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Mar 24, 2011

To be or not to change

That is the question, really. I don’t have a particular desire to change all things around me. However, I have my instincts and ideas about where things go and how do we prepare for them. Here is a list of conditions that make an organizational change difficult.
  1. Change is offensive. Championing change is always perceived as a criticism of other people. Many people invest their time and names in particular ways of doing things. Suggesting to do it differently is almost inevitably an indirect criticism of others. You imply that either they did not do a good enough job when they developed the current system. Or that they somehow missed the need to change. Suggesting a change shifts the focus on the conversation from good things onto things that need to be improved – by very definition, to bad things.
  2. Change is risky. It involves a comparison between two very different things: one is a tried and proven, real thing. It may not be perfect, but we know for sure it works, and does not cause disaster. The other is ephemeral, imagined. It may or may not be better, but for sure carries a lot more risk with it – simply because it has not been tried before. The way human imagination works is this: it is very easy for us to imagine dozens of situation where the proposed new thing is not going to work. People can sit for hours and come up with new and new scenarios of how a new rule could be abused, loopholes found, and how it all can be ruined. That’s what we’re built to do: before leaping off a cliff, our mind predicts what could go wrong. There were people without this kind of imagination, but they all died out millions of years ago.
  3. Change is work, and no one likes to add something to one’s work load, unless it is necessary. While people may agree in principle that this and that need to change eventually, it is a very different kind of thing to say something needs to change now. What’s the urgency? It may be the case that just doing regular every day work well is more important that throwing time and resources at trying something new. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, right? (I like another one, If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke). But however you cast it, change is work, and work needs to be justified differently than abstract ideas.

These are just the three top problems; more can be added. Yet no one was able to fool the need for change. It comes in either small voluntary increments from inside, or as hard, abrupt and painful changes from without. The small steps may look very large and very painful at the time, but it is a matter of perspective. When we neglect to change, stories like this one in Ohio happen. And such blunt and destructive changes could have been prevented. We do not need radical changes – just a message that things gradually improve. Professions that have learned to innovate and self-regulate, thrive. Those that only learned to defend their rights, but offer neither innovation nor self-regulation, get vilified and marginalized. Not changing is not really an option; it never has been.
I believe that if we add peer feedback mechanism to our evaluation system. It would be a great PR message, and it is actually very useful for culture building. The benefits are obvious to me, while the cost is relatively minor. The School already has very good faculty communities; we actually have very few conflicts, and a lot of support. The next logical thing would be to extend those traditions deeper into professional collaboration. It’s building on strength to gain more strength. It is a long-term project, results of which will only become apparent 2-3 years later. Learning about each other’s business takes a while; learning to trust one’s colleagues on professional matters is also not easy. But neither it is very hard; it has been done before. Here is another list:
  1. Change does not have to be offensive.  It is not about you personally.
  2. Not changing is even riskier. Control your urge to see the worst-case scenarios.
  3. All good things in life are more work. Take it one step at a time. 

Mar 17, 2011

Vikings vs homies

The origins of the Russian state are unusual. People of Kiev invited foreign mercenaries, two Viking brothers, to rule over them. Until these days, when a manager is hired from outside of an organization – government, college, or business, - Russians refer to it as hiring a Viking (varyag). The logic of it is clear to all – bringing an outsider who has not yet created friends or enemies may sometime be beneficial. It allows to either move past a conflict, or to move an organization forward in a new direction. Another strategy is to promote someone from within. The advantages are continuity, avoidance of major disruptions, and recognition of someone from within.  An organization seeking change will benefit from a Viking; one seeking stability is better off with a homie. Being a Viking myself, I truly appreciate both homies and Vikings.
A similar, but not identical set of choices exists in hiring of new faculty. There is an advantage to growing your own – you can identify talent with certainty, shape its growth, and acculturate it in your ways. Those are people who are hired from the ranks of part-timers, temporary types, or graduates of your own programs. They can hit the ground running, and free us from nasty surprises. They usually have strong ties to the local community, bring valuable social networks with them, and tend to stay longer. The opposite strategy is to bring outsiders; those tend to have a different, fresher perspective, are more likely to be innovators, and tend to make your institution closer to the national norms. Again, both are important, and one can only advocate for a sensible mix of the two, while understanding of value and risks associated with both.
Both strategies can go wrong. With homies, there can be simply too many of them, which makes the organization stagnant. A large majority of homies won’t even know how things can be done otherwise, so their sense of the norm may eventually drift away from the larger context. The standards may slip, and a person may be hired on the basis of personal sympathies – being just like us, fitting in. This leads to nepotism, which is not only unethical, but is also illegal. Once the word spreads that such and such institution searches are mere formalities, good Vikings will just stop applying. The reputation will suffer, and it is very hard to get it back later. Most importantly, the self-respect will suffer. See my blog “Refuse to be second-rate
Another version of the same problem – hiring only people who share the organization’s values and beliefs. It is really hiring people who look like Vikings, but are really crypto-homies. It is less of a problem for business, but we work in academia, where open debate and difference in opinion is essential for credibility. So every liberal department should have some conservatives, and vice-versa; every analytic philosophy department must have at least one continental philosopher. Otherwise, we just create many isolated conversations, where our thinking is no longer challenged – because we all agree with each other. It is a dangerous, and ultimately, a self-defeating game.
Over-relying on Vikings can also go wrong. Some institutions never hire their own graduates – as a matter of policy, or a matter of tradition. This is probably taking it too far. It is hard to maintain traditions, the sense of organizational culture in an organization full of vikings. It may degenerate into a collection of academic stars, each very good in a small niche, but incapable of forming a community. It may lose its uniqueness and its peculiarity, which is often needed to maintain an identity. In many industries, including ours, uniqueness is a valuable asset. Vikings tend to have less loyalty to the organization, they leave more often, and may create large disruptions. Finally, once in a while you hire someone very incompetent, or unethical, because interviews are not perfect, and they definitely worse a tool than knowing someone for years.
I am talking of tendencies, not hard rules. Plenty a Viking stay for a long time, and many homies turn out to be the most daring innovators. Just trying to hire the best person available would be the best strategy; it will minimize risks associated with all strategies, and random events will take care of good balance. Trying to control our biases – for or against Vikings or homies – is the best strategy. 

