and strive for a transparent and fair process.

No, but . . .

Did my degree get me a job?
No, but it got me noticed.

Did I learn everything needed to do the job in school?
No, but I learned how to learn new things.

Did I know what I would be doing five, ten, fifteen years after graduating?
No, but there were always new problems to solve or a need to simply get stuff done.

Did every new job come with a raise?
No, but each new job allowed me to grow professionally.

Did I do it alone?
No, I had—and still have—support from others every step of the way.

Is the sum of the whole greater than the parts?

Professionals don’t receive letter grades at work (at least, I’ve never received one). During our annual reviews, we might see statements such as “meets expectations,” or “exceeds expectations”—and hopefully not “needs improvement”; however, the summary statement is, or should be, part of a larger dialog on what went well over the past year, what didn’t, and what are the expectations for the next year.

Compare the way we evaluate work performance with education. For employees, we assess performance over a monthly, quarterly and yearly time frame. Students have a fixed time—days or weeks—to master a new set of skills and it is pretty much “all or nothing.” For employees, we have a simple metric, is the work getting done and meeting expectations! For students, homework is assigned, exams are given, and the answers are graded, and at the end of a class, we assume a transfer of knowledge.

At work, we are expected to improve and develop competencies continuously, and while most follow an annual review cycle, the tasks determine the schedule. The team requires a short time frame for some jobs, and others take months; often, the ability of the individual or group drives the plan. “How long is it going to take?” When the answer does not match the need, we look to adjust the scope or budget.

We have a fixed schedule in education. 15 chapters or five novels and reviews or three research papers—in 15 weeks regardless of ability or prior training. For mathematics and the sciences, knowledge is assumed based on the previous courses taken, but what if the student did not obtain competency? Can we expect that a C stands for competent?
 We assume that the sum of knowledge obtained in individual courses is greater than the parts.

As someone who has hired people to do work, the standard resume is limited in what it tells me about what the individual can do. Admittedly, some folks can craft two-pages that make a compelling case to pursue an interview, but we don’t know what someone can do unless we’re fortunate enough to see their work. This need makes hiring within your network compelling—you often have seen the applicants work, or at least have personal connections with those who have. Making the decision is expensive for the employer and fraught with risks—will this person be able to do the work, will they be able to integrate into the team, will they be able to contribute to future projects.

Educators have a responsibility to help students document how their skill sets address these concerns, and it’s not by issuing a diploma and a transcript. We need to help students document the competencies they acquire during the course of their education.

Don’t let my timeline limit your path forward

Applying the mantra of “what can I do now” is an effective way to move forward on long, complex projects that may be stuck or delayed. So, before becoming fixated on the finish, focus on how to keep moving so you can get started.

Following that . . . Academic calendars are not very flexible.
K-12 education has been on a fall/spring schedule for over 100 years and, surprising to me, an agricultural calendar was not the driving factor. (

For better-or-worse, higher education follows a similar calendar although most public colleges and universities now allow undergraduate students to start a program during fall or spring or summer (i.e., they have rolling enrollment) but this is not the case for most graduate and professional programs where a new cohort is formed each year. If someone wants to start a professional program and they miss the application deadline, they will look at the calendar and think there is nothing they can do until next year—don’t let the institution’s schedule prevent you from moving forward.

In the fall, I get emails asking if it’s too late to enroll—and at this point, it is for our program. However, for those wanting to start a graduate degree or certificate program, and it is past the official application deadline, I’ve recommended that they take the opportunity to identify possible gaps in their education or training that may come up during the application review when they do apply. Admission committee’s look at many factors (GPA, letters of recommendation, statement’s of purpose, etc.); however, most are trying to answer a simple question—will this person be successful in our program. Here a few items I’ve recommended to potential students as they navigated the application process.

