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Jan 27, 2012

How to change

Our TEIL group always has intriguing discussions, and people who are not there don’t know what they are missing. Today, we were talking about why some of our curricular projects seem to move faster than others. The first initial hypothesis is the human factor – people who lead these projects are more skilled and dedicated than others. That may be a part of it. However, some interesting projects led by people who are just as dedicated and capable seem to unable to move. We also had to admit that the same people who have done something expertly and quickly, may be also dragging their feet in one of snail-paced, or failed projects. As tempting the human factor explanation is, it is really not that useful.

You can see the results of our brainstorm in rather cryptic notes. But the most interesting insight, in my opinion, was that most of our more successful projects have an outside partner or champion. Some very reasonable ideas that we all agree need to be implemented, will remain unrealized, while others take off and become reality. We’re not sure why, but the seem to have someone on the outside asking, nudging, using different timelines, asking naïve questions, misunderstanding, but also challenging our assumptions, practices, and beliefs – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not. For example, TEIL had a very insightful discussion in December, trying to figure out the year-long residency dilemma. We came up with a very creative, but alas, flawed plan. However, a couple of weeks later, our Advisory Board that consists of outsiders immediately challenged our basic assumption (that schools would never pay to have student teachers), and helped to arrive at a workable solution. The lesson from this is – we need to learn to be more open. Moreover, when we identify a need to change, I will have to think hard – what would be a natural champion outside our organization? Not just an advisor, but someone who actually may have a stake in what and how we do. Another lesson is to not give up on a problem too quickly. Even though it may look like unsolvable, another pair of eyes may see an opening.

Another interesting observation – we don’t put any resources in change; all we’ve got and more goes to maintenance. Basically, everyone seems to be running around all the time to keep up with teaching, advising, writing, service, families... Curriculum design is a very time-consuming process, and there does not seem to be much time for it. The more we fall behind on improvement, the more difficult and time-consuming the regular work becomes. I actually have no idea how to solve this second problem, but perhaps you do.

Jan 21, 2012

The groundkeeper

Memories are often layered over a specific trigger. First big snow of the year, for example, brings me back to my mother walking me to school – or was it pre-school? – with snowy wind in my face blowing at such an exact angle that I must turn my head to take a breath. The next thing, when I was about 20, my college job was to be a groundkeeper at a preschool. When it started to snow, it meant a sleepless night for me. I had to wake up at 4, and go shovel the snow. First, I had to clear space for the morning truck to deliver food. Next were the sidewalks for parents to bring their children in. By the end of the winter, snow accumulates in piles on lawns, sometimes 10-12 feet high; every shovel of snow has to be thrown that high, in just the right motion, so it does not slide right back down. The work was hard by also strangely enjoyable; the smell of fresh snow, and sound of the shovel scraping the pavement. Dostoyevsky writes about snow shoveling in a mid-19th century Siberian penal colony in his The House of the Dead.

I also remember doing another shoveling gig at a liquor store, perhaps next winter. It was so cold one night, and the lighting was not good. I ended up removing a layer of asphalt from the pavement thinking it was ice. Asphalt becomes brittle, and easily broken by an ice pick. I thought I’d get in trouble with the management, only to discover next day the pit filled up with ice again, indistinguishable from asphalt.

Why do certain things stick in our memory forever, while an important conversation from just two weeks ago I cannot recall at all? Some of the memories are shored by emotion, some by repetition, but others are simply random. They make the patchy fabric our lives, which we spend a long time organizing, re-writing, and make coherent after the fact. The relentless snow of forgetting whites out everything, except for some islands of recognizable memories.

Jan 13, 2012

The new way of working

The new way of working slowly emerges. Technology needed for it existed for a while, although not in the most useable form. The issue is not the technology, but changing our own habits and assumptions about how to work.

The old way

At a meeting, everyone is handled an agenda. People read it, amend the agenda, they discuss whatever needs to be discussed. One person takes notes. The notes of the meeting are then typed up, and sent to other members to make sure nothing was omitted. This can be a special approval of minutes, or a more informal process. Then someone converts the minutes into an actionable plan, which almost always includes writing some document or a series of documents. Almost anything we do includes a policy statement, an announcement, an application, a survey instrument, etc. Many are also duplicated as web pages or published otherwise. The plan is communicated to the respective parties. Someone then writes a draft of a document, and sends it out for review. People send back their comments or corrections. The author has to incorporate all of those into a new draft, and send it again for review and comment. Alternatively, people who do little parts, report on their activities, if they remember, and someone in charge has to compile reports, so she or he can monitor the process. Then eventually the results of the project need to be either published or sent to specific people.

