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Feb 26, 2018

“I can easily do it,” a path to over-commitment

Here is a trap I used to find myself in, a lot: I am sitting in a meeting, with good ideas flying around. This is what I live for – ideas, new things to try. “Wait,” I think at some point, “I am the best person around here to do this thing, and I know a trick about how to do it.” Then I blurt out: “OK, I will do it.” And here I am, walking out of the meeting with 2-3 items of homework.

To begin with, deans should not be walking out of meetings with homework. In fact, my job is to find people, resources, incentives, ways and means, shortcuts and tricks for things to get done WITHOUT my direct involvement. That’s what delegation is. One of my management friends told be a while back: If you a general and you happened to be the best machine gunner, you still should not be manning the machine gun, or you lose the battle.

However, the accidental commitments is not only among managers. Many faculty succumb to the urge to volunteer to do many unrelated things. Some of our academic brethren have excellent organizational skills. That group does not represent a significant majority, let’s just say that. So, people are swamped under a million of small projects, on top of the regular mayhem of student e-mails, paper grading, and committee meetings. And once you get behind, all things get behind – accidental and critical.

One of the best ways to improve a project or a process is not to do it at all. You would be surprised to find out how many things from our work lives can be safely eliminated without significant damage to the overall functionality. Here is a small example we are considering right now: Faculty have to submit their office hours through a special form, then staff process and print out this information, post office hours sheets on faculty doors. The problem is – compliance rate is low; no more than 30% of faculty actually complete the form each semester. In addition, work effort is significant. My guess is, we can simply ask faculty to post their office hours on their doors; it takes the same time as completing the form, perhaps less. It won’t improve the situation, for the same 30% will comply, but neither will it make it worse. On the other hand, we would eliminate a whole work process. The sheets also won’t look as pretty. So, it is a question of balance, but I bet a change won’t ruin anything.

Another psychological trap is reluctance to abandon something that is not working. It does not feel good, and smacks of admitting defeat. Failure is always problem; the reluctance to stop doing what is not working, is a bigger problem. So, stop doing what you’re doing right now and ask yourself three basic questions: Is this essential to our core mission? Is it moving us forwards? Is it a lot of fun to do? If the answer is no to all three, get busy with something else.

Feb 19, 2018

Must Innovators be asked hard questions?

Consider a typical start-up cycle: The idea first is germinated, bounced by many people. Then people create start-up, produce some sort of a pilot, and must defend their idea over and over again in front of a panel of potential angel investors, or their own family members willing to pitch some money. Then they face the hardest test of all by entering the market place, and getting their first buying customers. And then they need to convince real investors to pour money into expansion. A whole set of business incubators and accelerators helps people to get through these hurdles. If a business fails, it fails quickly, and start-uppers move on to the next project.

Consider how innovation is done in Academia: a small group of faculty typically sit in a few meetings and brainstorm a list of courses for their new programs. Sometimes they do a little looking around for similar programs. Then a number of curriculum committees will ask a few questions, and approve the new program. Sometimes, a university Board will get involved, but usually very superficially. Voila, a new program is born! Once it is born, it will go on for a long time, despite declining enrollments. While birth is easy, death is slow and protracted.

The difference in the latter case is that no one is structurally encouraged to ask tough questions. An idea that sounds good will usually get supported. It is not just academic programs, but various managerial innovations, restructurings, and platforms – their birth is too easy, their death is too hard. Almost no one ever asks for hard proof, for evidence that something is worth doing.

It is so easy to be critical of Academia, but it is not so simple. The danger is, once you start asking the very hard questions, you eliminate any development, any innovation. Start-upers are often motivated by the slim chance of striking it very rich or very famous, or both. This why the startup world can generate the tremendous energy and risk tolerance. In our world, the outsize rewards are very unlikely, and people do things for different reasons. The different institutional arrangements make for a very different culture of innovation. And one has to admit, American universities are fairly innovative, despite the lack of powerful incentives to innovate. Perhaps we need to learn how our own gears work and oil them, rather than importing a whole set of alien mechanisms?

Feb 12, 2018

What makes things move?

