Friday, August 10, 2007

"You're Not Wrong, But..."

I was in one of those discussions recently at which phrases like “you're not wrong, but...” got tossed around.

That happens a lot.

In trying to bring clarity to some fairly shaggy but long-established processes (the legal term is “past practice”), we're frequently running into conflicts between what would actually make sense and what we can realistically expect to achieve, given the different understandings held by various stakeholders.

It's a hazard of a place with a long history and lots of long memories.

We have some policies and practices which have outlived their creators, and for which nobody can give a compelling explanation. But individual stakeholders see their own roles, and don't want those challenged. (There are plenty of compelling explanations for this or that little piece of the picture, but nobody can explain how it's supposed to hang together.) It's sort of like a cargo cult, except that the cultees have graduate degrees.

The problem is that some of these historical holdovers might not hold up to legal challenges. So we're trying to find ways to protect the college from exposure, without causing local mutinies.

It's a tough sell, given that a term like “liability” is terribly abstract, until it becomes terribly concrete, at which point it's too late. There's rarely any warning. You're just humming along, doing what you've always done, and bam!, you're subpoenaed and effectively hosed. It's hard to convey the possibility convincingly to folks who've been humming along, undisturbed, for many years. But it would be a failure of duty not to.

The challenge of it comes from trying to anticipate objections.

Since nobody ever wrote down the original rationales, people with roles to play in any given process have come up with their own explanations. (Creative minds abhor a vacuum.) Many of these explanations are partially or entirely implausible, and some of them are mutually exclusive. But since they haven't been tested in a very long time, they've fallen into the “goes without saying” category. And there's no quicker way to raise people's hackles than to violate a “goes without saying.”

Having bumped, hard, into some indignant “how could you possibly”'s based on some very weird personal understandings, we've learned to try to anticipate them. It's harder than you think. Quick: what do you think goes without saying? Chances are, most of it you wouldn't even think of until it's violated. We've had multiple instances of running multiple drafts by many people individually, hearing no objections, and then getting picked apart by those very same people at meetings. I don't think it's (usually) a conscious attempt to ambush; they just don't fully perceive the implications of change until it's suddenly concrete, at which point the accusations fly.

So administrative meetings are becoming, by necessity, exercises in preventive ventriloquism. What would such-and-such say about this? Why? Is there any validity to that? Can we get around that without losing what we really care about? Can we at least establish an explicit process that will gradually lead, over time, to what we really care about? Since foot-dragging and passive-aggressive sabotage are incredibly easy, we can't just push policies through without buy-in. But we won't get buy-in – however deserved – if we don't take account of the worldviews of the various snipers who don't know the war is over. So we look for 'better,' rather than 'best.' 'Defensible,' as opposed to 'correct.' Not being wrong doesn't necessarily mean you're right.


If nothing else, pushing some 'pretty good' solutions should at least force some discussion, and get some of those 'goes without saying's out into the open. If we can clear out some of the twisted theoretical underbrush that has been allowed to grow unchecked over the years, maybe we can actually start to make some progress. If not, at least I'm getting better at doing characters.