Monday, December 07, 2009

Make it Look Planned

I need a word that falls between 'serendipity' and 'strategy.' (And no, I won't use 'strategery.')

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting at which a colleague described an innovation that she had basically backed into, but that worked really well. (It had to do with scheduling certain classes in unaccustomed ways.) The initial impulse for the experiment wasn't entirely 'what the hell,' but it was close. When the 'what the hell' worked, she scaled it up, and it worked even better. Now we're all doing something like it, and succeeding wildly. It's that rare case of a lark that became a monster, but in a good way.

Our strategic planning person was in the room for this meeting. She wanted us to reconstruct the narrative to make the successful initiative appear to have been a data-driven, advance-planned intervention based on the previous year's strategic goals.

It reminded me of high school chemistry lab reports. The idea was to impose retrospective order on something that was actually far more chaotic.

Order makes for a lovely narrative, but the fact that it has to be imposed sort of defeats its purpose. I'd love to say that every good idea on campus has emerged from careful planning, data mining, and rigorous experimental controls. But that's not true, and if the college limited itself to those, nothing would ever get done.

Part of the fetish of extreme planning, I think, derives from misunderstanding the alternative. I've been asked, with a straight face, "if you don't have a plan, how do you know what to do?" If plans were handed down directly from God, I guess that objection might hold water. But plans come from the same people who produce perfectly well without them.

Randomness is not the only alternative to step-by-step planning. There's something in between. And that in-between space is where real leadership takes place.

In that in-between space, certain things are made prescriptively clear: boundaries of jurisdiction, a few thou-shalt-nots emitting from various sources (law, contract, regulations, strings attached to grants, etc.), available resources, and big-picture directions ("we want to open a satellite campus," say, or "we need to emphasize our allied health programs"). At that level, I'm all for a certain prescriptive clarity. If people think there's a magic money tree, or that rules are merely advisory, they're likely to pursue unproductive avenues.

But once those bases are covered, people need room to move. If somebody's 'what the hell' inspiration falls within the bounds above, and seems like a good idea, it wouldn't make sense to rule it out on the grounds that it wasn't part of the Plan. That's self-defeating. It limits the brainpower in action to what was in the room when the Plan was drawn up, which is never a good idea. And it doesn't allow for change during the course of the Plan. Sometimes the defense lines up differently than you thought it would, and you have to call an audible. That's not planned, but it's not random, either. If you anticipated a small enrollment increase and instead got hit by a demographic tsunami triggered by a Great Recession, it doesn't seem unreasonable to make some adjustments on the fly. Pretending later that they were what you intended all along is just silly.

I just haven't found a really elegant, one-sentence way to say that. Wise and worldly readers, I need your wordsmithing skills. What's the word for this?