Monday, July 12, 2010


Summer Bonus

Put down the flamethrowers, I’m not talking about money.

In the summer, with fewer people on campus and some of the committees that usually fill my calendar on hold until September, I’ve discovered an unexpected bonus: time for wide-ranging, unstructured conversation.

I don’t just mean shooting the breeze, either. I mean the kind of discussions in which people have the time and implied permission to go off-agenda and really explore a topic.

Last week I had a long and unexpectedly meandering conversation with a colleague in which we gradually realized that the college was missing something pretty fundamental, and not all that hard to implement. It wasn’t part of the agenda for the original meeting; I don’t think I’d heard it discussed before at all. But since we both had time to actually follow ideas where they led, we were able to move from the planned topic to an unplanned topic to an actual (potential) solution. We had time to explore, and complete, a thought.

That’s hard to do during the regular semesters. Then, meetings are six to a day, and they need to be pretty tightly planned. Just getting all the relevant people together in a room takes planning; with time at a premium, we have to get to the issue quickly. That’s not to say that the meetings are entirely free of tangents -- we are academics, after all -- but the tangents are more a form of social glue (or comic relief) than real exploration.

With the faculty away and with staff and administrators staggering vacations, though, the summer is a different animal. I wouldn’t call it slow, but it’s less fast. There’s time to ask the second question, and even the third.

Some people try to achieve the same thing with retreats, but in my experience, even the better retreats fall victim to too many people in the room. With that many people competing for floorspace, you still don’t have time for free-floating discussion. The most effective venue for the free-range conversation is two people; three can work if you’re really, really lucky. Go beyond that, and it’s just not the same.

I used to think that the best breakthroughs came from individual reflection. But experience, and blogging, have taught me that the best breakthroughs come from unpredictable interaction. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I say it; I’ve actually surprised myself in conversations. In formal meetings, that doesn’t work, but when there’s time to hash something out one-on-one, the openness can lead to good surprises.

I’ll call that my summer bonus.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found the same thing? Have you found a setting in which your best breakthroughs happen most often?

First: Six meetings a day? No wonder you're run so ragged during the regular school year. The most I ever have to do is three, and even then I don't expect to do anything else intensive that day. When do you think? (Oh, right: summertime.)

Best breakthroughs? Usually at conferences, but not during the scheduled sessions. The talks are informative, of course, but the real good stuff happens during the coffee breaks, at dinner, at a pub, during the outings. I set up a very valuable collaboration while standing in a lobby of a hotel, and I was nominated as an officer in my professional society at 1 AM in a bar in Rhode Island. (Uh, we were all basically sober.)

It's the same thing you're talking about, though. It's important to constructively hang out with your colleagues on a regular basis. Creative professions need unstructured time.
My best ideas come to me in the shower via a free-association discussion with myself, riffing on various possibilities, although one came in a dream.

However, for real problem solving, there is nothing quite a the one-on-one discussion like you describe. I figured out one nagging puzzle by describing the data (and what they did and didn't say) to a colleague. A question got me to focus on a certain key detail and the pieces fell in place.

I've also learned to take notes during my own lecture when some random new synapse forms for a moment and opens up an entirely new and better way to explain something I was doing in a conventional way. Those don't last very long. That may be why Presidents have a note taker: it is sometimes helpful to have a third person listening to that discussion you are having so you don't have to interrupt your train of thought to write it down.
On the picket line.
I can relate to the endless meetings in the regular semesters! I am also required to teach one or two courses per semester on top of my administrative duties. It is always fun juggling class preparations with the last-minute student crisis or the mandatory meeting with the VP, etc.

My dean and I schedule a lunch meeting at least every other week. Usually another peer or two will join us (not always the same person). Those lunch meetings are extremely productive. We have revised policies and procedures, strategized how to handle certain situations, and ultimately set the overall direction for our organization. The relaxed atmosphere lends itself to open discussion and thoughtful solutions.

In addition, I agree with Dictyranger. I get a lot out of the informal discussions with peers at conferences.
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