Sunday, January 8, 2017

Spaghetti Plots, Outliers, and Opinions

I've been an operational Meteorologist for almost 7 years now, working in both the private sector and the public sector (ie. NWS). Both sides have presented interesting challenges that I'm sure many can relate to, regardless of what sector you find yourself in. As for the NWS, though, that tenure has been a shorter one as I just started on this side almost exactly 2 years ago.

I absolutely love my job and have a hard time seeing myself doing anything else. But, loving your job doesn't mean it is always easy. Here in Montana, where I currently work, it has been a very active winter season thus far. Personally, this has offered some great experience for me as I still consider myself a newbie with the NWS. Lately, it has really hit home just how challenging the role of an operational Meteorologist can be (and, of course, this is not limited to NWS folks).

Take the upcoming week, for example. For much of the western US, this will likely be a very active week in what has already been an active winter so far. For our office, this might be the most active week we've had yet. Lately, our biggest concerns have been 'will it snow' and 'how much will fall'. This week, though, we've got a clash of Arctic and Pacific air and where that boundary will be, p-type issues, multiple (and I mean, multiple) shortwaves of varying strength, timing issues, and all on top of the normal will it snow and how much snow issues. Add to that issues surrounding blowing snow, wet vs dry snow, basically 6 straight days of accumulating snow and how to message that without confusing people, etc. I'd say we've got our hands full this week. While every week or season isn't like this, it highlights how quickly things can become sporty for the operational MET.

I must re-iterate, though, that while the above may seem like a negative, I see it as a unique, and even fun at times, challenge. Maybe that sentiment isn't shared among all METs, but fun or not, it is a challenge just the same.

I've watched as our office has wrestled through recent and upcoming events and I imagine this regularly plays out at most, if not all, offices (NWS, private, media, etc). Several months ago, my son and I were having our almost daily tackle time and, unfortunately, we wrastled a bit too hard and he ended up getting hurt. Fortunately, it was a mostly minor issue, but since then we have changed our wrestling time just a bit. The point is, wrestling is sometimes accompanied by painful / difficult moments and this also goes with wrestling through the challenges faced in each weather event.

But, wrestling isn't bad. For my 2-year old son and I, it is a bonding time. For METs, I truly believe it is a good thing as opportunity for growth and a chance to improve the service for our customers. But, growth isn't always easy. The weather community is filled with some incredibly smart folks, but putting a bunch of smart people together doesn't mean they will all agree.

Our office usually has a map discussion in the mornings (M-F) where we mostly talk about the current and expected weather issues, if any. But, on many occasions it has turned into an open forum for ideas on all things operations, usually with the current weather issue of the day the centerpiece around which the discussion flows. I love when the briefings become forums. Another good example is #wxtwitter (for those not on Twitter, "weather twitter" is basically on ongoing and unofficial open forum that brings together METs from all sectors). Just like our map briefings, "weather Twitter" isn't always the most subdued experience, but I think both are great and necessary.

I am learning that each person's opinion is important, no matter what your background. Now, that doesn't mean each opinion is a good one. Looking back, I have had (and still have) my share of opinions that, in hindsight, were not that good, or were too biased towards one idea or another, and so on. In the book, "Crucial Conversations" (Switzler, Grenny, Patterson, McMillan), the authors talk about a "shared pool of meaning". To me, each office, and the weather community as a whole, has a shared pool of meaning...a place where thoughts, ideas, and suggestions come together to help shape the way we operate. As they point out, though, the key is to keep this pool of meaning open and safe. In other words, EVERYONE is important enough to add an opinion, idea, etc into that "pool". An intern's ideas shouldn't be dismissed simply because he/she doesn't have as much experience as Forecaster A who has been working for 30 years. Neither should someone who tends to favor "old-school" ways of doing things be prevented from sharing ideas because his/hers tend to be seen as "anti-progressive".