The new way

When a meeting is called; the agenda and the initial ideas on the issue are sent along, as a link to a Google Doc. People can add thoughts, questions, or objections on the document before the meeting ever begins. This saves time at the meeting, for all are more prepared. “What are we writing today?” is how every meeting should be started. IN other words, what are the end product? If it is a policy and an application form, we should work on those end products right away, skipping all the preliminary writing if possible. Very often the initial Doc is also reused as either a policy statement, or a discussion board, if a wider discussion is merited. As the project progresses, that doc is also used to record progress, concerns, dilemmas and whichever useful information needs to be gathered. It is often the case that projects take a long time, so participants forget what they agreed on, and what was done already. The doc is an archive, which can be quickly found and revisited. The majority of our projects are not confidential, and the doc can be openly available. Whenever someone asks for an update or a report, or a news item, we send them a link: if you need information, you plough through our working notes and find what you need. I am not doing it for you!
When we switched from typed or handwritten paperwork to files and e-mails, we gained in the speed of communication, but lost time with the ever-increasing volume of the communicated information. We lose a tremendous amount of time on e-mails, many of which are unnecessary. Just look at your inbox – it is probably a request to take some information, and covert it into a different form and share it with different people. The second shift that is going on right now is to distributed, shared information creation and consumption. It promises a significant increase in productivity, which really means cutting out all the routine and boring stuff. For example, at DLC meetings, we look at the minutes of the last meeting on screen, and correct them right there; I publish them as we speak. The minutes now have links to other documents, in case someone forgets, or is curious to drill down the information. This relieves me from the obligation to return to my office, open the file again, enter the corrections, then do something else to make the minutes public. When I return from most meetings, I do not need to sit again with my notes and translate them into actionable items, send them out to other people, etc. The minute we’re done, we’re done. I treasure those extra thirty minutes every couple of weeks, because I have more interesting things to do.
Here is another example. Last year, we spent a lot of time on creating a newsletter: I solicit information from people, and am routinely ignored. Then I pester chairs, and they pester faculty, and somehow produce blurbs and pictures. Then we edit, figure out layout, produce a PDF file, print on color printer, etc. Lots of time is spent with uncertain result.
The new way: Google Search emails me links to any news and any website changes that contain “Rhode Island College.” Most are irrelevant, but when it is our alum or a story about us, I read, and paste the link into our Face book page. When one of you sends me an e-mail with a picture or a link, I can now say, Great job, congratulations; can you please share this on Fb? This creates a semi-permanent record of news. So, when I am asked for news, I send a link. Some people still wanted us to produce another newsletter. But you know what? I am happy with the Fb format. It is not as pretty and organized as the newsletter, but it does the job. You want a newsletter? Well, go ahead, do it! If you need the information, you know where to find it.
Very few things in life are as satisfying as stopping doing things you did not enjoy doing.

Jan 6, 2012

Fail fast, fail cheap

One of the Freakonomics podcasts was called The Upside of Quitting; you can also listen to it. It is about the balance between the sunk cost (I put so much into this already, it is hard to abandon) and the opportunity cost (the cost of not doing something else). Their point is simple: the stigma of quitting skews our decisions; we hold on to our failures for too long. And there is also strength in persistence, no doubt. The problem is when we hold onto something just because we already poured too much money and effort into it, NOT because it still has a promise. The Vietnam War is one tragic example of the failure to fail fast.

I thinking about it while reviewing a list of projects I have started and abandoned, trying to discern good failures from bad ones. Here is an example of a better one: last semester, I thought we would do a service to many people if we accept paper copies of some assessment forms here, and have our work studies punch the numbers into our electronic databases. Some objected that this is going to mean too much work for us, but I figured faculty and cooperating teachers’ time is in the end much more valuable than the work-studies’ time. We were also trying to save on the cost of training many people and answering their technical support requests. The trouble, however, came from an unexpected direction. Because there is always a few days’ lag, it was very difficult to monitor compliance. The data could be in one of two electronic databases, or in a pile of unprocessed papers, or in transit somewhere. We just could not tell who completed and who did not, especially in the few critical days at the end of the semester. And yes, work studies and GA’s stopped working because of their own finals. So, OK, we failed, and are going back to all electronic submission. But we failed fast, relatively cheaply. On the balance sheet are negatives (a few people think we’re morons, because we change the process every semester; we lost some data; some instructors never completed the forms), and positives (we learned something from the experience, we have moved on to the next, and hopefully better system).

Bad failures happen when the sunk cost keeps increasing, because people invested their effort, their egos, and their identities into something that does not work. It still fails all the same, just too late, and too expensively. I wish we could be a little more tolerant to failure. The world is changing; it is a much more dynamic and fast-paced place than even 20 years ago. No need to be flaky and try a hundred different things, without following up on any of them. However, we should always have a few more initiatives going than we expect to complete. And most importantly, we need to be attentive and forgiving to each other’s and collective learning processes. Otherwise, people will develop an aversion to risk, and just do the same thing over and over again. And that would be a very boring place to work in.