Decision time? Or would that set a precedent?

Some weeks ago at a dinner I was sitting next to a management consultant who specialised in organisational behaviour. He told me that he had only once, ever, done a project for a university, and he had sworn he would never do that again: university decision-making, he concluded, was simply too bizarre to be open to rational advice. Furthermore, he had felt that 70 per cent of those he had involved in his review were clearly focused on one thing only: to stop whatever it was he was likely to propose and, in order to ensure that outcome, to discredit him early on ‘as a precaution’. The remaining 30 per cent didn’t care much one way or another.

But he also observed that for any suggestion he made there were, always, two responses. Administrators would object that the proposed step would ‘set a precedent’, and would say this as if it were an absolutely conclusive objection; while academics would say that the suggestion was ‘the thin edge of the wedge’.

The moment my dinner companion said these things I was immediately reminded of the wonderful bookMicrocosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making, and the last century has been kind to it: it is as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century. The main theme of the book is that university processes are all focused on stopping decision-making, particularly where a decision is likely to produce change. Therefore a number of standard objections can be predicted whenever a decision is proposed. Chief amongst these are:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

I suspect we have all been at meetings at which one or more of these arguments have been employed. But when my consultant dinner companion concluded that universities were ‘impossible places’ because they were ‘full of people driven by cynicism wanting to stop change’, was he right? No, I don’t think he was. Yes, these arguments do get aired and people wanting to introduce innovative change can have a hard time; but the real reason is that too often university decision-making is too obscure, too slow, and not transparent enough, and these arguments are a defence mechanism used in organisations where communication is not what it should be. Clearly we need to be better than that; but I also think that many universities have stepped beyond this state, and while Cornford’s book should be compulsory reading, I don’t believe that what it describes is how our universities inevitably must be.

Perhaps we should all review how we do our decision-making. I intend to.

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12 Comments on “Decision time? Or would that set a precedent?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    And of course the Principle of the rats scuttling the ship.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    I suspect there are some valid lesson to learn from the critique of decision-making in academia satirized in Microcosmographia Academica particularly in light of any future reform of governance in the field, and for life outside the academic sphere too..

  3. jfryar Says:

    There is, of course, an error in logic since the arguments assume that the action is the correct one. How does one distinguish between a perfectly reasonable ‘dangerous precendent’ argument when the course of action propopsed is utterly daft, and one that’s simply a Pavlovian response to change?

    You probably can’t. In which case the solution isn’t to argue in a different way since you’ll simply create new phrases that are equally applicable, but to change the decision-making structures themselves.

  4. Eddie Says:

    “Furthermore, he had felt that 70 per cent of those he had involved in his review were clearly focused on one thing only: to stop whatever it was he was likely to propose and, in order to ensure that outcome, to discredit him early on ‘as a precaution”

    Leaving aside the reactions of the decision-makers in a university, considering other bunch called academics, the above sounds so true and familiar reading the reactions in this blog on anything that is not even mildly within the comfort zone of academics. The posts in the Times Higher Education(THE) clearly demostrate the above. One of the usual accusations to any one who dares to suggest anything different in a post/review is to accuse that person as belonging to the right- for them a colony of lepers of yore, that the suggestions are a rant, and lack critical thinking. .

    “But when my consultant dinner companion concluded that universities were ‘impossible places’ because they were ‘full of people driven by cynicism wanting to stop change’, was he right?


  5. Bill Lonsdale Says:

    To paraphrase James Murdoch is his recent apologia over the News of the World, the first law of decision making is to ensure that any decision is made on the basis of ALL available information and not just that which is fed to him by his managers and lawyers. He expressed shame and regret over his decision to seek to buy the silence of those raising legitimate concerns. Time will tell whether his claimed ignorance is valid or whether he simply looked the other way.

    The benefit of honest broker consultants, if appointed in an open way and with integrity to discover information, analyse it and present it to the decision maker is that they can be objective. The troops must understand and embrace the strategy presented by the leader as one of your recent articles argued so eloquently about one of your ancestors.

    Only hearing the voices of those who may be raising concerns whether it be
    – the Principle of the Wedge which disuades you from acting justly out of fear;
    – the principle of Principle of the Dangerous Precedent which similarly disuades you from acting justly out of fear; or
    – the argument that the Time is not Ripe, which disuades you from acting justly because of some artifical constraint of time that serves the purposes of those raising the objections;
    is as bad as not hearing the voices of those who present counter-arguments.

