• 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.

Title

Patience and Urgency

How to promote breakthroughs.

 

October 30, 2016
 

As a writer, I’ve never understood people who measure time-to-completion of a document in terms of a page count. The speed of writing isn’t linear, or even always predictable; it’s more a matter of fits and starts. Deadlines help, heaven knows, but whether the writing happens in steady dribs and drabs or occasional torrents will still vary.  

With writing, that’s okay. As long as the piece gets done well and on time, how it got there isn’t really anybody’s business. My favorite part of the recent PBS “Hamilton” documentary was when Lin-Manuel Miranda saw Hamilton’s portable writing desk and empathized with writing everywhere. He does the same thing, as do I, in my more prosaic way. (That’s probably why my favorite line from the soundtrack is “why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) It’s easier in the era of lightweight laptops and chromebooks, especially given my handwriting, but the basic task is the same.

In managing institutional projects, though, it’s harder to carry over that sense of improvisation. Coordinating multiple people, or constituencies, requires some commitment to linear progress.  When budgets are involved, of course, you need deadlines, and “deliverables,” and discernible stages of progress. Theresa Amabile claimed years ago that a carefully parcelled out series of “quick wins” could convey a self-fulfilling sense of progress, and I think she’s largely right. If you have a dozen members of a working group, say, each working independently if and when inspiration strikes, you aren’t likely to get much done.  

When the task is relatively routine, that’s fine. Routinizing recurring tasks can free up bandwidth to deal creatively with more unusual ones. But with those unusual ones, there’s a tension between the predictability that makes organizational and political sense and the reality of paced creativity.  

My best moments as a leader have been the ones in which I was able to create the space in which group breakthroughs happened. As Weber put it, you can’t cause accidents, but you can make yourself accident-prone. Moving from structure to collaborative inspiration and back to structure again requires a willingness to rethink structure on the fly. But it’s worth it.

The harder part is conveying that balance of structure and uncertainty externally. From the outside, adjustments to process can look like stalling or wheel-spinning. And sometimes they are. But in a participatory process, in which having lots of people on board -- not just tolerating the project, but actively helping to shape it -- matters, you can’t necessarily time breakthroughs in advance. You can create spaces for them, and arrange things to make them more likely, but ultimately they happen when they happen.  

When they take a little while to happen, you need to convey the seemingly contradictory qualities of patience and urgency. This has to get done. It will get done. I don’t know exactly how or when, but it will because it has to. Deadline writers know that sentiment well, but conveying it across an organization is another matter entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that kind of communication done well across an organization?  If so, what made it work?

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