Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Love This Story

Monroe Community College, in Henrietta, New York, (near Rochester) has started setting institution-wide goals with 100 day timelines.  The first goal it has set is reducing the number of passwords a student needs to sign on to various parts of the registration system.

I love this method and this story.  Not only does it favor concrete plans over abstract ones, but it makes progress legible on the ground.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

Some progress is glacial: drastic and enormous, but slow.  That can be effectively invisible on a day-to-day basis, even as it makes a tremendous difference over time.  (It’s sort of like the difference in how a child’s growth looks to a parent who sees her daily, and a cousin who sees her yearly.  On a day to day basis, it’s invisible; on a yearly basis, you can’t miss it.)  But the invisibility on a daily basis can lead to cynicism on the ground, as people react to a gap between what they hear and what they see.  And the cynicism can lead to all sorts of defeatist behavior, with predictable consequences.

Breaking the big issues into smaller, more easily digested tasks allows for the progress that is actually happening to become legible.  (Theresa Amabile’s recent book, The Progress Principle, is about exactly that.)  When people on the front lines see actual change -- even if the change itself is fairly minor -- it offers reason for hope.  It’s hard to be cynical in the face of a series of concrete successes.  If anything, a cascading series of wins tends to attract interest.

The real test will happen when the first hundred-day project conspicuously fails.  

If they’re doing it right -- and I hope they are -- they’ll manage to avoid giving ammunition to the “I told you so” chorus that assumes that effort is futile and change must mean decay.  That will mean avoiding the temptation to overdo “accountability” and start apportioning blame when things go wrong.  If they can convey the spirit of experimentation, rather than strategic-planning it to death, they’ll have a chance of making it work.

Off the top of my head, I can imagine several “hundred day” projects that might make sense on my campus.  If the direction came down that everyone involved had to make Project X a priority for the next few months, after which another project would take its place, I’m not sure what would happen.  (Project selection strikes me as a key variable.  How are they chosen, by whom, and by what criteria?)  We’d probably need a good bit of cultural prep work just to get to the point where people don’t reduce the hundred-day project to the flavor of the month, and respond accordingly.

But it’s prep work that may be worth doing.  Good luck, MCC.  I’ll be watching with interest.