Enroll in undergraduate courses (for credit) as a non-matriculated student to address gaps between your undergraduate degree and the graduate program. (A non-matriculated has permission to register but is not formally working toward a degree.) Earning a “B or better” can demonstrate readiness for more advanced work in the field and can effectively offset concerns that admission committees may have if a transcript shows underperformance as an undergraduate. If your undergraduate work was sufficient and you meet the pre-requisites then . . .

Ask for permission to enroll in a graduate course (for credit) as a non-matriculated student. If you are able to take a class associated with the program of study, it may be counted towards the graduate degree. But be warned, Colleges and Universities have strict rules for if this may be done and, if it is allowed, how many credits earned as a non-matriculated student can be applied to the degree or certificate.

My advice is pretty simple, even though you can’t start a program now, you can move forward and what looked like a one-year delay may become less than six months.

Problem-solving: step by step

As the resident household chemist, my college-age kids have routinely asked me to check chemistry problems for them—and I’m happy to do so. That said, sometimes I get stuck, and this is not fun for them or me, after all, I am expected to be the domain knowledge expert! Recently, we had a particularly challenging problem come up, and neither of us was able to get the correct answer.

When I was a student (many moons ago), there were answers at the back of the text for the odd exercises. If you were lucky, there was a solutions guide for all the practice problems. With online materials, every answer is available, and many have examples on how to solve the exercises, and for this particular case, when the solution was requested, we were presented with a single equation that incorporated all the information provided in the problem with the unknown variable, x, appearing on both sides of the equation. Below, the equation was the answer.

x = 0.217


I looked at the equation and then looked at the answer—repeatedly.

I don’t get frustrated with first-year chemistry too often, but this exercise was presenting a challenge and then to have the solution be nothing more than a single equation with no explanation left me exasperated.

Ten-steps later!

I have no idea why the publisher didn’t include a real solution, after all, it’s not like they need to conserve trees, but summarizing a complex problem to a single equation without additional context was less than helpful. For my eventual solution, each step documented the progression from what was known, to the unknown, and when completed, we understood the scope of the problem and how this problem fit into the section.

Sometimes, all we need is the answer—0.217. Sometimes, we need more—or we need to provide more. Were all ten steps required for this problem? Maybe not as some steps may have been self-evident, but for complex issues, I would prefer to receive too much information as opposed to too little.

Do we need physical textbooks?

After an 18-year hiatus from teaching, I had the chance to teach an applied statistical techniques course this past spring. Feedback from the students was mostly positive, and the negative comments were expressed as constructive criticisms which I found insightful and actionable. For myself, the overall experience was positive, and I’m looking forward to building on the work and teaching the class again next year.

Along the way, I’ve also been tackling some data analysis problems using R, and a common theme has become apparent between teaching the class and my work—textbooks are obsolete.

For the course, only online materials from two sites were used as “required” readings, and except for the one weekend when the host website for one of the online books went down, there were no issues. (This did cause some stress, and fortunately, the site had provided all the material for download; however, the possible need to distribute this material made me temporarily question my selection of using only online materials.)

The other primary reading for the course is using a relatively new format called Bookdown. If the platform sustains support from the developers, this may revolutionize the way technical books—especially textbooks—are published.

When looking for a “book” on forecasting, I was pleasantly surprised to find a resource that had both a physical copy (available on Amazon, of course) and an online version. And while the theme for this new book was distinct, at the bottom of the page, there was an acknowledgment “Published . . . with bookdown,” which was the same method as the book above.

In addition to online books, online videos (mostly hosted on YouTube)  are providing content on implementation. Need an example of how to implement that function call in R? Someone has probably recorded a demo on that very topic. In teaching the class, I felt less like the disseminator of information and more like the curator—presenting content in an organized manner that allowed the students to gain new knowledge and skills.

I still buy books and having an option to buy a physical copy is definitely a plus, but it’s quickly moving away from being a requirement. It has never been easier to learn something new.