But, as the authors of "Crucial Conversations" point out, it's not just about not dismissing ideas, it's also about making it an open pool and encouraging others to join in. We probably all know that guy / gal who has an opinion, but never or rarely shares it. As important as not dismissing ideas is, it is equally important to welcome others' opinions. If someone gives an opinion and they get their head bitten off by those who already have ideas in the pool, what good is that? There could be more great ideas out there that just aren't coming to the surface simply out of fear. Wx Twitter and map discussion forums are great, but I believe it is important to be careful not to scare people off. We ALL have had at least one bad idea or two (afterall, no one is perfect), so someone else giving a potentially bad idea doesn't mean they should be shunted for their opinion. I feel like this "safe pool" as the authors call it, is fostered by keeping dialogue open, sharing ideas, but being careful not to alienate people. If someone has a bad idea, it's fine to tell them, but I think it has to be done in a respectful manner in order to keep the ideas flowing.

For me, one of my personal challenges has been this idea of a shared pool of meaning. There are some people I tend to dismiss before they even open their mouth because of my view of them. I'm basically saying, 'Well, your opinion doesn't really count in my mind because of [and fill in the blank]'. This is wrong and by doing this I may actually be slowing progress, not the other way around. I came into the NWS with all these ideas and passions and, honestly, for some of these I just couldn't see how someone could see things any differently. And, if they did, well then I would just write them off as less passionate, old-school, less caring, etc. That is NOT a way to start a new job nor is it anyway to operate in any job and I have had to work really hard on this lately.

Going back to our weather pattern, it lends itself to many different opinions on how to handle the situation. As I mentioned before, it is likely that part, if not all, of our CWA will see some degree of accumulating snow each day for the next 4-5 days, but not from the same system. So, do you go with a 5-day warning, separate warnings for each event, or some combination of the two? Is one way more confusing than the other? What about your customer's needs? Each system will likely have some breaks/lulls in precip, but if they are only 6-12 hour breaks, will the public / customers even notice and/or see it as multiple events instead of one event? How do you handle this on social media or other communications methods without information overload? Will one shortwave be more impactful than another? Do you only message that one and not the others? What about antecedent conditions? It's winter, shouldn't people just expect snow / cold weather? This is a lot to process and I'm probably forgetting something. Ok, let the forum begin!

And this is where it gets about as messy as a 500mb spaghetti plot. Multiple members with multiple ideas, including those outliers. There may be decent agreement on one event (aka. topic), but not on others. And, just because there is decent agreement on a topic, doesn't mean the consensus is right. Sometimes those outliers nail it!

 In the operational setting, sometimes there is adequate time to mull over all these different solutions, but other times you simply have to go with your gut and pull the trigger on some product, message, weather story, graphic, email, etc, knowing that others might disagree and/or that it might not be the best answer. You can't mull over a Tornado Warning / alert for an hour...people's houses will be gone by then. The challenge of our job is that there isn't always a right answer. Even in the cases where there is probably a "best" answer, it may be tough to find. But, better when possible, that you try to find that best/better option as a team than as an individual. Pull from that shared pool of meaning (ie. that spaghetti plot) and don't be like me and ignore the "outliers" (ie. those folks I have struggled to not dismiss their ideas) or those "models" that always seem to have a bias. Sometimes the outliers / biased models are dead-on.

I'm not a big New Year's resolution kind a guy, but a goal of mine for this new year is to work harder to listen to all opinions even if I strongly disagree with some. Agreeing to disagree is fine, but I can't agree to disagree with an opinion that I haven't even listened to. That's like choosing to not even looking at a certain model's output because it is usually an outlier or biased. And, heck, turns out my opinions are not always right nor am I the only one with good opinions (whatever the criteria even is on that). Who knew?!? Will you join me in this goal? I hope weather twitter and map discussions keep going strong this year and that everyone, myself included, will keep an open mind to all the various opinions with the goal of trying to find that best way to serve our customers.

1 comment:

  1. Love the"shared pool" of information and opinions analogy. I also very much appreciate your words, "Agreeing to disagree is fine, but I can't agree to disagree with an opinion that I haven't even listened to." Good New Years challenge that I'll join you in. Good thoughts here, Roger.