At one of our last “Troika” meetings (the two A-Deans and I), we were wondering why some of the processes seem to go on their own, and need no or little pushing. Yet other processes and projects require constant following, or else they peter out. Some have their own little engines, while others rely on the leadership pedaling power. You would think it is likely old versus new things? Well, not really. Website updates is an old process, and yet it is not moving at all. Curriculum revisions – we had to push these hard. Recruitment for some masters programs went nowhere for some time. Yet RTP goes on in mostly orderly fashion, almost on its own, and so are dozens of other important processes like scheduling, admissions, contracts, etc.

The explanation may be simple – when we have specific staff or faculty assigned certain duties with deadlines, it happens. If responsibility is not clear or distributed – no one takes the lead, and the process stalls. In other words, if we did not set it up correctly, a n organizational process will not advance. It is probably a large part of an explanation, but not all of it. Some of the fundamental processes happen even if no staff is currently responsible – other people around will notice, help, remind, and generally make it happen. Moreover, the opposite is sometimes true – someone may have a specific task and yet it slips away.

The institutional theory tells us that in larger social systems, some aspects are more resilient, and somehow more fundamental than others; they are called institutions. Some patterns of human behavior are grounded in more authority and legitimacy. It is not just that people get used to certain norms, they also view them as more important and more legitimate. By extension, other things are not institutionalized, and are viewed as non-essential, temporary.

Martinsons (1998) has developed an interesting theory of institutional deficiencies. When the rule of law does not work very well, a country will rely more on relationship-based commerce. The process is somewhat similar at a workplace. When I ask something to be done, it could be viewed as a fully legitimate, well-established, rule-government assignment. Or, it could be viewed as a personal favor I am asking someone to do on top of his or her responsibilities. Some people (like Trump) mistakenly believe that personal loyalty is a way to go. Which simply means that the authority lines are so strong that any worker will do anything she or he is asked to do with equal enthusiasm.

However, Martinson shows that in the end, institutions based on law are much more stable and efficient. There are only so many favors one can ask without returning a favor, which starts a cycle of the relationship-based organizational patters that will eventually undermine legitimacy. Or, to put it differently, a leader that is over-invested his resources in personal authority, can only do it by destroying the institutions. This is, by the way, the source of Putin’s increasing authoritarianism: he wanted to make the system governable and responsive so badly, that his personal authority eroded the weak democratic institutions in Russia.

More sensible managers will always try to institutionalize new or weak processes, make them a part of culture, of collectively held beliefs. It is not easy, because we do not really understand the mechanisms of institutionalization. What I do know, it is definitely not proportional to the volume of manual pushing things through. It looks like some things just take quickly, while others will not.

The problem with institutionalization is that any long-lived organization also collects some dead-weight routines that look legitimate, but have lost their original usefulness. I can give many examples, but so can you.

OK, I have been at Sac State for a year now. The project is still as fascinating as ever. Looking forward to the next chapter.

Feb 5, 2018

The procedural menace

Managers impose rules on staff, and then forget about both. The rules and staff live their own entangled lives, invent routines, understandings, habits and tricks to deal with them. Because rules tend to add, but never diminish, the procedures become excessively complex with time. Why this is happening? Well, there are theories, I prefer Wilson’s. But the “why” does not matter that much. The important part is what do you do about it.

We tried to take stock of all the procedures in use at our College. It is to 33 pages of dense text, and we could easily double that. There is a lot more that exists in organizational memory, in people’s heads, in files in various hard drives, sheets in various drawers. I am awed by this richness of organizational knowledge, and by staff’s ability to navigate it. However, there is a theoretical limit. You cannot add for years without removing anything. Procedures make an additive, not decremental process.

The natural reaction to complexity is specialization – different people will learn different part of the system. It creates an enormous pressure when people leave, and others are unable to pick up the pieces. It has not happen to us yet, but it will, eventually. When people are upset or have to work overtime, it is one thing; when consequences will over into the world of real students, faculty, and their lives, that’s a different story; a story I would like to avoid.

What we really need to do is figure out a way of systematic rule pruning. In the normal course of work, nothing like that exists; there is neither time nor method for doing so. I am so looking forward to when AI will be able to help, but it is not available just yet. What is the next best thing? Does anyone know?