My Challenges and Experiments for this Academic Year

Looking for efficiencies.


September 24, 2014
The Double-Edged Sword of Efficiency

As I enter this new academic year, I face the challenge of becoming much more efficient than I have been in the past and staying fit. Let me set the context for the former. I have now been at my college for nearly five years. No two years have ever been the same! About two-thirds of the way each year, I realize that I have a good sense of what and how things have been done as well as what to expect. Thus, I embark on a very intentional process of automating what I can, systematizing processes, revising procedures, and thinking through how my office can be more efficient. The desire to be more efficient is just how I am built. I can’t help it. This capacity to be more efficient with little compromise to quality is both a blessing and a curse. (To be accurate, I think it’s the efficiency and obsession with constantly learning new things and evolving. I also hire team members who generally have the same disposition). It has given my supervisors the perception that I have this infinitely expendable capacity to take on more work in new areas.

 Helping Others See and Address their Patterns

As the head of the college’s strategic planning and institutional effectiveness unit, I am naturally brought in when things don’t work. We are fixers in my department. As a measurement expert, I see the world in trends and patterns. I try to build mental explanatory and predictive models, taking context into account and drawing on others’ deep disciplinary expertise, to develop hypotheses and experiments to “fix” things. Again, my team has very complementary skills. As the academic year arrives, our biggest challenge will be to teach others to collect empirical data to monitor their trends and patterns of inputs, behavior, processes, and outcomes to react, redirect, or scale and institutionalize. Our challenge this year, more than any other year, will be to teach others to fish; watch them fish; coach them; them set them free to fish on their own. We can’t absorb every unit that needs fixing, but we can give them the tools, coach them, and watch them soar to new heights.

Addressing My Own Patterns

To set the context for my own patterns, I will go off on a short tangent but the point will be clear very soon. I recently watched a Ted Talk on designing quadcopters to solve physical problems with algorithms that help robots learn with my 7-year old son. It was both fun and impactful. It got me to enroll my son in an advanced math tutoring program and got me to think long and hard about my own patterns. As I take on more work in new areas, I learn a lot about those areas; I learn to become more efficient; I learn to improve my approach, to be more empathetic and more patient with helping folks to adopt an empirical rather than anecdotal approach to improving their outcomes. What I have not learned is how to balance my professional and personal lives in such a way that allows me to maintain my ideal weight. I know it sounds vain, but it’s not so much the physical appearance that concerns me as much as the sustainability. I have started to notice a trend (it’s not rocket science and very common), namely that as I get older I become fatigued sooner/faster. However, when I am more physically active, I am more productive and it takes longer for fatigue to set it. Assuming I have 35 years of working ahead of me, I need to sustainably maintain my working hours and reduce fatigue time.

Adapting to Stay Ahead of Diminishing Returns

Back to the quadcopters, I have to figure out my equivalent of a complex algorithm for learning to adapt to an increasing workload while staying fit. This is a task to be completed at the individual and team levels. I am very conscious of the fact that the team and I will reach a point of diminishing returns if we don’t strike the right balance. My core staff has not increased at an optimal rate. Thus, the workload is shared among a small group of folks who work very long hours. Physical fitness management is a challenge not just for me, but for my entire team. Many of my team members model my work behavior—long hours with little dedicated physical fitness time. Walking meetings will take care of only so much. My personal challenge this academic year is to behave better in this regard. I welcome your advice and suggestions.

My Two Experiments

My experimental models for addressing my two challenges are not yet completely built, though one is farther ahead of the other. Rather than waiting until 2/3 of the way through the year to systematize and be efficient, I am developing the “teaching to fish” model ahead of implementation. Devising the model ahead of time, making adjustments as necessary, and acting as a coach while giving space to another team member to lead is how I plan to address the infinitely expendable issue. I am adopting a similar model on the sustainable physical fitness and work balance issue, though the model is not as defined. Stay tuned. I will keep you posted.

This post was originally published at Community College Life.




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