Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting past paralysis by analysis

I've been thinking a lot lately about why some causes or initiatives take flight and others stay in the theoretical stage.  Basically, I think it comes down to the amount of talking and composition of the conversations.

Yes, talking. 

Like most academics, I've sat on more than my fair share of committees and task forces with a goal or charge.  Some did some things; others did nothing.  All of them had meetings.  Nothing like death by committee to give life to a dream...  Most of these groups produce something on paper.  But none of these activities constitute change.  Why is that?

Because change is about attitudes and behaviors.  It's not about words on a page or philosophy necessarily.  Change starts with talking but it ends with action.  Unfortunately, so many good ideas die in the talking phase; everyone wants to talk about what should be done, what could be done if there were more money/time/concern, what would have happened if .... you get the picture.  Well meaning people and ideas get lost in this paralysis by analysis.

I've been a part of some successful initiatives and in each one someone, at some point, said, "we may disagree and we may not have it perfect to start but we will start.  We will do something and if it fails, then we know what we need to do different.  But we will never know until we try."  In other words, we committed to doing something instead of talking about doing something.

Easy to say and hard to do.  But really it comes down to starting.  And then continuing.

So how does it work?  Here's a glimpse at my approach.  It's but one and not the only way but it's worked for me.

When I start a project, I do copious amounts of research all the time, whenever I can fit it in.  My husband can attest that I've been guilty of reading a research article between innings of little league games.  After reading, making notes, processing, synthesizing, and analyzing, it's time to do something.  And it may not work.  I've had some great successes and some pointed failures.  But regardless, I make a plan, outline all the things needed to bring that plan to life, and then complete them one by one.

As that process continues, I'm constantly asking for advice, opinions, comments, whatever input I can get to improve the product and include others, giving them ownership.  Review and revise.  Review and revise. 

The next step is knowing human nature.  All of us are resistant to change.  It's just that some are more resistant than others.  Most faculty can absorb change if they have or get the following:

1.  Plenty of time to get acclimated

Plan for your rollout and educate long before the rollout starts.  People need to time to understand and accept what's coming. 

2.  A way to give input with confidence that the concerns are respected and addressed

Faculty sometimes have petty reasons for objecting to a change but more often than not, their concerns are valid.  Regardless, value them and listen.  Compromise when you can but not to the point of changing the vision.  Because we are all human, sometimes we object because we just don't want to do something different even if it will work.  The big picture must be kept in mind otherwise the small things will cloud the process.

3.  All resources and then some

Someone is going to have do the work and get the needed resources, training, what have you so that faculty can see what the change will entail and have what they need to make it so.

Example:  Years ago our geometry course wasn't working.  So we suggested each person write their own notes packet, develop their own activites, etc.  Guess what?  Most didn't.  Sometimes people dkidn't know how and other times, they didn't have the time even if they did have the expertise.  Either way, it didn't matter because the changes didn't happen across the board.  They were just hit or miss.

Now we give instructors the students notes and activities, an instructor guide with everything in it, and an online course completely set up.  They'll add and adjust but at least they have a base to get them started so that they can take it to the level they want.

The last step is looking back.  Did it work?  Is it working?  Does it make sense?  Any math people noticing my approach is a lot like Polya's 4 steps to problem solving?  Understand the problem (i.e., research), make a plan, carry out the plan, and look back.  Fix things, adjust, don't stay in the new status quo. 

We've made a tremendous amount of changes to our developmental program and the pass rates are up 20 percentage points or more.  That doesn't mean the problem is solved.  The program is a bear to manage and maintain.  It's hard to scale up and down.  Our flow chart looks like an instrument of torture.  I'm not looking to make any more broad changes but I'm tweaking behind the scenes to make the experience better for everyone involved, including me.

This approach is not a magic bullet or simple but it does work.  From what I've gathered, it's easy to talk and hard to act.  But the reality is that the talking phase has to be just a phase and not a life sentence for change to occur.

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