Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In Which I Ask My Readers For Wisdom

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there's a reorg afoot on your campus. And let's say that part of the purpose of the reorg is to reduce administration, and thereby to cut costs. And let's say that your faculty and staff are unionized, and place a great deal of value on process.

And just to make things interesting, let's say that the target date for the reorg to actually hit the ground is in a little over a year, so there's time to deliberate. But any change in 'terms and conditions of employment' – like, say, reporting lines -- requires 'impact bargaining.' And some people have improbably well-developed fears of almost any change at all, for reasons of their own.

I've been wracking my brain – and the brains of everyone around me – trying to figure out the mechanics of a process for public discussion.

To clarify: I'm not looking for the substance of the reorg plan. I'm looking for an inclusive process to develop a plan. At this stage, I'm fairly certain that any plan I develop on my own would be summarily shot down, simply because of the 'on my own' part. The goal here is to come up with a reasonable process that satisfies a few criteria:

- Affected parties have a chance for informed input. By 'informed' I mean having a sense of institutional context, legal constraints, and the bounds of the possible.

- Input is iterative. That is, instead of happening once and abstractly, it can happen repeatedly as ideas take shape. I've walked into the old “that's not what I agreed to!” trick too many times not to have the process circle back.

- Proxy issues are hard to sustain. This probably involves unusual mixes of people, so when person A starts in with his code words, person Q can ask “what the *(&%#^( are you talking about?” This is a key step, much too often neglected. Forcing clarity can make it easier to distinguish real battles from shadow boxing.

- It's possible to actually move from 'discussion' to 'decision.' Left unchecked, these processes can go on until people forget the original question. I have no use for that. The point is not discussion for its own sake; it's discussion to forge an actual decision. Ideally, even folks who aren't happy with the result will at least grudgingly acknowledge the legitimacy of the process. If I hear “that's a boneheaded plan” when it's over, I can live with that. But I want to put a sock in the usual “how was this decision made?”

So, since folks on my campus are tiring of me pestering them for ideas, I turn my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen a process that fit these criteria (or that came close)? How, exactly, did it work?