3 Suboptimal Organizational Behaviors That We Will Never Fix

Assessment, communications, and redundancy.

November 28, 2017

I’m a big fan of the predictably irrational genre. The book Predictably Irrational is of course one example. That book explains why it is normal for individuals to make bad decisions.

The work of the behavioral economists, the discipline that Richard Thaler helped get off the ground, is also all about why individuals behave sub-optimally.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if predictably irrational theory can be extended from the individual to the organization?

For all I know, this is a core tenet of the field or organizational behavior. (Can you recommend a good overview of that discipline?)

Is it possible that organizations - and here I’m thinking of colleges and universities as these are the organizations that I know best - will always and forever behave in suboptimal ways?

What I’m wondering is if the thing that binds postsecondary institutions together is not what we do well, but what we all do poorly?

Further, is it possible that if our kids were to someday work in academia that they would make the same mistakes that we make today?  Are we making the same mistakes as our academic grandparents?

Here are some organizationally irrational behaviors that I’ve seen at every school that I’ve worked at, and which seem to occur with regularity at every university that I know anything about:

Challenge #1 - Not Investing Enough in Assessment an Evaluation:

We all know that we should have an assessment and evaluation plan in place for every project and initiative that we run.  Further, we know that this plan should be in place at the beginning of the project.

How often do we act on this knowledge?

So often, we are working so hard to get things off the ground that we feel unable to develop a robust assessment plan.  With every dollar and every hour spoken for, it seems almost a luxury to evaluate at each step.

We are particularly bad at putting in place methods such as control groups for our initiatives.  There is just too little time and money.

All this means that we usually do not learn enough from our operations, projects, and initiatives as we should be.  We are challenged to make ongoing improvements as we don’t really understand the impact of our work.

Challenge #2 - Not Investing Enough in Communications:

In any given project, what percent of the money and time should be spent on communications?  Seriously.  Does anyone have a rule of thumb?

It seems that whatever we spend on communications, and however much time we spend on this effort, that it is never ever enough.

Traditional methods of communicating seem to be breaking down.  Do the members of your campus community visit your website?  Do they read your e-mails?  Are newsletters ever opened?

The only thing that seems to work for campus communications is shoe leather.  Those who are leading projects need to spend almost all their time walking around to communicate about their projects.  Every meal is an opportunity to communicate.  Knock on doors.  Seek folks out in their offices.  Take them to coffee.   

We know all this, yet we seldom devote the time and resources to do the sort of one-to-one communications that is required for organizational change.

Challenge #3 - Assuming That There Is No Need to Invest in Resiliency or Redundancy:

Every college and university that I know is understaffed.  Every single one.  Think about that.  In 2017, postsecondary under-staffing is the norm, not the exception.

How can this be when amongst the biggest complaints we hear from postsecondary critics is about bloated staffs and too many administrators?  Where is the disconnect between those who say that our colleges and universities are too expensive because of too many people, and those who work on our campuses who are juggling too much work for too few people?

The age of permanent scarcity in higher education has forced organizations to severely limit their hiring.  What is left is not enough people to do all the work that needs go get done.  Especially as higher education has moved to a 24/7/365 enterprise.

This under-staffing gets worse whenever some employees can’t come to work.  If there is a medical issue - if someone has to take care of a parent or a kid or something else - then those left behind need to pick up the slack.  Staffing decisions are never made with an eye towards redundancy and resiliency.  People are too expensive, and budget are too tight.

I’m thinking that all three of these challenges are normal to all higher education organizations.  For all I know, they are normal to all organizations.  They are normal problems.  Endemic to higher ed.  Is that right?

What normal problems would you add to the list?

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Joshua Kim

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