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Jan 26, 2007

Why are we poor?

Lately, there has been much talk about money and the budget. The University leadership is trying to make the budgeting process transparent, and share responsibility of planning the budget with deans and directors. Basically, we won’t have much money coming in from the State, whether Republicans or Democrats are in power. We’d need to use whatever we have more efficiently, and generate more funds for ourselves. Although the University’s leadership is committed to a modest salary increase, there rest of the picture is quite bleak.

What kind of financial arrangement would allow the university to generate more funds? AT the moment, the thought at the top seems to be this: let’s collect whatever small carry-overs units might have, and invest them in university priorities. By collecting these small pockets of money into larger pools, we might build up enough momentum to actually do some good, innovative things. Besides, the university must have reserves for emergencies, unexpected expenditures, etc. Good logic, reasonable intentions, but I am afraid, it is all wrong.

The units are very unlikely to allow any carry-overs to accumulate, if they are going to be confiscated, or if there is even a risk of being confiscated. Why would we? Our school’s needs are enormous; we can spend every penny and more within a couple of weeks, and none of it would be frivolous. I am sure our Dean feels the same way about the College’s budget.

What needs to happen is this: The Provost should declare a competition of revenue-generating initiatives; business plans, really. Some body of knowledgeable people will decide which ones are likely to succeed and support the authors with specific commitments and maybe small start-up capital.

For example. Our Dean and I made a following deal just recently: We agreed to start a new Postbac cohort in Loveland. In exchange, he promised a new administrative position for us to support this and other off-campus activities we will have; plus we expect revenue-sharing practices to continue, so the School gets modest allocations. My point is this:

We could probably generate several more of projects like this – some more risky than others. We are not begging for money; we will bring money to the university. All we need is a clarity and stability of arrangements, an understanding that from profits we help generate, resources will be allocated to support these activities.

I always hear “we don’t have money to hire people, no resources for anything”. I am sorry, I don’t buy it. How is it possible that we do not have money to make more money? This is theoretically impossible. If there is a demand for our services (and we all know, there is), resources should not be a problem. We can easily grow our existing programs on campus, and offer many more off-campus. The problem is not the lack of resources, but a lack of connection between generating income and distribution of that income. There should be a simple feed-back loop: if you’re bringing money to the University, you will be allowed to use part of this money to support your faculty and reinvest it in more resources. That's all, no new money, no new taxes. just fiscal environment that is stable, clear, and allows for significant incentives.

Jan 19, 2007

Midwives, matchmakers, Napoleon, and Kutuzov

Mamtchmakers and midwifes: that’s what managers are. The truth is, in a complex organization, managers don’t rarely come up with creative ideas, nor do they do most of the actual work. What we do is act as matchmakers, linking people, opportunities, and resources together. Notice, we do not create people, opportunities, and resources, we just looking for a match. To extend the metaphor a bit, managers don’t fall in love and conceive babies; they just make sure it happens regularly enough. Then when people work on a project, managers make sure the baby gets delivered, and does not get an infection, has some air to breath, etc.

The reason I am thinking about these things is this: We have actually accomplished quite a few things in the last six months, but I can take no more credit for that than a matchmaker and a midwife can take credit for new babies. Couples fall in love, struggle through misunderstanding, have dreams, conceive babies, make money, etc. It is women who bear, deliver, and nurse babies.

Let’s make a list:

  1. Our revision of the Elementary PTEP has been approved yesterday. The idea, the understanding of the problem, and the expertise existed long before I came on board. I would be an idiot to imagine this is somehow my achievement.
  2. Our new Early Childhood PTEP will accept new students in the Fall. Again, the revision has been in the works for a long time; all I had to do is to yell “push, push.”
  3. Our newly redesigned Ed.D. program already has two new doctoral students, with assistantships. Again – was there before me, just took very little tweaking.
  4. We will be opening a new Postbac Cohort in the Summer, and hiring a new cohort coordinator to run all off-campus cohorts. This was a s easy as poking a whole to let waters burst, pardon the analogy. The program has been very popular and successful, we had many more applicants than spots, so a no-brainer.
  5. We will have a new and simplified record-keeping system in place by Fall, (check-point course system).
  6. People write large grant applications, publish books and articles, organize conferences, try new things in class, deal with difficult students, develop evaluation policies, search for new hires, etc., etc., etc. All of this – with very little, or no help at all from me.

