Monday, December 07, 2009
Make it Look Planned
A few weeks ago I was in a meeting at which a colleague described an innovation that she had basically backed into, but that worked really well. (It had to do with scheduling certain classes in unaccustomed ways.) The initial impulse for the experiment wasn't entirely 'what the hell,' but it was close. When the 'what the hell' worked, she scaled it up, and it worked even better. Now we're all doing something like it, and succeeding wildly. It's that rare case of a lark that became a monster, but in a good way.
Our strategic planning person was in the room for this meeting. She wanted us to reconstruct the narrative to make the successful initiative appear to have been a data-driven, advance-planned intervention based on the previous year's strategic goals.
It reminded me of high school chemistry lab reports. The idea was to impose retrospective order on something that was actually far more chaotic.
Order makes for a lovely narrative, but the fact that it has to be imposed sort of defeats its purpose. I'd love to say that every good idea on campus has emerged from careful planning, data mining, and rigorous experimental controls. But that's not true, and if the college limited itself to those, nothing would ever get done.
Part of the fetish of extreme planning, I think, derives from misunderstanding the alternative. I've been asked, with a straight face, "if you don't have a plan, how do you know what to do?" If plans were handed down directly from God, I guess that objection might hold water. But plans come from the same people who produce perfectly well without them.
Randomness is not the only alternative to step-by-step planning. There's something in between. And that in-between space is where real leadership takes place.
In that in-between space, certain things are made prescriptively clear: boundaries of jurisdiction, a few thou-shalt-nots emitting from various sources (law, contract, regulations, strings attached to grants, etc.), available resources, and big-picture directions ("we want to open a satellite campus," say, or "we need to emphasize our allied health programs"). At that level, I'm all for a certain prescriptive clarity. If people think there's a magic money tree, or that rules are merely advisory, they're likely to pursue unproductive avenues.
But once those bases are covered, people need room to move. If somebody's 'what the hell' inspiration falls within the bounds above, and seems like a good idea, it wouldn't make sense to rule it out on the grounds that it wasn't part of the Plan. That's self-defeating. It limits the brainpower in action to what was in the room when the Plan was drawn up, which is never a good idea. And it doesn't allow for change during the course of the Plan. Sometimes the defense lines up differently than you thought it would, and you have to call an audible. That's not planned, but it's not random, either. If you anticipated a small enrollment increase and instead got hit by a demographic tsunami triggered by a Great Recession, it doesn't seem unreasonable to make some adjustments on the fly. Pretending later that they were what you intended all along is just silly.
I just haven't found a really elegant, one-sentence way to say that. Wise and worldly readers, I need your wordsmithing skills. What's the word for this?
There's an old military maxim: "no plan survives contact with the enemy". This applies just as well to civilian life. It's why engineers build prototypes, why marketers have test releases. If you tie yourself to the plan, you go under.
We Tried It and It Worked.
If "real leadership" is letting people try new things and figure out what works, rather than everyone sticking to a pre-set "plan," why impose a one-size-fits-all solution on health care, which, Lord knows, is much more complex and harder to plan for a country of 300 million than is a community college?
There should be nothing prescriptive about methods inherent to goals or strategies. So if the goal was "make it easier for students to get the sections they need", the strategy would be "ask staff to implement innovative new ways of doing this." The objective that flowed from that would be "ask staff for ideas, evaluate them and implement those that work during Fall semester with scale up in Spring." From that perspective, what you did WAS data driven because when you tried something to solve one of your identified problems and it worked, you scaled up and disseminated the method.
I'm unclear as to why a valuable innovation would be considered even more valuable if it was made to seem more deliberate, less a happy accident. Innovations should be evaluated on their own merits, not the process. It's the damn process that's always being used to pump up alleged value of innovations.
Was educating students a Goal last year? There must have been one that fits that description!
Educational Results-based Redirection Of Resources, aka ERRoR. ;-)
I'd make it Prototype U.... Results-based Redirection of Resources (Purrr, in honor of Catbert's planning department) if I could come up with the right word.
We've done that sort of thing. You have to be open to innovative ideas that get around the "we have always done it this way" inertia. It is the very basis of creative problem solving in the sciences and the only way you can change a long-standing paradigm. Enabling that sort of thing should be a College Goal, because top-down planning relies on one person to come up with the new ideas, while bottom-up experimentation puts hundreds of creative minds to work on making the institution better.
I presume that whatever this innovator did was not at great odds with established strategic planning initiatives. If so, then she deserves kudos for following her instincts (a product of many years of education and teaching experience), and then pursuing that course when her instincts proved to be on target.
Rather than trying to back into a narrative that claims advance data gathering and planning, why not stress the fact that this colleague conducted an experiment and then assessed the results and found them to indicate a successful result? There is presumably some sort of 'data' that she used to evaluate her innovation. That should make everyone happy.
It's call "emerging strategies" and is defined simply as those strategies that, while not initially planned, grow out of the actions of those engaged in the day-to-day.
I suggest Mintzberg and Quinn's large textbook on Strategic Processes for further reading.
Or professional judgment?
Or creative choices?
Or action-based management?