23 July 2010

Cyclicality, again

Yesterday's post didn't end where I thought it would. It got a bit philosophical and mopey. What I'd meant to write was a much more practical piece about how the expectation of cycles constrain and condition expectations in organizational life.

If you live and work in a world with strong cycles, then you have to account for those when planning new activities. Periods of high organizational stress, or periods when high organizational performance are needed, are bad times to focus on secondary matters. That rules out changes to standard operating procedure Budget bureaus shouldn't undertake sweeping new initiatives at the beginning of a fiscal year, anymore than it's a good idea to try out a new quarterback in the postseason.

In academia, the cycles are even faster. There are at least three: the two semesters, and the summer. These are layered in the broader cycle of the school year. The separate nature of these cycles combine to make innovation peculiarly difficult in an atmosphere that already makes changes difficult.

I rule out summer, because I address faculty and grad students, not administrators. My hunch is that summer is the right time for redoing administrative procedures, since it is their relatively quiet season. But coordinating academics over the summer adds total impossibility to extreme difficulty.

But the semesters are hardly easier. The first and last weeks of the semester are no good, as is the middle of the semester. High-intensity projects would simply compete with more important responsibilities--and lose. That leaves four windows a year when there is even the possibility of adding new activities.

I have been thinking about this because, obviously, I'm involved with a new group (a workshop on advanced methods). There are many debates involved in founding a new institution, from questions of group behavioral norms norms (which can be established easily at the beginning, but which are tough to change later) to expectations about individual members' involvement to administrative worries. This last category deserves a post of its own. Drafting constitutions, sorting out financial controls, and settling issues of executive competence versus board oversight are tough, even when the group is relatively small and straightforward. One factor that has to be overcome is that academics usually privilege discussion over experimentation and deliberation over decision. Isonomy is an ideal, but it's a harsh mistress.

The more immediate questions we face now are how to keep the group going. There's loads of enthusiasm and the first semester went well, but having a vision for a group means understanding the factors that can sap those traits and lead to a gradual deflation of the popular will that sustains a collectivity and leads to the reproduction of its values and practices. In particular, I wonder if there's a good argument that this group shouldn't explicitly take into account the cycles of the semester and academic year in setting its schedule: having exciting but relatively low-work sessions to begin and end the year, while having the most difficult and labor-intensive sessions in November and January. (November, because it's a time when people want to procrastinate during the doldrums between midterms and finals; January, because the midpoint of the year finds most everyone in midseason form.)

Lowering ambitions a bit deflates expectations at the beginning. Adopting a more conservative attitude makes it more likely that the group can achieve the goals it wants to. The greater danger, though, is in allowing enthusiasm to outstrip capabilities and creating a gap between what is achievable and what is expected. Cyclicality encourages conservatism.

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