Tuesday, May 12, 2009


In Which I Ask My Readers For Wisdom

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there's a reorg afoot on your campus. And let's say that part of the purpose of the reorg is to reduce administration, and thereby to cut costs. And let's say that your faculty and staff are unionized, and place a great deal of value on process.

And just to make things interesting, let's say that the target date for the reorg to actually hit the ground is in a little over a year, so there's time to deliberate. But any change in 'terms and conditions of employment' – like, say, reporting lines -- requires 'impact bargaining.' And some people have improbably well-developed fears of almost any change at all, for reasons of their own.

I've been wracking my brain – and the brains of everyone around me – trying to figure out the mechanics of a process for public discussion.

To clarify: I'm not looking for the substance of the reorg plan. I'm looking for an inclusive process to develop a plan. At this stage, I'm fairly certain that any plan I develop on my own would be summarily shot down, simply because of the 'on my own' part. The goal here is to come up with a reasonable process that satisfies a few criteria:

- Affected parties have a chance for informed input. By 'informed' I mean having a sense of institutional context, legal constraints, and the bounds of the possible.

- Input is iterative. That is, instead of happening once and abstractly, it can happen repeatedly as ideas take shape. I've walked into the old “that's not what I agreed to!” trick too many times not to have the process circle back.

- Proxy issues are hard to sustain. This probably involves unusual mixes of people, so when person A starts in with his code words, person Q can ask “what the *(&%#^( are you talking about?” This is a key step, much too often neglected. Forcing clarity can make it easier to distinguish real battles from shadow boxing.

- It's possible to actually move from 'discussion' to 'decision.' Left unchecked, these processes can go on until people forget the original question. I have no use for that. The point is not discussion for its own sake; it's discussion to forge an actual decision. Ideally, even folks who aren't happy with the result will at least grudgingly acknowledge the legitimacy of the process. If I hear “that's a boneheaded plan” when it's over, I can live with that. But I want to put a sock in the usual “how was this decision made?”

So, since folks on my campus are tiring of me pestering them for ideas, I turn my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen a process that fit these criteria (or that came close)? How, exactly, did it work?


"It's possible to actually move from 'discussion' to 'decision.'"

Allow -- or even insist on -- written input (for public consumption) as well as actual discussions. I'm a fan of discussing things to pieces, but that a) bores/alienates some people who are more results-oriented and b) can turn into discussion-until-we-achieve-100%-agreement, which means discussion until the end of time.

Certain individuals will NEVER stop until they feel they've been exhaustively heard, and as long as someone is still talking, they're still responding. At a certain point, making them put their thoughts into a memo seems to cut this off. Others are simply more comfortable writing their thoughts.

Plus then you can have due-dates. :) It's obviously more appropriate for some phases of the discussion than others, but it can be very useful.

Can you put together an info packet that people theoretically have to read or can't participate? Briefly describing, in narrative, the institutional context, listing the legal constraints, and outlining what's probably the outer bound of the possible? Then you can update/add to that as you go through various iterations of input, appending suggestions and proposed direction and so forth.
I suggest assembling a small number of people who you can rely on for fair-minded insight and integrity, to form an advisory group on the process itself - but not yet on the results. The idea is not only to put more heads into the issue, but to have influential people on board, and to take appropriately sized steps radiating outward in your stages of inclusiveness.
Research shows that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones. Research shows that individuals tend to rate their own abilities higher than are actually proven (including Deans.) Research also shows that groups that include (but are not limited to) people from outside the perceived realm of "expertise" perform better. Finally, research shows that groups perform better than single "experts" (see previous two points).


1. Develop a diverse (experience/knowledge diverse) group of not only faculty, but also staff (across varied functions) and have them work as a team.

2. Provide the team with the desired (necessary) outcome, broadly defined but not described.

3. Provide the team with the parameters in which that must be achieved (budget/hiring constraints, teaching constraints, etc.)

