Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wait for It...Wait for It...

I was never much of a batter. I wouldn’t make contact terribly often, and when I did, I only ever hit down the third base line. If you’re a right-handed batter like me, that’s a sign of swinging too early.

Far too late to make much difference, I picked up a tip that helped. At the plate, I started actually saying the words “wait for it...wait for it...” before swinging. The reminder corrected the too-early swing at least some of the time, thereby opening up the other three-quarters of the infield. My swings may still be slow and weak, but at least they’re better timed.

I’m learning to apply the same forced patience on the job.

There’s a school of thought around strategic planning or project management that says that the way to plan is to draw up an outline at the outset, with subtopics and sub-subtopics, and to attach deadlines to each. The idea is to create legibility and accountability.

But the flaw of that model is that it assumes omniscience. It assumes that you know upfront what all of the relevant variables are, how they’ll interact, how long they’ll take, and what the outcome will be. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a mechanistic system, but it has a way of not working when the raw material is people.

Instead, it’s useful sometimes to build in gaps. My plans are increasingly looking like this:

1. Specify a broad, long-term goal.
2. Assemble the folks who could help achieve it.
3. Explain what you’re trying to do. Repeat step 2 if necessary.
4. Provide resources.
5. wait for it..wait for it...something good will happen...
6. Celebrate successes and tweak failures.

That crucial step five can’t be rushed or micromanaged. It’s the step during which you have to suppress the urge to swing.

Obviously, step five doesn’t always work. Some projects just don’t gel, for various reasons. But the most glaring successes usually come from an extended period of staying out of the way while creative people connect with each other.

That can be a difficult step to explain to people on the outside of the process. Grants, for example, prefer very specific timelines with pre-defined breakthroughs happening on an evenly-spaced schedule. Which would be lovely, if things worked like that. Academic calendars can be pretty rigid, too, especially at teaching-focused places. The trick is in using deadlines as tools, rather than rules. Any writer can tell you that nothing gets the words flowing quite like a looming deadline. The same is true of group projects, as long as the deadlines have some wiggle room.

I just have to figure out a way to write “sandbox time” into grant applications. How hard can that be?

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to build sandbox time into your institutional routines? I’m hoping there’s a way to honor and sustain a productive practice that gets too often confined to the interstices of the day.

(Program note: for the rest of the week, we’ll be on a multi-state Thanksgiving trek. Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, or, as my Canadian friends call it, Thursday. The blog will be back on Monday, November 28.)