I am writing this not just to thank everyone (although this is clearly my intent), and not out of sense of modesty, for I have none. I think it is an important theoretical point; this is how organizations and their leaders function best. The easiest, most efficient way of achieving good results is to use what is already going on, and let the good things happen, while preventing bad things from happening. That’s about it, and then you’d get credit for other people’s work, shamelessly.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy makes a compelling case for how little Napoleon’s decisions mattered in the events during his Russian campaign of 1812. The small decisions and desires of many thousands of people seem to decide the course of events, the movements of huge armies, their victories and defeats. In contrast to Napoleon and his delusions of power, the Russian commander-in-chief, Kutuzov, clearly realized how little influence he actually had on the events of the war. Kutuzov led by what appears to be an inexplicable passivity. All he was doing is trying to sense where things are going, and not interfere with the natural course of events. For example, he had many opportunities to fight the French in better locations, but he did not feel that his army was psychologically ready for the decisive battle. Finally, the main battle that occurred at Borodino, began almost by an accident, developed in a way that no one could plan or predict, and ended in a way that both sides could claim victory. In the end, however, this was the most important battle that determined the utter defeat of the French army. Tolstoy does not claim that the historical events he describes are random. Quite to the contrary, he clearly sees patterns:

“In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and is expressed by a movement of peoples from west to east. Several times it moves eastward and collides with a countermovement from the east westward. In 1812 it reaches its extreme limit, Moscow, and then, with remarkable symmetry, a countermovement occurs from east to west, attracting to it, as the first movement had done, the nations of middle Europe. The counter movement reaches the starting point of the first movement in the west--Paris-- and subsides.”

Using purely empirical observations, Tolstoy questions the existence of the free will, at least in how it affects history, but also sees a remarkable regularity of these events. At the very end of the Second Epilogue, he draws parallel between Copernicus’s discovery and this new understanding of history. Because we do not feel that Earth is moving does not mean that it does not; because we feel that we have the free will, does not mean that we actually do.

Well, Tolstoy is exaggerating; there is free will, and leaders do make difference, just as Kutuzov did. But most of the events that occur are not determined by any one person, or any specific group of people. In fact, most of the things that happen in an organization no one wants to happen.

There are also two types of leaders, the napoleons and the kutuzovs. The napoleons always try to manage events directly, try to control what is going on in their organization. The napoleons can be very conservative, or very reform-minded (which, in my view requires similar type of personality), but at the core of their leadership strategy is the belief that events can be (at least in theory) controlled. The kutuzovs clearly understand the limits of their own (or anyone else’s) power. They sense the patterns. The kutuzovs may not understand the reasons for these patterns, or causes of changes, but still have a healthy respect for the forces outside of their control. The napoleons analyze the causes of problems, assign responsibility, plan changes, write mission statements, draw implementation plans. The kutuzovs also do all these things, but deep down doubt efficacy of such efforts. They try to soften the blows of administrative arbitrariness, and encourage small practical developments they find important. What I am really trying to say is that Kutuzov is my ideal, not Napoleon. But then again, this is maybe because I am Russian.

Jan 12, 2007

On failings of humans

Well, we’re back in full force. Vacations are really nice; Svetlana and I drove to Seattle to see both kids and our future son-in-law and his folks. But now I am so much back, the vacation seems like a distant memory.

One thing we all need to learn is tolerance for imperfection. In a complex organization like a university, nothing works perfectly. Things that one expects to be done often are not done; what should work, sometimes does not work, or works not as intended. Partly, this is just the human conditions: where people are involved, errors always occur. Besides, people tend to get engrossed in personal relationships, and develop skewed perspective on issues. They tend to find scapegoats and do not tolerate stress well. People have rather weak and selective memories; they are not at all like computers. Everyone who works with people must understand these weaknesses in others and in oneself. This is just what people are, and nothing could be done to change that. Sometimes we might think that only that or this person would go away, things will change to the better. This rarely happens, because any replacement will have either the same, or different problems. No one is perfect, and those close to being perfect we can never afford to hire.

Now, people also fun to be around, and they are a lot smarter than any machine, so let’s not forget that. People have common sense and sense of humor; they can work and get things done. It is just amazing how we take the good things about each other for granted, but are irritated by the weaknesses. But both are a part of the same package. If you cannot tolerate other people’s failings, take a hard look at yourself first. If still no tolerance to human failings, just go work with computers or other machines.

Bureaucracies are really social technologies designed to counteract some of the human failings, because in large organizations, those tend to multiply. We design policies, procedures, databases, forms, checks and balances, etc. They help, but then bureaucracies in turn bring new problems. Most remarkably, they slow down human interaction and tend to misrepresent human intentions. Humans have evolved to communicate in small face-to-face groups; we express a wealth of information through non-verbal cues. We also can keep a limited number of factors on our mind when making decisions. When we start writing letters, e-mails, talk on the phone, and develop complex projects involving many other people, we simply fail to communicate and to cooperate well. Hunting a wild boar or tending to a small garden – that we can do easily, if no more than couple dozen other people are involved. Now, designing programs of study, financial accountability procedures, evaluating employee performance – not so much. The very crutches we develop both help and impede us. Decision-making bodies routinely create more problems than they resolve; smart database systems create more confusion that existed before them; our policies have unintended consequences that are sometimes worse than the initial problem. That is just how bureaucracies work; this is the other side of human failings.

Our brains are great at recognizing patterns; way better than any computer now or for decades to come. We are quick learners, and we can learn operating in a bureaucracy just as well as we learn how to live in a forest. One thing that I wish everyone would give up is a belief that in the modern technologically advanced society, things will run smoothly, and no error or confusion will occur. So, here is a commandment for modern times: thou shall not be irritated by imperfection.