Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sinecures and Sunsets

Too many management books are written from the perspective of the CEO. Most managers aren’t CEO’s; they’re somewhere in the middle, trying to negotiate between directives from above and facts on the ground below. Reading about Steve Jobs can be fun, but if you’re a regional sales manager, it’s of limited use. He has room to move that you simply don’t.

The same flaw bedevils much of academic culture in discussions of academic administration. “The Administration” is characterized as an eternal monolith, as if everyone in it is part of the hive mind. But that’s simply not true. People come and go, and that necessarily means that they ‘inherit’ arrangements made by predecessors. Sometimes those inheritances are great, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, addressing them can be hellaciously difficult.

In a mature organization, you’ll inevitably find a few very comfortable niches that some difficult people have carved for themselves. Typically, someone years ago (and long gone) decided that it was easier to buy peace than it was to continue to fight the same battle, so they bought off a prima donna with some ill-defined sinecure. It solved the immediate problem, but was never really rational from an organizational level. Now, many years later, new administrators are facing much tighter budgets, and that sinecure is starting to look hard to justify.

Good management practice says that you define the desired outcomes before you establish something, and you set out the criteria for evaluating success (or a time-defined sunset clause) in advance. Then, at some reasonable moment, you measure the outcomes against the criteria and decide whether to expand, continue, shrink, or kill it. But the new manager who inherits a sinecure doesn’t have the option of going back in time and doing that. The murky mission has become a part of the organization, with various people filling the explanatory vacuum with reasons that serve purposes of their own. You start to hear phrases like “paid my dues,” “past practice,” and “commitment to...” The arguments for its continued existence hearken back to circumstances from decades past, recalled with frustrating inconsistency.

If you take it on anyway, you get hit with “The Administration is at fault for not defining this upfront.” That would be mildly compelling if The Administration were actually continuous. But the logic of that argument suggests that a mistake made three predecessors ago must stand for all time. It doesn’t make sense. Yes, it would have been better if the sinecure had come with a sunset clause, but it didn’t.

When budgets are relatively flush, these issues aren’t so difficult. You can replace one boondoggle with another, but define the new one more intelligently. Alternately, you can offer buyouts. And sometimes you get lucky and get retirements at the right times. But when budgets are being cut and the retirements don’t happen at the right moments, buying your way out of the problem just isn’t an option.

Wise and worldly readers, there’s an awful gap in the literature that needs to be filled. Have you seen an effective way for someone who inherits a sinecure to bring the sunset?