Friday, June 18, 2010


Admitting Defeat

I need the wisdom of my wise and worldly readers on this one.

It falls somewhere between a political question and an etiquette question.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your campus has identified a few key goals, and that there’s pretty good campuswide agreement on those goals. Let’s say that those key goals have been given a consistently high profile. And let’s say that several different projects have run over the past couple of years in pursuit of those goals.

And just to make life interesting, let’s say that one of those projects just isn’t working. Despite the concerted hard work of many smart and well-intentioned people, it just hasn’t succeeded. And you’re personally identified in many people’s minds with both the goals and the project.

Let’s say that you still think the goals are valid, but you think it’s time to change tactics.

How, exactly, do you communicate that without destroying your own credibility, and/or the credibility of the goals themselves? How do you admit defeat without throwing anybody under the bus, or unduly feeding the cynicism of those who live for that sort of thing?

Put differently, how do you communicate the concept of ‘experiment’ in a way that doesn’t register as flippant or evasive?

Speaking as someone who does a lot of experiments....

Are there any aspects of the project which are failing in an interesting way? Even if your original hypothesis is incorrect, some of what you've learned or seen may be helping to point you in the correct direction.

My next move would be to have an all-hands meeting with the development team, and break up the project into coherent sub-topics. Assign the team members to the sub-projects, and have them spend a month determining what's been learned so far, and what that suggests. Meet again, and re-formulate a new project plan based on the results. Some aspects of the project may be almost working, and will reach a goal with a little more effort. Others may need to be abandoned entirely, or you might need to do the exact opposite of what you were doing originally.

In other words, present it as adaptability and mission-oriented attitude. If your institutional culture is functional, that could be seen as neither flip nor as denying reality.
"For years now, at least since 19XX, we have known that W is a problem. Back in 200X we took steps to fix it, through the Y program. It is now Z years later, and it is clear, based on data collected by P, Q, and R that this just isn't working. We are therefore going to end the Y program. Mind you, the problem of W is still around, and matters as much as ever. We are therefore replacing W with the S program. Hopefully, it will work better, and we'll know for sure in a couple of years."
We celebrate our risk-taking culture but then can't seem to ever admit that a risky venture did not work. Pull the plug, pat yourselves on the back for a good try, share your lessons learned, and move on. I'll not push for another risky project because I am now saddled with making my last one work. We learned some things - one of which is that my hypothesis was not correct.
If you and your team have already identified a better way to solve the problem, I would use John Larson's script. If not? I'd start with Dictyranger's program to get a solution "brainstormed".

What's in your favour is that everyone's identified the goal as important. No one should be "married" to the particular solution so much as to the end results. If you can run meetings and rally support around that vision, you'll be good.

At the same time, take a moment to celebrate the hard work that people put into the attempted solution and motivate them by saying that you've seen how their efforts have paid off in other ways (tangents to this project or in other endeavours). Let people know that they're not going to be discounted or sidelined just because the particular solution is!

Good luck!
Yes to this: "If you and your team have already identified a better way to solve the problem, I would use John Larson's script. If not? I'd start with Dictyranger's program to get a solution "brainstormed".

People who are "smart and well-intentioned" will appreciate your not wasting their valuable time with something that isn't working. They'll also appreciate the opportunity to take the best of what you and they have learned from the process and formulate a new plan. This is not the time for ego, but for working together in the most collegial and productive way possible.
Not to be grumpy at you but it kind of burns that a learning institution could have an intolerance of failure. (I know that's probably the case but - still.)

I'd be honest. But I'd warm up the crowd talking about the value of failure. It's Google I think that says there's bad and good failures, and good ones are where you figure out why and change what you're doing, and also speed - fail fast and fail early.
I think selling it as "aren't we so smart and disciplined for pulling the plug when the time came to try the next thing?" is a strong pitch. It's positive, it builds up both the current folks and the new experiment, and (of course) it's a fully valid interpretation of the event.
The only thing I would add to Dictyranger's wise comments is the suggestion that diplomatic honesty may, in the long run, garner you and your team more respect from a community that knows that you will take steps to correct a strategic problem once it's been identified rather than send your colleagues on a quixotic quest.

Perhaps opening up the issue to the campus--asking for input from all stakeholders via a wiki or blog on how the vision should be adapted?
Is it, in fact, a solvable problem? Some problems are for solving and others are for managing, as my brother the engineer has taught me (getting the project to not blow up is his problem. It has a clearly measurable yes-or-no standard. Managing low employee morale is not really a problem with a definite end date or yes-or-no standard, but more of a constantly recalibrated effort. From what I've seen of teaching developmental writing to working-class students, it's more of the latter situation.)

BTW I clicked over here today expecting some sort of pronouncement about all the accreditation/credit hour stuff that is going on --- there's actually a big discussion of it all on the chronicle.
Be transparent. People appreciate that, and there is so little of it in many academic communities. Make sure to explain "here's why we chose program X to start with, and here are the benchmarks we used to evaluate the success of that program." Then lay out an evidence-based case for why you think the new program Y will be a better fit, and also the indicators you expect to use to evaluate program Y in the next 1-2-however-many years.

Then it becomes easier for people to understand why you are abandoning the original program, and it isn't about "gut feelings" or jumping on the bandwagon for the latest reform fad.

(If you don't have an evidence-based case for new program Y, or you haven't yet developed reasonable benchmarks, then don't adopt it yet! Reform for the sake of reform is a waste of time, will feed your cynics, and will burn out the well-intentioned people you want to engage.)
When solution X to problem P was proposed, were there clear criteria established to determine if it was working? Was data collected to evaluate it?

If the answer is 'yes', then making the case is fairly simple (either way).

If not, then why not? Before doing an experiment in the lab, we make predictions. Surely an experiment in administration is run the same way?
I had to mull this over for awhile before deciding to post. You see, I'd hate to encourage what goes on at our college, which avoids your problem by avoiding the last step of any experiment: presenting the data.

An effective way of avoiding the problem you have is to associate yourself with the creation of the project, but then gradually disassociate your name from it over time as it becomes "standard practice" - even if it remains that specific initiative. That way, when it fails, you can just substitute a new initiative for the old one (or on top of the old one, which is one of my perceived causes for cost increases). The only people who will notice are the few who, like myself, were paying attention. Newspapers only notice things if you send out a press release, so only tell them what you want them to print.

You have a bigger problem with the grant or funding agency that put up money to back the initiative. Those of us with a research background know that (unless you have tenure) you don't propose things you can't do successfully. If your problem is that the pilot project worked but the full-scale one did not, you simply need to admit that the small scale project worked because of the people involved at that stage, not because of the specific plan. (This is a common problem with papers reporting on innovative teaching methods.)

Now, that is what we do. That is, what we do is to develop accountability measures, make the measurements, then HIDE the results from the faculty and the rest of the college community. Bright, attentive people can figure out what happened to the metric that was used, but others are left with little more than suspicion. What we should do is report the results on a regular basis (the way our original plan said we would) and in the same large faculty forum where the grunt work of developing the initiative came from, using that to engage the faculty in a solution to what are usually unsolvable problems.
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