4. Establish a "report date."

5. Sit back and be amazed. (I hope)
My university (for something not quite so administrative) actually used a blog to let people write and exchange written comments (starting with the report of the advisory group), and then accepted written plans from groups.
A broadly representative work team can be effective for major changes like this. Be sure to include formal representation of the faculty and staff unions. Don't assume "She's in the faculty union, so the union is represented"; let each union assign a rep, if possible. The work team should present written recommendations to the Powers That Be. Granted, this could lead to people waving the recommendation memo in Board meetings if the Administration does not follow the recommendations, but the process would be a good faith effort to inclusively generate a plan.
Agreed with all of the above. Funny that after several thousand years of political philosophy we still have to ask these questions....

Start with a big town hall meeting. All citizens invited. Do a quick outline of necessary outcomes as you see them (not too much or it will feel like you're dictating) then divide up for a SWOT analysis. Do a couple of different permutations of that: strength, weakness, opportunity and threat groups, then groups to work through strengths + threats, weaknesses + opportunities, that sort of thing. Each group takes notes that enter the record and reports to a plenary debriefing after each break-out session. Take your time with the debriefings so each group feels valued. Expect the whole thing to take all day - supply snacks and light lunch. Publish the proceedings.

It may be you actually get useful insight out of this process. At least you get to scout for especially focused participants to build your diverse consulting committee from (use known confederates to moderate breakout sessions and scout for talent, or let leadership assert itself on the fly). Some possible future opponents will learn from the process that it really is all very complicated and be more inclined to accept an executive decision later. Others will feel heard and be done with it. You'll also learn more about what constituencies you'll need to trade horses with and which are merely lone crackpots.

Once you've got the advisory group together and real work starts getting done, announce and publish minutes regularly, scrupulously and voluminously with as much supporting documentation as possible (I like the blog idea). Historians of education in the future will also thank you for this. Send out committee members to progress-report to their constituencies and gather feedback. Minutes of those meetings go on the blog. This excess of transparency will cut off some potshotters by exhausting / overwhelming them or disabling their conspiracy-theorizing and may incidentally enable quality contributions from responsible people who actually bother to follow along.

If possible, come up with two fair plans you can live with and use some kind of meeting and referendum to decide.

I'm exhausted just thinking about this, and reminded of how grateful I am that administrators do this work so I don't have to.
Nothing to add to the overall process question other than "deadlines are good," but Arrow's Impossibility Theorem helps with the despair that things never seem to get perfected. Mathematically, they can't be perfected, so it's not surprising that governance is a system that requires input and excellence from its participants.
Thanks, everyone!

I have the best readers ever...
Just went through this, using the basic process several folks have already described. Brought key stakeholders together, outlined reasons for the reorg (what problems are we fixing?) and the goals for the new system (what upper admin needed to see) and then had a series of meetings to hash out several proposals by a certain date. The result was three good proposals, one of which was accepted by TPTB. The faculty/classified/admins have a sense of ownership and--just as importantly--of having been listened to and respected. A tiring process, but one that really seems to work. Good luck!
I am just exploring this webbased solution to project management, input collaboration and decision making, so I don't know if it will really work - however, it does have many of the key elements that you are talking about. I want to use it to get internal (college faculty and local student) and external (company and distance learning student) applied researchers coordinated even though they are geographically distributed.

The software is XRM Pursuits, from Factor X Solutions. (http://www.factorxsolutions.com/) The modules that seem relevant from your needs are the IdeaManager (a yahoo answers-like forum) and DecisionMaker (a polling system for the best ideas).

The website is pure-marketese, but the feature sheet and a virtual tour of the software can help vision how you might use it for your needs.

That all being said - there is a bit of a lag with software uptake (unless your faculty are extremely web 2.0 savvy) that might not meet your timeline. It is an interesting approach that you could probably bootstrap through wordpress and polling tools (if you wanted a cheaper option).

I find it is never easy to get people to make decisions that slit their own throats (or hit their pocketbooks) - the key to all of this is to sell the greater good and encourage participation by helping stakeholders see the ultimate benefit to them.
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