    It is gratifying to hear that you intend to review how you do your decision making as you argue we all should. I am sure that James Murdoch is reviewing how he does his decision making and seeking to ensure that his decisions are made on the best possible information, which in his case has come to light because external eyes have been focused upon the activities of his organisation. Perhaps there IS a place for the Organisational Behaviour Consultant to be brought in to look with that critical eye, ensuring that he or she is allowed to look objectively at all the information available, if one can be found who IS prepared to do that in an Higher Education Institution. I suspect there ARE such consultants out there. I might volunteer myself and, I can assure you, I would be thorough.

  6. Your dinner companion was only partially correct, it is simply human nature to resist change because no one can ever quite openly admit that they need to , but they can quite happily point out how others should. In situations of rapid change, only the flexible, adaptive, and productive will excel, others will simply survive. University should be ideal environment in which to find people who have a capacity to learn, but they often blame the structure of the institution as being a block to engagement and reflection. But who creates the structure? A fundamental shift is required to provide people with the tools to embrace the situations they face, and expand their capacity to create their own future.
    When faced with the task of a new project, I inform every client that my main purpose is to do myself out of a job, ethically I do not wish my clients to depend on me, it is my aim form the outset to devolve responsibility for change to all relevant members of staff. It’s not perfect, but it is one step of the process of harnessing the energy of an organisation and directing it towards its own good. Senge called it the dance of change, you’ve had the dinner part, maybe some dancing would get some solutions flowing next time…?!

    • Eddie Says:

      Talking about consultants, in England, at the primary and secondary school levels, the “consultants” are the reincarnates of failed headteachers and failed senior teachers in schools. Indeed, one of the lucrative ways of earning literally millions is to form “A teams” which take over managing failed schools for an year or so-put on special measures by the Ofsted the monitoring body for schools, whose squads-you guessed it, are again the above failed headteachers and senior teachers. It is a lucrative scam. They do the sticky plaster job, enough to pull the schools out of the special measures for a short time, and walk away. Hence the short time they demand on their contract. Within a short period the schools revert back to the bad old situation as the problems were not really fixed. The blame game is now on! But the term “consultants” seem to chime well with the British government!

      How is one sure that these “Consultants” really know what they are talking about and believe that they have the knowledge and expertise? They will no doubt produce edited extracts of “satisfactory” customers. I can give examples of consultants who were called in by universities in which I worked some time ago, and the result was except a loss of a million or two pounds as fees, their suggestions and advice and theirs report were all a sham. Better I shut up for now!

  7. There’s a fair amount of truth in both positions. But at my institution, there’s a clear gap between a management which appears not to care about academic matters, and a teaching staff which is never consulted.

    An example: last year our entire curriculum structure was changed. Students would now do 6 modules instead of 8. Some of these modules would last the whole year, some one semester, with start and end dates varying. Hence two timetables. Modules would now be worth 20 credits instead of 15

    All this was announced as a fait accompli, and would apply to students in all years: not even phased in. So every current student’s graduating position had to be recalculated. Every module had to be rewritten or abolished.

    Were we – the experts – consulted about this? No. Which made it look like a wheeze to a) cut down on rooms and staff and b) a wheeze to make getting a degree easier. The students were furious, but we were repeatedly told that the new system was working very well, despite our clear evidence that it wasn’t.

  8. @ Eddie
    I will defer to your experience of the UK system Eddie, but I have come across many third level organisations in Ireland that have lost incalculable amounts of money and reputation due to inadequate teaching staff – most of whom are statutory lecturers, so the waste and ‘failure ‘can be apparent on all side of the equation. In every walk of life you will encounter people who are not ‘good’ at their job, it’s not just them who are a ‘sham’, it’s a system that allows people to perpetuate the myth that they are effective because they have been promoted into a position of incompetence that needs to be challenged, for consultants and academics alike.
    I don’t have the answers; just my experience which inevitably only leads to even more questions… fear is Ireland will not learn from the mistakes/learning experienced elsewhere For as long as we keep asking the same questions of the same people on the same quangos we will only get the same answers. Until you involve the relevant experts, as PV above says, you haven’t a hope of getting a change project effectively up and running, by which I mean self-sustaining and positive. So how do you identify the experts?

