Thursday, December 09, 2010


Redefining Victory

This one may be a little inside-baseball, but folks new to administrative roles may find some value in it.

Let’s say that you’re a newish dean, and that you have a department that’s resisting something that you believe needs to be done. You get the sense that it has a strong contrarian streak, and that it rather enjoys making deans squirm just for the hell of it. Which of the following would you consider a victory?

a. Cajoling them into doing the task.
b. Bribing them into doing the task.
c. Picking off one or two semi-sympathetic members to start the task.
d. Getting them to the point where they admit that something needs to be done.

In my early days of deaning, I would have gone with a or c. Now, I’m sold on d.

A or C will usually result in an underwhelming performance, followed by a return to intransigence. It may or may not be enough to meet the very short-term need, but afterwards you’ll be right back where you started, arguably with less political capital. B just rewards intransigence, and thereby generates more of it. D takes longer, and may or may not result in a viable short-term solution, but it lays the groundwork for actual improvement.

The trick with D is letting go of the specific remedy. Instead of “I want you to do x using method y,” you have to be willing to be satisfied with something like “I need your help in coming up with a sustainable way to address issue z.” Then defer, whenever it’s even vaguely reasonable, to what they develop. The victory is in moving from intransigence to engagement.

The great thing about faculty is that they’re bright as hell, and they know more about their fields than you do (since your jurisdiction goes beyond your academic field). They’ll often use those advantages as battering rams, but if they get involved in constructing the solution, those advantages suddenly become incredibly valuable. The key is in staying at the level of ‘why,’ and leaving the ‘how’ alone. Respect their ability to come up with better methods than anything you would have thought of anyway. Give up ownership, and don’t even try for control; if you can get agreement on the general direction, and find enough resources that it isn’t all abstract, call it victory.

sounds like interest bargaining rather than position bargaining to me. Figure out *why* one side wants what it wants and work on addressing that need, rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of *what* each side comes to the table saying they want.

Talking about the underlying issues (the "whys") allows both sides to understand the situation better and unleashes opportunities for creativity and flexibility.

Dean Dad, glad to hear you agree with this approach. Wouldn't you like to come to my school and educate some of our admins?
I think anon 4:39 hits the nail on the head. This kind of problem-solving is based on meeting the interests of all parties, rather than taking adversarial positions.

It's also why Dean Dad is a good administrator: Nothing positive is going to happen without buy-in from everyone.

But I've gotta say, DD, that even though your example is hypothetical, characterizing faculty members as "contrarian[s]" who like to make "deans squirm just for the hell of it" is part of the problem.

One of the reasons interest-based approaches tend to work well is that they usually begin with a "What's the burn?" discussion. That's where deans (or whoever) can articulate what it is that they "believe needs to be done," and faculty (or whoever) can express why they are "resisting."

When everyone's cards are on the table--in other words, everyone recognizes the interests of everyone else--it's much easier to get to a solution.

Interest-based bargaining can work miracles, or as close to miracles as I've seen in academia. The money spent on good, professional training will be returned many times over in improved relations across campus. IBB does take patience, however, and at times seems to move achingly slow.
The problem is that many administrators are smart academics, too. They tend to have a strong sense of expertise. So getting them to put aside their "surefire" idea and listen to a variety of solutions from departments who have their own perspective? It isn't always easy.

But there's something to be said in laying out the problem and then stepping back to hear what your faculty suggest. Not only might you get a good bunch of ideas, but you haven't poisoned the well for a good idea you support (but for which admin support will only mean resistance).
Philip, I think DD was saying he had a single department with a contrarian streak, not that all faculty are like that.

And, since we don't know the specific history of this Dean position, we should remember that they might have a good reason for that view! Did they have a flash-in-a-pan Dean whose pet ideas came and went as quickly as ze did? I've seen that (from a distance) and it can lead to once-burned twice-shy behavior.

What DD documents here is the reason that data-driven processes can work well in academia. (Maybe more easily in the sciences, where I come from, but smart people can make sense of them eventually.) "Here is a problem" is better than "here is what you must do".
Also, I have to say, that some faculty & departments ARE contrarians who like to make deans squirm just for the hell of it--and anyone else who comes near, as well. When the outrage that (however predictably) follows outrageous behavior is met with a smirk, you know who you are dealing with in this regard....
Of course there are faculty contrarians. And there are Evil Deans out there, too.

Hidden agendas get exposed pretty quickly when folks are committed to interest-based bargaining.

That's a classic software team management ploy. Wait until everyone is properly impaled on sharp stakes, then suggest that it might be nice if everyone wasn't wriggling around impaled and screaming in agony and the like. Most of the team will quickly figure out how to pull out the stakes, close the gaping wounsd and avoid further impaling, at least on those particular stakes. There will be a few who argue that they liked being impaled, sharp stakes are fun and so on, but if you don't press them, you'll find them walking on tip toe, or using a stake detector, or wearing belly armor, just like the rest of the team, though less ostentatiously.
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