On being a professional problem solver

I spent one morning on a recent weekend with my oldest daughter at the Tracy Aviary here in Salt Lake City. I never considered myself a “bird” person; however, my daughter’s academic interest in animal behavior has sparked a before unregistered curiosity. Recently, a new space for Kea’s was opened giving the birds a large area and visitors a much better chance to observe their behavior. Kea’s are an olive-green parrot from New Zealand; I had read they were good problem solvers, but I had underestimated what this meant.

During our recent visit, the staff assembled close to a dozen puzzles built using everyday household items–PVC pipe, plastic containers, balls, etc.—each one designed to be solved with the reward being treats falling out when successfully disassembled. As the staff member worked, the Kea would immediately take to solving the puzzle. But here is the strange part—the Kea didn’t eat the treats. He went quickly to the next puzzle. The reward wasn’t the treat, but releasing of the items from captivity.

The reward was solving the problem.

When asked to describe “what I do,” I used to respond that I was a “professional problem solver.” Although my academic background is chemistry, it’s been quite a while since I worked in the field.

As a professional problem solver, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of tackling the most current—often urgent—problem. Behaving just like the Kea.

It’s taken time, but I no longer jump into problem-solving mode at the drop of a hat; I have found looking for meaningful impact to be a more meaningful reward. I wish I had learned this early in my career.

While solving an isolated, single problem has immediate rewards, working on a problem that has impact takes time and requires multiple steps and is part of a comprehensive strategy (i.e., the solution is part of a BIGGER problem). After all, the first part of any good strategy is diagnosing the problem—we don’t design strategy around non-problems.

While we can be amazed at the problem-solving skills of the Kea, make a point not follow his example. We don’t want to be trapped solving problems for rewards that we don’t need—rewards that don’t have an impact.

We don’t want to get caught up in the high-tech version of busy-work.

My current professional role is much easier to define; however, I still consider myself a professional problem solver—a professional problem solver who seeks problems that when solved will have a meaningful impact on either my organization or the individuals I get to work with.

Volunteering your time

As professionals, time is a valuable commodity.
I don’t particularly like that statement as the word “commodity” implies abundance; however, we do trade commodities for money, and in the case of time, most of us trade our time for a salary.

Memory chips are a commodity. Apples are a commodity.
We treat time as a commodity, but it should be a treated as a resource.

Resources are limited. Copper and gold in the ground are resources. Clean water is a resource. While oil is treated as a commodity due to its historical abundance, at some point, it will be priced based on scarcity or the increased difficulty in extraction.

Time? Perhaps it depends on your point of view. As an employer, time is a commodity—I can purchase time at a market rate from any number of providers. As an employee, time is a valuable resource that is limited and always decreasing.

Taking time to volunteer means donating your most valuable resource to an organization that, hopefully, doesn’t treat it like a commodity.

I now work on both sides of this equation—I ask people to volunteer their time, and I donate my time to other groups. As someone who now asks folks for their time, I have become more aware of the value of my time. I don’t want it wasted. I want it to help the organization and its mission.

If you are a volunteer, I encourage you to consider taking a leadership role in an organization you support. Most likely, you’ll be asked to ask of others. I’m confident it will put a new perspective on how you view (and value) your time.

Story Time

A collection of facts is not a story. If you have the chance to give a presentation, why would you talk about only facts? What is the story?

As scientists, we like to focus on facts—facts are safe, they aren’t up for debate. Facts (i.e., data) are what we agree to before we start the discussion; the discussion that follows can focus on the interpretation of the data, but the facts—the data—is not up for debate. (At least by the time you get to the point where you are giving a presentation.)

When we think of a story, we probably assume three acts: a beginning, a middle, and the end. But framing a presentation in this framework can cause worry to a business audience. It’s often helpful in this setting to provide the bottom-line-up-font (BLUF). Yes, it gives away the ending, but this technique creates a useful top-down narrative that anyone with too many meetings on their calendar will appreciate.

If you want to engage the audience—whether one, five, twenty or a hundred—tell us the story behind the data. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out tale, but it needs to be enough to provide context and justify the time commitment you are asking us to give.