Perfectly Solid Learning

A few weeks ago I took Jerry Weinberg‘s Problem Solving Leadership (PSL) workshop. Everyone I have heard speak about PSL calls it a life changing experience. I understood Jerry’s book Becoming A Technical Leader to be a sort of offline version of PSL. (Turns out it is and it isn’t. Although each covers some of the same ground as the other, neither is a replacement for the other.) The only other thing I knew about PSL, whose details seemed to be a mysterious secret, was that I had a deeply felt knowing that I needed to take it. So I did.

Now that I’ve been through PSL I understand one reason behind this paucity of information about it: many of the exercises would be less effective if you knew their point and their solutions. So I won’t say much about them. I will however relate some of what I learned during the workshop and in the time since. PSL was the proverbial “drinking from a fire hose” experience for me, and I am still processing what I took in. Here is what I know so far.

I found the class to be an intense experience. The schedule itself didn’t seem unusual: we started at noon on a Sunday and finished at noon the following Friday, with a lunch break each day and most evenings to ourselves. Our sessions were a mixture of interactive lectures, experiential simulations, and debriefings of the simulations. I worked hard during the simulations and almost as hard during the debriefings and lectures. I always looked forward to the lunch and supper breaks for the down time they provided, and I typically spent them doing not much of anything. I found this structure, its ups and downs, intense periods and calm times, long days and long lunches, all compressed into a short span of time, valuable in and of itself. With so much going on, closely followed by time to reflect, right into more activity, and so on without end, I was able to observe how well I did or didn’t do when I did and didn’t remember to do all of the things I know to do and not do. Staying grounded and centered and present, for example. A shining example of what happens when I don’t do this came when we were selecting a leader for one of the simulations. I wasn’t completely there and was utterly surprised when someone nominated me to be the leader. Wham! Back in my body in full panic mode, babbling anything that seemed remotely relevant to saying “Thanks, and no thanks”. Later on during the simulation itself, however, I stayed grounded and centered and present  throughout, and lo and behold I handled unexpected situations with aplomb. Seeing this and other correlations between how I felt and how I did made clear to me what an impact my emotional and energetic states have on my performance.

PSL is intended to help people understand their leadership style. I certainly learned bundles about how I function and how I can best help my team. For example, I have long known that I do not generate raw ideas so well. I excel, however, at taking in bunches of raw ideas, mushing them about, and synthesizing them into something which incorporates the best aspects of each of them. I noticed multiple occasions where my synthesis of the abundant raw ideas seemed to be helpful. I also now see many ways I could have helped differently and/or more effectively. There were several situations, for example, where if I had left the immediate problem to my teammates and instead spent some time looking for the big picture, searching out ambiguities, and identifying questions and unknowns (all strengths of mine), I likely could have simplified the problem. Here again the compressed time frame helped me correlate what I did or didn’t do with how well or poorly my team performed; it also helped me identify which of my actions tended to be helpful and which tended to not be helpful.

I noticed oodles of times where I reacted or behaved differently than I likely would have a year ago. This excites me because it means all this work I am doing on myself is paying off. PSL helped me see the progress I am making in this area – a fine gift indeed! One example is my default reaction to puzzlement: being quiet and assuming that I will muddle through somehow. PSL helped me see that this is generally not my best option. Not only does asking clarifying questions help me better understand the situation or problem, it may also help other of my teammates realize they don’t understand things as well as they thought they did. This is only one assumption of many I made this week, most of which eventually hurt me. I need a way to identify all these assumptions I don’t know I am making!

I even noticed myself reacting and behaving differently over the course of the workshop. More than once a key to a problem with which I was struggling came from someone else. Even though I know that generating ideas is not my strong suit, I often became upset with myself for not having come up with the transforming idea on my own. By the end of the seminar I realized that the source of the idea – that it isn’t me – doesn’t matter, while what I do with that idea very much matters. I was much happier once I worked this out!

Once I accepted these transforming ideas as gifts rather than reasons to put myself down I was better able to use said ideas to help me. One such idea gifted to me at PSL is using a chime to track the passage of time. I tend to become stressed when I perceive time to be short, and I often take awhile to determine how I feel about something. In part because of this I do better when I allow myself time to mull things over than when I make snap decisions. PSL underscored all of this for me. I felt time constrained during most of the activities and often didn’t take think time. I noticed that during certain exercises – ones which used a chime to mark the passing of time – that I did take the think time I need. I believe the chime helps me stay out of time by reminding me that time is passing. A paradox, yes – not my only one of the week! This exemplifies another learning I took away from PSL: that there are always steps I can take to be more in control of my environment.

I mentioned earlier that I had expectations that PSL would change my life. All week I waited for PSL to do so and all week I was disappointed. Although I was learning lots, I didn’t feel any different, and I wondered when I would. On the last day, however, I realized I was a completely different person! I didn’t have the blinding-flash-of-light transport-me-across-the-room experience I was expecting. Instead, I realized I was in a completely different state! I do not know all of the ways in which I am changed, nor do I completely understand all of the changes I have so far discerned. If you notice changes, please let me know!

I went to PSL to learn about myself, and that I did, in spades. If you’re up for a heady, scary, and fun week of learning how you can be a more effective leader, I heartily recommend PSL!

*** Want a fun job on a great team? I need a tester! Interested? Let’s talk: Michael dot J dot Hunter at microsoft dot com. Great testing and coding skills required.

Comments (3)

  1. [To the tune of The Beatles’ Octopus’ Garden] I wish that I could be A tester who sees Bugs before they

  2. Wayne Miller says:

    Who was the instructor? Where was it?

  3. micahel says:

    PSL was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The instructors were Jerry Weinberg [], Johanna Rothman [], and Esther Derby []. The PSL syllabus is at