Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tenure as sunk costs

After writing about sunk costs, I stumbled upon the best possible example of a disruptive innovation for higher education: abolishing tenure.  The merits of tenure are fodder for many a heated discussion, but the sheer mechanics of unwinding a tenure-based system are likely to keep many universities from seeing with a clear eye.

There is probably no better example of sunk costs.

Serendipity lives.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The siren song of sunk costs

What we've already invested can keep us trapped, even when we know the textbook definition of sunk costs.  An education system that prizes achievement (success, perhaps) over learning may be a contributing factor, though no small part is the lifelong dialectic of permanence versus change.  

Years ago, while consulting with an oil and gas company of globally recognized name, I asked about a process that did not seem to work well.  The response I received from a successful middle manager was, essentially, this:  "Yes, it is flawed and we know it doesn't work well.  But we're comfortable with it and have no plans to change it, because we can implement this process quickly."

Using a flawed, but speedy process makes absolutely no sense.  And yet, it's what many of us do multiple times each day.  We keep doing something the way we know, rather than the best or better way, because we have so much invested; the sunk costs (whether financial or emotional) keep us from thinking clearly and charting a course to what would work far better.

This is one of many places in life and in work where the risk of failure is high--not because we've already failed, but because we refuse to ignore the siren song that lures us to stay where we are and feed the sunk costs.  If failure is inevitable in a life of exploration and learning, perhaps we need traveling companions who do not allow us to succumb to the sirens.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pretty sure there's an "I" in irrational

So, it's official.  The Google Reader I've come to trust as a daily companion is going away. And the problem with trying something that "never caught on as a mainstream customer experience" is that I liked it.  A lot. And now I have to change. I'm a big proponent of change. But not this change.

Part of what makes change and innovation (which are, essentially, synonymous) so interesting is the emotional attachments we make to the way things are, unless we are the one wanting the change.  Allow me to become disenchanted with my RSS reader and choose another one?  Great.  Shut down the RSS reader I like and make me choose another one?  Not great at all.

The humor here is that the outcome is exactly the same.  I get to experiment with ways of aggregating the things I like to play with try something new.  And I'm irrationally unhappy about it, mostly because the timing was not of my choosing.

The biggest obstacle to successful change is active resistance, sometimes for very good reasons.  When we can do something faster or better the way we do it now (as opposed to the better, faster new way), it's extremely difficult to make near-term choices we do not like or want for the promise of longer-term improvement.  Its' why most of us don't change bad habits we know we need to change.

Never let it be said that people who understand change and the importance of change to both learning and innovation are more rational than anyone else when on the receiving end of a change we do not want.

I'm going  to miss that reader.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I planted bulbs last fall, as a personal refusal to go gentle into that season I enjoy least.  I distinctly remember planting tulips and I might have planted jonquils.  I had no recollection at all of planting what I found today.  I consider these lovelies to be the joys of a bad memory.

After reveling in the sheer delight of finding crocus in multiple places (who knew?), I wondered about the metaphors of planting...planting without expectation, planting with no guarantee of success, planting far removed from the joy of the harvest.  It's what educators, innovators, and parents (among others) do--we plant.  It may not be seeds or bulbs, but it most definitely is ideas, hopes, challenges, and, if we are lucky, a bit of knowledge.

I wonder whether education puts too much emphasis on the pretty and not enough on the gritty.  End-of-year test scores, grades, and student ratings of professors all seem to be missing the mark in a rather short-sighted way and they lack the intrinsic value of projects, portfolios, or prototypes.   The gritty part of working through a problem, developing a project, creating a design--and, equally, in failing to solve, develop, or create--is where the learning happens.  The interaction with an educator as coach, collaborator, or guide (rather than as lecturer) offers opportunities that are, at best, only hinted by numbers, rankings, and anonymous feedback.

If we focus on the shortest, though most visible, part of any process, we are missing most of it.