Vicious Cycles

There are some discourses that are almost entirely scripted, filling in only a local detail or two. Here’s one:

  • Adjunct faculty: The way that I’m being treated is unjust, and endangers our entire profession.
  • TT faculty: You’re right! I’ll do anything I can to help! What should I do?
  • Adjunct faculty: Here’s a specific thing you could do.
  • TT faculty: Oh, well, we could NEVER do that!
  • Adjunct faculty: I have to say, I’m not feeling your allyship right now…
  • TT faculty: How could you say such a thing? Solidarity, dude! Just tell me what I should do!
  • Adjunct faculty: Here’s another specific thing you could do.
  • TT faculty: Oh, well, we could NEVER do that!

And repeat until exhausted.

Here’s another.

  • Get a small group together to conduct some special project.
  • The group is somewhat self-selected, because they’re interested in that problem.
  • The other members of the community start to feel excluded.
  • The working group shares more information in the face of the larger community’s feeling that they don’t know what’s going on.
  • The larger community ignores the information, or doesn’t come to the info events at all, because, hey, everybody’s busy, right?
  • The working group comes to a recommendation, and brings it to the larger community for action.
  • The larger community picks it apart in detail rather than in principle, sends it back for more work to be done, and complains about how long it’s taking and that they’re always in the dark and don’t know what the working group is doing.
  • Some members of the working group quit in frustration. New members raise new issues and take even longer.
  • When the working group comes to a new recommendation, the larger community again micromanages the plan and complains again about how long things take and that they’re always in the dark and don’t know what the working group is doing.

I see you smiling back there. You’ve seen this, haven’t you…

The Pareto Rule plays out in so many instances, the notion that 80% of the outcomes are drawn from 20% of the inputs. I think that there are a handful of these discourse tropes that undercut the vast majority of projects. If we could catalog those carefully—really develop the field guide to project failures—we could learn to spot a dozen or fewer patterns, learn to disrupt them, and make almost all of our program management better.