Higher Ed Change and Tim Harford's 'Messy'

Why meaningful progress is an untidy business.

October 23, 2016

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

Published in October of 2016

My higher ed learning technology friends and I have found ourselves in a weird place. We are passionately committed to institutional advancement around a learning agenda - yet our training and expertise lay outside of leading organizational change. Moreover, the work that we do do to direct institutional resources, attention, and priority towards learning innovation (and towards educators), is - well - messy.

In reading Harford’s new book Messy - his best book since his 2007 The Undercover Economist - we learn that all the really important things in life will often feel disordered, untidy, and chaotic. This desire to find clear solutions and bright lines certainly applies to our efforts around organizational change. While a clear and well-defined map to guide our work would certainly be comforting - it is actually in the gray messy areas that we make real change.

Being digital learning people, we try to build programs around blended and online learning that we think will achieve the more important goal of catalyzing a campus wide conversation about teaching and learning. Online and blended learning programs are the best way that I know of jump starting new capacities and new conversations about learning - as well as to build a critical mass of non-faculty educators to collaborate with faculty on course and program redesign.

This work, to leverage technology and the research on learning for institutional change, turns out to be messy. It is often not clear how we will find the resources for learning R&D, and how we will translate our work at the edge of learning to the core teaching work of the institution. The existing organizational structures, competing funding priorities, and cultural norms of higher ed present challenges in attempting to engage in disciplined experiments undertaken with the goal of achieving non-incremental advances in learning.

Where Harford is convincing in Messy is that the alternative to developing some comfort with organizational uncertainty is institutional irrelevancy and stasis. Harford refers to the German word schwerfällig - ponderous being the closest translation - to characterize the efforts of many incumbents to take advantage of new opportunities, new technologies, new methods, and new markets.  

Harford describes how Barnes and Noble and Toys’R’Us had every opportunity to use the internet to sell books (and later digital books) and toys during the early days of the web, but were unwilling to disrupt there profitable legacy business strategies. Amazon was able to triumph, not because of a clear map forward to build an online business, but because of Jeff Bezos’ willingness to tolerate failures (remember the Fire phone), engage in experiments (such as AWS), and follow unorthodox tactics (such as losing money for years to build market share and new businesses such as digital books).

The organizational chapters of Messy constitute just part of this excellent book - yet they will certainly resonate with anyone working for postsecondary institutional change. The other chapters on the messiness of individual growth and effectiveness, such as the negative unintended consequences of today’s ultra-safe playgrounds and of policies designed to enforce uncluttered work areas, also make for enjoyable and informative reading.

Can you recommend any books that have influenced how you think about leading organizational change?

What are you reading?



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