Thursday, December 09, 2010

Redefining Victory

This one may be a little inside-baseball, but folks new to administrative roles may find some value in it.

Let’s say that you’re a newish dean, and that you have a department that’s resisting something that you believe needs to be done. You get the sense that it has a strong contrarian streak, and that it rather enjoys making deans squirm just for the hell of it. Which of the following would you consider a victory?

a. Cajoling them into doing the task.
b. Bribing them into doing the task.
c. Picking off one or two semi-sympathetic members to start the task.
d. Getting them to the point where they admit that something needs to be done.

In my early days of deaning, I would have gone with a or c. Now, I’m sold on d.

A or C will usually result in an underwhelming performance, followed by a return to intransigence. It may or may not be enough to meet the very short-term need, but afterwards you’ll be right back where you started, arguably with less political capital. B just rewards intransigence, and thereby generates more of it. D takes longer, and may or may not result in a viable short-term solution, but it lays the groundwork for actual improvement.

The trick with D is letting go of the specific remedy. Instead of “I want you to do x using method y,” you have to be willing to be satisfied with something like “I need your help in coming up with a sustainable way to address issue z.” Then defer, whenever it’s even vaguely reasonable, to what they develop. The victory is in moving from intransigence to engagement.

The great thing about faculty is that they’re bright as hell, and they know more about their fields than you do (since your jurisdiction goes beyond your academic field). They’ll often use those advantages as battering rams, but if they get involved in constructing the solution, those advantages suddenly become incredibly valuable. The key is in staying at the level of ‘why,’ and leaving the ‘how’ alone. Respect their ability to come up with better methods than anything you would have thought of anyway. Give up ownership, and don’t even try for control; if you can get agreement on the general direction, and find enough resources that it isn’t all abstract, call it victory.