Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Initiative Triage

I loved the piece on Sinclair Community College’s student success efforts earlier this week in IHE.  It’s worth checking out, but the short version is that SCC has been doing student success initiatives long enough that it’s starting to do a sort of initiative triage, culling the ones that either haven’t worked or that provide far too little bang for the buck.

That sounds like common sense, and in a way, it is.  But it’s much harder to do than it sounds.  The fact that they’ve been able to do it with an apparent minimum of bloodshed speaks well to the campus climate.

Campus climate is a delicate balance.  Too little accountability can lead to drift and stasis, and to the tyranny of the loudest or most unpleasant personalities.  Too much accountability -- yes, that’s a thing -- can lead to risk aversion, or to a culture of finger-pointing and infighting.  If people are terrified of having their heads chopped off when something goes wrong, you can expect a great deal of campus energy to be diverted to blame-shifting.  Time spent ducking blame is time not spent actually solving problems.

The ideal balance involves a sense of urgency of purpose, combined with a faith that if smart people keep working hard, something good will eventually happen.  It might not happen on the first try, and it might not happen every time; occasional failures are the price of experimentation.  If the occasional failure is safe, you’ll see much more entrepreneurialism, and much less energy directed to infighting.

As this piece in Harvard Business Review notes, though, that tone has to be set by leadership.  And it has to be set with deeds, as well as words.  That means the leadership has to be willing to admit failure in public, when it happens, and to regroup and move forward anyway.

In a culture of pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey, an isolated mid-level person who tries to take the high road is basically engaged in unilateral disarmament.  It’s unlikely to end well.  The tone has to be set from the top.

There, too, balance is key.  A leader who screws up constantly won’t inspire much more than despair.  But a generally competent leader who owns up to a real, but understandable, mistake can actually improve the climate for candor.

Given how slowly many results show themselves in this industry -- it’s often years before we know whether a given idea worked or not -- trust matters in the meantime.  A new initiative requires energy and political risk, and won’t pay off -- if it ever does -- for years.  This isn’t the tech industry, where you know within weeks or less whether you have a hit or a dud.  And people with a vested interest in denying failure can always play the “why don’t we wait for more/better/different data” game.  Within academic culture, it can be difficult to distinguish between rigorous standards of proof and simple stalling.  To be fair, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

All the more reason, then, to interrupt the circuit when it just isn’t working.  

The politics of program cuts are always hard.  Nearly every program has its champion and its constituency.  When the constituency is students who have some sort of strike against them, people with vested interest in a program can wield claims of bias against that group of students to prevent accountability.  When trust is low, that kind of demagoguery can be effective, at least in the short term.

So a tip of the cap to Sinclair.  In an industry in which nearly every incentive is to deny failure, they’ve shown that candor can lead to sustained success.  Well done.