Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Learning Not to Answer

I've had variations on this conversation several times recently:

Professor: There's option A and option B, and I guess technically there's option C. This clique wants A and that clique wants B. What do you think we should do?

DD: I really don't care, as long as the decision process is valid.

Professor: But what if they choose C?

DD: Then they choose C.

Professor: But C is terrible!

DD: Could be. But if they need to discover that for themselves, so be it.

At a certain level, this could be read as 'evasive,' and in a way, it is. But when things haven't been that way in the past, it actually leads to a hell of a lot of work. The inevitable follow-up conversation goes like this:

Professor: So our process is, the chair chooses.

DD: That's not a process.

Professor: I know. But so-and-so can't be trusted, and such-and-such filed a grievance umpteen years ago, and...

DD: (sigh) Okay, but it's still not a process. You need a process that you could describe in the newspaper and defend in public.

Which leads to a frustrating series of conversations about 'past practice,' and personalities, and long-forgotten administrative decrees, and several layers of policy sleuthing. We get the union involved, and the usual political machinery starts to grind. Which leads to this conversation:

Prof.: This is taking forever! Can't we just decide A for now, and finish setting up the process later?

DD: No, because then you've established a past practice. The precedent is toxic.

Prof.: So you want B instead?

DD: You're missing the point. We have to set up a valid process and honor its result.

Prof: We just need a decision!

DD: All the more reason to finish setting up the process.


DD: I know the feeling...

If your horizon of caring is limited to the decision at hand, my responses are probably just maddening. But if you understand that decisions lead to other decisions, the process focus makes sense. I've been doing this long enough to know that the standard countermove when somebody 'loses' is to trot out the old warhorse “how was this decision made?” All those picky little process points that are so tempting to skip are precisely what keep you out of hot water once the call is made. Cut corners on process, and you're wide open to charges of favoritism or worse.

(The issue of timing is a no-win. If there's an urgent issue at hand, there's not enough time to clean up the process. If there isn't an urgent issue at hand, there isn't the political will to address the process. Either way, it's never the right time. Comes with the territory.)

The easy way around all that is the Corporate America solution of empowering managers to actually make decisions. But higher ed as a culture is based precisely on not doing that. I like to think that the truth lies somewhere in between – corporations easily succumb to ADHD, while within higher ed, I've seen 'institutional memory' become dead weight – but in the system we have, a process focus seems like the best we can do. It's just a whole lot harder to execute than it looks.