Mar 11, 2011

Building and gardening

A theory:
Managers come in two large categories – architects and gardeners. Starting a project, architects have more or less exact plans; they like to oversee every step of the project, and make sure it goes as planned. If the progress is delayed, or the plans are violated, they worry a lot. Good architect are not afraid to pick a shovel or a hammer; they will never ask someone to do something impossible or unproven. It is a reasonable strategy; after all we do not want our buildings and bridges to collapse.
Gardeners have an entirely different mentality. They enjoy putting something in the ground, and then forgetting for a while, and checking back again. They marvel at the unexpected –oops, this was a wrong seed, and see, how well this squash is doing where a flower was supposed to be. Gardeners have a much higher tolerance to failure – so, half of my seeds died off, perhaps more or less water is needed next time, or this is a wrong kind of soil. Life and death of their projects are not consequential. Gardeners trust the inner forces of nature – the genetics of the plant, the natural ability of soil to produce. They start and shape processes, help them, but do not really understand every little detail – no one does. Gardeners may keep a beautiful weed, or they may pull out something they planted, because it did not turn out good enough. They do get disappointed if things go wrong, but believe there is always another season. Their time is circular, while the architects’ time is linear. Managers of that type like to start a lot of projects, fully expecting some to fail. They check back, and happy to see something different, or something completely unexpected. They trust other people to carry on, and freely admit ignorance of how exactly things happen.
I am more of an architect than a gardener, but am striving to move on that continuum more towards the middle. Simply put, some things need to be constructed, because they cannot fail.  Many others should be allowed to grow however they want. I wish I had the wisdom to know which is which. I wish I would stop trying to build a squash, and stop hoping a house will grow – just give it time. 

Mar 4, 2011

The evaluation season

My desk is crowded with tenure and promotion dossiers and annual evaluation forms. It is a lot of work, but also kind of fun to see what people were doing. I am learning about courses someone designed, new journals and conferences I have never heard of, and many projects we are involved in. It’s a good feeling – to belong to a group of people who work hard, are creative and successful. Overall, we’re in a good place. I was very happy to confirm my impression that the absolute majority of our faculty members are very thoughtful and dedicated teachers.
Of course, no one likes to be evaluated and judged, but it seems to be a universal feature of any organization now. Why is that? What does annual and comprehensive evaluation actually do? Some people believe they make people work harder. I don’t believe it is true. In academia, people are driven primarily by their interest, the sense of pride and accomplishment, and by ethical considerations. Faculty also react well to financial incentives, but the core of their work is very difficult to improve with administrative force. Instead of being a stick, the evaluation process should be used as a tool for building a common culture. The brief annual reports we write should be read not just by small DAC groups and chairs, but by everyone in each department. This is the best way to actually know who is doing what. It helps common standards and expectations to evolve; it shines some public light on individual accomplishments and struggles. We would have a much higher return on sharing than on hiding. If you’re doing great in some areas, more people will know about it, and some will be inspired, and others will want to collaborate. If you experiencing a problem, there will be more help available. Many more colleagues will want to help than Schadenfreude you. It is sometimes hard to believe when you’re being evaluated, but from my experience, it is invariably true.
It is the same with the comprehensive and more consequential evaluations. In most of the academia, all tenured faculty members vote on tenure. In some places, these responsibilities are placed on a small elected committee and on chairs. In my view, the first approach is much healthier. First, because of the reason described above. We need to know each other’s business to develop as a strong community. Second, small committees only work where they are completely trusted. It backfires with any personal or professional conflict. You’re lucky when your friends happen to be on the committee, and unlucky when your foes are there; both cases are bad for the organization. A larger group vote averages those influences out. It also gives a much more balanced picture to chairs and to deans on where the person’s colleagues stand. Third, a small committee has a hard time staying anonymous in its decisions. Because of that, people on it may feel more pressure, and feel less free to express their opinions. Fourth, the system places a greater burden on chairs to make the call.  These calls can be not only excruciatingly difficult to make, but chairs may be under a direct conflict of interest – the same small committee that recommends for tenure and promotion also evaluates the chairs. We sometimes have untenured chairs – such decisions place an unfair pressure on them. But above all, I believe that a group of self-regulating professionals must take a broad collective responsibility for the most important decisions. They should cultivate mutual respect, which only comes with being fair but demanding to each other. Our bargain for academic freedom included an explicit promise to self-regulate, and do it effectively and transparently. You don’t want your deans – much less the general public – to meddle in your professional judgment, because they do not have the same specialized knowledge of your field as you do. To achieve that, you must express your professional judgment to each other freely and openly. It will then carry much more weight, so I won’t have to make any decisions you are better qualified to make.
The funny thing, our contract is allowing the broadly based vote. All you have to do is to either forget to elect a DAC, or specify that DAC is the committee of the whole. More democracy is possible; all we need to do is claim it.