Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Building consensus

A case study

Our college president was eager to share her good news with the math department. We had no idea what she was so excited about, but our ignorance soon came to an end. She had found a way to deprive us of one of our classrooms. She was also taking away one of our faculty offices.

We weren't as grateful as she had hoped. Our president had not expected us to ignore the important part of her announcement and instead focus on the trivialities. She had single-handedly negotiated a deal with a state university to bring a science/math tutorial program to our community college. (This was supposed to have prompted cheers and a standing ovation from us.) In return for the tutorial program and its attendant funding, all we had to do was convert a math classroom into a tutorial center and find office space in our department for the new program coordinator. (That, naturally, was the part that seized our attention.)

Oh, and the “single-handed” part. The cheekier and more senior members of the department asked the president very sweetly if it had ever occurred to her to consult with the department instead of autocratically presenting it with a fait accompli. After someone explained the meaning of “fait accompli,” Her Majesty reluctantly admitted that it might have been a good idea. She had simply assumed we would be as delighted as she was with the new development.

We weren't averse to additional tutorial resources for our students. Math students never seem to have as much help as they need. But our math department never seems to have enough classroom space to meet the student demand for our courses. And now our president had promised to give away one of our classrooms. We were also short of office space, with several faculty members doubled up and some squeezed into random spaces scattered across the campus. And our president had promised the sponsoring university that we would hire a coordinator for the tutorial program and house him or her in math department office space.

The math faculty regarded the president with long faces.

She moved into damage-control mode. She promised that one of her senior managers would work with us to mitigate the impact on our office and instructional space. It seemed like a minor concession at the time, but it soon grew into a genuine opportunity.

The senior manager in question turned out to be the dean of instruction. He met with a delegation of math professors and informed us that he had obtained more than enough funding for the remodeling of one of our classrooms into the tutorial center. The dean was a long-time member of the college's management team. We knew him well and caught the slight stress on “more” in his remark. We waited expectantly for him to drop the other shoe. We were not disappointed.

“We can take this opportunity to remodel areas of the math department that are adjacent to the room that's being converted. We can designate all of the modifications as a single project, provided that we meet a couple of conditions.”

He had our attention.

“First, the remodeling of the math department must reflect a consensus of the entire faculty. Second, of course, any alterations you request must be feasible within the available funding.”

We immediately began to try to get some idea of the potential scope of the reconstruction of our department. The dean figured we could, in addition to creating the mandated tutorial center, also revamp our obsolete computer lab and the storage space and faculty offices immediately adjacent to them. He suggested we create a priority list which could be costed-out from the top to the bottom, seeing how far down the list our resources would permit us to go.

The faculty delegation returned to the math department in higher spirits, especially since the extent of the remodeling might permit us to arrange space more efficiently and create an additional faculty office or two. The math dean, however, quickly noticed the potential fly in the ointment:

“Did the dean of instruction say the whole faculty had to agree on the changes? How are we going to get that to happen? I mean, managing the math faculty is like herding cats. And there's two dozen of you!”

Our dean should know. And she was right: The dean of instruction had given himself an out. We didn't think it was a deliberate trick, but he had to be aware that it was possible that the math faculty would never agree on a single remodeling plan. And any plan would inevitably involve disrupting the lives of those faculty members whose current offices were within the potentially affected area. If we failed to come up with a unanimous plan, it might be that only the classroom conversion would occur. The math dean called for a faculty volunteer to organize the development of a consensus plan. No one stepped forward, but everyone except me stepped back.

I had a new job. And what a nice big bag I was left holding!

The solution developed gradually. I was playing it by ear, but I knew it was necessary to get everyone involved at the earliest possible stage. I copied out the current floor plan of the math department's space. Everyone in the department got one, together with my cover memo explaining our opportunity and how we could squander it. I solicited suggestions from my colleagues, asking them to mark up the floor plans with their ideas for modifications and return them to my mail box.

Responses began to trickle in. Some were good and some were mediocre. Some were impractical. (No, I don't think we should try to squeeze in a tiny restroom in the conference room. No, no kitchenette in the storage room.) Not everyone was involved, though, and I was particularly concerned that I didn't have comments from the faculty members whose offices fell within the projected remodeling area. Their support was crucial. But not everyone wants to fiddle with floor plans.

My next idea was to redraw my colleagues' suggestions so that they were no longer just pen or pencil marks on the original layout. Having cleaned them up and made them look as good as possible, I began to post the new floor plans in the corridor outside my office.

Another memo went out, drawing people's attention to the new drawings. Participation rose sharply. Faculty members loitered in the hall outside my office looking at potential futures for our department. Some colleagues photocopied selections from the new drawings, marked them up with further modifications, and gave them to me. As quickly as I could I would create new drawings in accordance with the suggestions and posted them. The corridor gallery began to grow. We soon had more than a dozen proposals on the wall.

Now it was winnowing time. I taped up a faculty roster next to the floor-plan gallery. Each plan had a number on it. I asked my colleagues to fill in next to their names the number of the plan they liked best. Numbers got penciled in.

An interesting phenomenon soon manifested itself. If I had anticipated it, I could claim it was a stroke of brilliance, but it was really just a lucky accident. There were opinion-makers in our department, and their preferences were there in plain view. I had told people they could scratch out their choices and put in new numbers if they changed their minds. (There was, after all, still a trickle of additional plans appearing on the wall.) I noticed that my most influential colleagues would spark wholesale changes in the rankings as people would follow their lead. These were my consensus creators, if only I could get them to agree!

I began to take down the plans that had no votes (as even their creators moved on to new favorites). The most recent plans reflected small tweaks on old favorites. Convergence was occurring. More people abandoned their earlier choices and signed on with the leaders. We ended up with only two competing plans and those two were virtually identical. The only difference was whether a particular office would be big enough to be a double.

I announced a run-off ballot between the two finalists. The ballot was sneaky (in a way) but very public. It was a fresh copy of the faculty roster, taped up outside my office. It asked people to initial their preference but also to check the box that indicated whether they would support the other plan if it received a majority. Everyone checked the consensus box, aware that we needed a strong front in making our remodeling proposal to the dean of instruction.

I had the winning proposal blown up to poster size. I attached the final ballot, complete with everyone's initials, and our delegation returned to the office of the dean of instruction. We laid out our consensus proposal on the dean's desk and led him through the details of it. He nodded his head several times and smiled when he saw the complete set of initials on the final ballot. Even the colleague whose office would be demolished under the remodeling plan had signed. (The math dean helped by promising him his choice of the new offices to be created.)

The dean of instruction seemed just a little surprised that we had pulled it off. He signed off on our proposal and passed it along to the college's building management office. We got virtually everything on our list. The remodeling occurred the following summer, minimizing the disruptions. We were in our spiffed-up quarters when the fall semester began. Even the faculty who remained in unchanged offices (a large majority of us) were impressed by the rearranged space and the improved work room. The tutorial center was open for business. We did, however, make the new tutorial center coordinator share a double office (no way was a brand-new junior faculty member getting a single!).

And the classroom we lost to make way for the tutorial center? The college administration found a new one for us—in a trailer on the other side of the campus.

It can't always be a complete win-win.


Anonymous said...

So, how many years ago? And how many retellings?

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Yay! Democracy!

Good deal with the new guy. Mustn't let them get too big a head.

Last year my uni abandoned the barracks they'd been lodged in temporarily since their foundation - forty years ago.