What does “fail fast” look like when folks have tenure?
The Chronicle had a piece a few days ago on “design thinking” as a way to innovate. It’s based on the design thinking lab at Stanford, where they teach that you should have a “bias toward action,” “begin with the end in mind,” and “fail fast” so you can “iterate” more quickly.
In other words, try stuff, see what works, then try again.
The key element, though they don’t usually put it this way, is speed. It’s about getting from idea to execution with minimal friction in between.
Although its champions are not, as a group, humble, design thinking is based in a certain epistemological humility. It assumes that there are issues we can’t anticipate prior to attempting things, so the way to learn is to jump in with both feet. Let the results speak, and don’t be afraid to pivot as the results dictate. If we assume that the world is a hugely complex system that defeats our attempts to know it -- a safe assumption, in my view -- then there’s an argument for giving up the fantasy of certainty and instead taking acceptable risks. It’s a sort of anti-perfectionism.
It makes sense that design thinking would find a home at Stanford. In part, that’s because design thinking is popular in Silicon Valley, where speed beats perfectionism almost every time. It fits the ethos of a small startup, in which a few people with a clever idea try to win the backing of a very small number of people with massive amounts of money. “Failing fast” is a great way to cut losses, but it incurs severe losses; the game is playable only if you have lots of spare money. If you can survive multiple face-plants en route to the big payoff, design thinking offers a chance to do great things.
Stanford has absurd amounts of money, and it’s populated by brilliant young people with lots of unstructured time. The model fits.
In the context of community colleges, though, it’s a tough fit.
At the most basic level, we don’t have the resources to survive multiple face-plants. Our per-student funding is a single digit percentage of what Stanford has. And we don’t filter out the students who need extra help, like Stanford can. We take the students who need more, and we have less with which to do it.
Even if we had far more resources, though, it would still be a tough fit. Design thinking works really well with very small groups of people who can execute their own plan. Teams of four people who convince one person with money can make it work. But we have a shared governance tradition in which major changes aren’t supposed to occur without the advisory input of multiple constituencies across campus. It isn’t a matter of winning over one skeptical investor; it’s a matter of winning over the faculty senate, the staff union, the trustees, and the local government. And doing it without the promise of a huge financial payoff if the idea works.
In a shared governance setting, each constituency will prefer to make its own stamp visible on the idea. I think that’s at the root of much resistance to either national ideas or data-driven ones; both of them have the emotional effect of outsourcing the brain work elsewhere. Administrators like to complain about campuses that shoot down good ideas on the grounds of “not invented here,” and the complaint is often correct, but it’s rooted in a reluctance to give up the design role. Adopting an idea from someplace else, no matter how good it is, can feel like surrendering agency; in labor-studies terms, it feels like deskilling. That’s why otherwise-intelligent people can rattle off one half-baked objection after another to an idea that makes sense on the merits. They aren’t actually (often) objecting to the content. They’re objecting to the role that somebody else’s idea implies for them. Contrarianism that’s independent of content is often based in anxiety about the prospect of a reduced role. If the only way I can make my presence felt is to scream “NO!,” then scream I shall, whether it makes any sense or not.
That dynamic leads to all sorts of dysfunctional places and terrible decisions. I’ve seen good ideas sacrificed on the altar of status anxiety often enough to recognize the signs early.
Succeeding in this environment requires a very different kind of design. It’s not about a few people hashing out an idea in September, launching it in October, and pivoting in November. It’s about creating an environment in which large groups of people with very different emotional and material interests are both willing to acknowledge a problem and willing to bat solutions around. The process will be slow, often frustrating, and vulnerable to all manner of provincialism and self-dealing. But it’s fairly well-suited to a setting in which resources are scarce, results are slow, and the objects of many experiments -- students -- are vulnerable.
I don’t want students to fail fast. I don’t want them to fail at all. And many of these ideas require widespread support if they’re going to work. That’s not to say that the loudest voices are necessarily the most representative, or that a cultural ethos of “nah” deserves deference. But it is to say that four guys in a room, no matter how smart the guys or how nice the room, can substitute for the cultural work we do on campus. The challenge is doing that cultural work in the service of ideas drawn on something deeper than habit.