• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


In Defense of Low-Hanging Fruit

How do we decide which issues to take on?

October 21, 2014

A couple days ago, Sara Goldrick-Rab posted a tweet that I haven’t been able to shake. (In the world of Twitter, a tweet that lasts a couple of days is a classic.) She asked if anyone has done work looking at the consequences of change efforts always focusing on “low-hanging fruit.” 

It’s easy to see where that critique could go. Some problems are easier to solve than others, and if we mostly focus on the easy ones, we’ll leave the hard ones unsolved. Over time, the hard ones may just get harder. And if you come to it with a sociological bent, the people whose problems are the easiest to solve are usually the ones with more significant resources -- cultural, social, or monetary, or some combination thereof -- which means that a “low-hanging fruit” strategy will tend to benefit those who least need it, and ignore those who most need it. It’s easier to see results when working with someone who has one problem than when working with someone with six. 

There’s a lot of truth in that. When you have limited resources, you have to be choosy about which problems to attack. Pick something too big, and you might as well pick nothing at all. But the temptation to rack up quick wins can allow harder problems to fester indefinitely.

Or not. And that’s where I’ll start a limited defense of low-hanging fruit.

From an administrative perspective, I’m much less bothered by failure than by fatalism. Failure can be remedied by trying again using a strategy refined by the information gained by the first attempt.  But fatalism, once it gets going, is tough to shake.  It can become self-perpetuating, both by discouraging positive effort and through a sort of confirmation bias, in which any bad news, however partial or irrelevant, is taken as confirmation that all is hopeless.  (“It’s raining again?  THANKS, OBAMA!”)  In practice, the difference between an experiment and a disaster is whether you get to try again.  In a fatalistic culture, you won’t.  Maintaining a sufficiently positive climate that people will keep trying may not guarantee success, but it will make success a lot likelier.

Scoring some early, conspicuous successes can inoculate against fatalism. It can buy the credibility to allow for subsequent riskier moves with longer-term payoff. It can keep a team moving in a positive direction, and provide a better likelihood of continued resources. 

If you do it right, and catch a break or two, those early successes make it possible later to attack the Big Hairy Tenacious issues that would have eaten you alive if you had started with them. A few years ago, Theresa Amabile made a similar argument in her book (with Steven Kramer) The Progress Principle.  She found that organizations get better results over time when they allow employees to accumulate series of small wins, rather than always waiting for the one big one.  The emotional momentum of a winning streak binds people together, and encourages intelligent, if escalating, risks.  Skip the buildup, though, and the odds of success drop. 

The danger, of course, is losing the narrative line.  The point of small victories is not to run up the score; it’s to build the momentum for bigger ones.  That requires some level of patience, and, relatedly, low turnover.  Given the political and demographic winds many of us are facing, that kind of patience is becoming rare.  Moves that everyone would recognize as “impulsive” in better times might pass for “decisive” when folks get desperate.  Pull a few of those, and all of that carefully-built momentum is squandered.  When an impulsive move ends badly, you’ve just handed live ammo to the fatalists. 

To be fair, it’s also possible to lose the narrative line through complacency.  Small wins can become ends in themselves, especially in the absence of a larger vision.  Some people are good at visions but impatient with small steps; others are good at small steps but lack vision.  For the low-hanging fruit strategy to work optimally, you need people with both. 

None of this is to dismiss Goldrick-Rab’s concerns. She’s right that it’s easy sometimes to dodge difficult issues by pleading pragmatism. (“We can’t ask for funding parity.  Be realistic!”)  But an initial focus on smallish victories may not imply a lack of vision, or political cowardice.  It may be part of a wise, if difficult, long-term strategy in the service of a vision.


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