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Jan 24, 2009

On laziness and long-term perspective

My brother Konstantin is an engineer, a creative mind, and a pub philosopher. He likes to tell people that all progress in the world comes from laziness. What he means is that most people dislike routine and monotonous work. But some individuals hate routine and monotonous work with such a passion that they will spend more time trying to find a way out of doing this work than the actual work would have taken. Let's call it laziness, although I suppose it is not a common usage. I must confess I am lazy, which may or may not be a good thing for the School I am trying to lead.

Looking for ways to reduce work feels like a creative activity; it is fun, and definitely beats doing the actual work it is trying to improve. For example, if I have to do the same operation in word processing more than 3 or four times in a row, my mind immediately starts looking for ways to make the machine do the repetition. What would have taken most people half an hour to do, may take me an hour or more: 59 minutes to figure out a solution (like writing a macro), and then 1 minute to run it. There is a chance I will face the same issue again, and then this time will pay off. But there is also a good chance that this was a unique problem, and the solution will never be used again and is thus wasted. I remember hundreds of these things I figured out once, and then never used again. My kids always give me a hard time about this particular obsession: "Oh, Dad, not another shortcut!"

In the last three weeks, I found myself trying to streamline and simplify several of our operations: graduate admissions, scheduling, placements, doctoral program policies, collecting data for the DPS project, etc. These efforts include talking to people, understanding their work, asking for their suggestions and for critique of possible solutions, working on technical issues, looking for resources, etc. This took probably 20% of all my work time, plus some homework. And I am not convinced it is all time well-spent. Actually, some of my little projects turned out to be duds. For example, I really liked the idea of matching cooperating teachers and teacher candidates via a social network website for the purposes of student teaching placements. I spent perhaps 4-6 hours investigating it, playing with the sites, writing it up, and explaining to various people, only to realize that the organization culture barriers are too high for this solution to work. Too many players, too many unanswered questions. Another example of waste: we archived a part of our SIMS database last Fall to make it faster. However, this created a major reporting problem, which we did not see at the time. So, on Friday, I spent about two hours undoing damage from my own mistake. And then, of course, it is unclear whether our new way of processing graduate admissions will work better than before. I think it will save us hundreds of hours every year, but there is no way to anticipate how many new problems it will create. For example, the Graduate School is suddenly concerned about us having our separate on-line application (it never bothered them when we had four different additional paper applications).

Like my brother, I really enjoy this, and do not get upset when something is not working. However, I just re-read my earlier blogs, and realized that I may have gone too far. After all, a School Director is not an efficiency expert. While I designing new ways of improving our operations, what do I miss? For example, we slowed down our work on curriculum improvement. This maybe just a result of working out kinks of already implemented, or maybe because I quit pushing? We have such complex, multilayered set of programs and procedures that it is hard to keep a clear sight of priorities, and how they should be structuring my own work day. I will see to the grad admissions puzzle being solved, just because so much time and energy has been invested already. But we really have fixed the most urgent operational problems, and managed to create a few new programs and cohorts. It is time we begin a serious conversation about the long-term goals. We tried a couple of times to do it before, but perhaps the time was not right. We had too many immediate pressing needs such as accreditation, catching up on educational technologies, maintaining and revising existing program, etc., etc., etc. But now we should start to take on the long-term perspective seriously. I don't want to rush or force this conversation. It just occurred to me as I was fixing the database on Friday that while it is fun, we may have bigger game to catch.

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