  9. cormac Says:

    Well said, Plashing Vole. As jfryar points out in an earlier comment, the original post assumes that the decision being taken is a good one.
    My experience on the academic council of our college was that sweeping changes were often introduced with very little consultation with teaching staff. Where there was consultation, we were invariably told that the problem was our fear of change.
    But fear of change arises from experience – and our experience is that college administrators have a way of replacing tried and tested teaching systems with much less successful ones, at the behest of whatever fashion is in vogue in educationalist circles in the US or UK.
    For example, in WIT, year-long courses, with assessments at Christmas and Easter, worked remarkably well as a teaching tool for weak students, especially at 1st year level. Its replacement by a short semester structure has resulted in significantly higher failure rates in 1st year, and an erosion of content – quite an accomplishment.
    Another example is that under the new system, all exams must be either 100% written exam or exactly 50/50 – no other possibilities. In othe words, assessments must count for 50 %, irrespective of how much a particular subject involves labs, projects etc. Exactly the sort of ‘one size fits all’ madness college administrators specialise in imposing on lecturers, against the advice of those who actually do the teaching.

    • Cormac, if your reference to the ‘original post’ was to me, then that certainly wasn’t what I was saying. I don’t assume that all proposed decisions are the right ones, though I do believe some are. And I did point out that inclusive and transparent decision-making is vital for success.

  10. James March, the organisational scholar, educationalist, political scientist and sometime poet, has written some of the seminal works on decision-making (e.g. March, James G. and Heath, Chip (1994) A primer on decision making : how decisions happen. New York: Free Press), and has been one of the most influential writers on organisation over the last 50 years – and he’s still going strong.

    In 1974, he wrote “Leadership and ambiguity: the American college president ” (New York, MacGraw Hill) with Michael Cohen which was the result of an long study of American university presidents. In this book he introduced the idea of the university as an ‘organised anarchy’ (he had experimented with anarchic organising himself when he was Dean of the School of Social Sciences in UC-Irvine from 1964-69, but that’s another story), and this idea spread as a metaphor to describe many types of organisations.

    March and Cohen suggest eight basic tactical rules for use by those who seek to influence the course of decisions in organized anarchies:
    1. Spend time. A person willing to spend time finds himslef in a strong position (a) he lays the basis for a claim; (b) he becomes a major information source; (c) he increases chance of being present when something important is being considered.
    2. Persist. The loser who spends his time weeping rather than reintroducing his ideas will persistently have something to weep about. The loser who persists in a variety of contexts is frequently rewarded.
    3. Exchange status for substance. Allow others to savor the victories and recieve the profits of public importance.
    4. Facilitate opposition participation. “On the whole, the direct involvement of dissident groups in the decision-making process is a more effective depressent of exaggerated aspirations than is a lecture by the president” (p. 210).
    5. Overload the system. Have a large repertoire of projects for organizational action; don’t become absolutely committed to any one project.
    6. Provide garbage cans. ‘the tendency for any particular project to become intertwined with a variety of issues simply because those issues exist at the time the project is before the organization. A proposal for curriculm reform becomes an arena for a concern for social justicc….” “The appropriate tactical response is to provide garbage cans into which wide varieties of problems can be dumped.” “discussions of overall organizational objectives or overall organizational long-term plans are classic first-quality cans. They are general enough to accommodate anything. They are socially defined as being important. They attract enough different kinds of issues to reinforce their importance. An activist will push for discussions of grand plans (in part) in order to draw the garbage away from the concrete day-to-day arenas of his concrete objectives” p. 211
    “On a smaller scale, the first item on a meeting agenda is an obvious garbage can” “Those who perform well in garbage can debates are not necessarily good leaders”.
    7. Manage unobtrusively. “A central tactic in high-inertia systems is to use high-leverage minor actions to produce major effects.” p 212. “the main objection to central direction and control is that it requires an impossible amount of attention and energy” p. 213 Interventions have two key attributes: (i) they affect many parts of the system slightly rather than a few parts in a major way; (ii) once activated, they stay activated without further organizational attention. Their deactivation requires positive organizational action.” “major instruments of unobtrusive management are bureaucratic.” – the ordinary systems of accounting and management control.
    8. Interpret history. “Minutes should be written long enough after the event as to legitimize the reality of forgetfulness. They should be written in such a way as to lay the basis for subsequent independent action – in the name of the collective action” p. 215.

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