What I Would Do Differently, #1.

Posted by jlubans on September 03, 2020


Caption: Yours 40 years later (courtesy of a WSJ app)

From time to time I will write about some past event which I would do differently this is the first installment.
These reflections will come after a 40-year career in higher education (teaching and administration). Some, like this first case, will be based upon a failure. Others will be based upon successes.
I wont bore you with personal life-decisions Id do-over.
I will just bore you with things I would have done differently at work!
Why? Well, since I still teach management topics this is a constructive way for me to reflect. And, maybe a reader will find something of value for how she or he leads.
So here goes.
Numero Uno was a project, long unrequited.
Simply put, we had two different ways of labeling files. The new way one had about 3 million files (more recent and most used) in it and the old one (less used) had 1 million.
Some wanted to reconcile the two systems.
Others saw little value in doing this because, besides the work being redundant, there were several other ways to find any desired old or new file.
However influential clients mounted a persistent campaign and were adamantly convinced about merging the two sets of files.
I was charged with chairing a team as to whether to do this merger and what the costs might be.
We never got much past the best guessing phase.
The end result was that our (probably skewed) estimate of the high costs of changing labels prevailed. The pro-relabeling forces folded their tents and went off to brood some more.
While conclusive for one side, the recommendation did not assuage those believing a merger was essential
How would I do it differently? In several ways:
Borrowing from the military and business, I would appoint red and blue teams. Each would argue factually their side of the problem. To merge or not to merge.
Of course, this would also require our stating what the real problem was. Indeed, was it a problem? And, if so, just how large was it.
The evidence was pretty much only complaints claiming that having two systems inconvenienced some and somehow did not provide good optics of a modern organization. If one were a fuss budget, then this was something to fuss about.
We needed to get past the emotion and absolute certainty on each side of the issue.
I would include in the exploration team a few of the staff closest to the work, not just the supervisors.
Id also try to find out via focus groups what it was the pro re-label faction wanted and why.
Once we had some conclusions to offer, I would lead a robust after action review (AAR) to make sure we were on the right track.
Another different approach would be to jump in feet first and do a large sample and actually re-label 1000 of the old files.
Doing so, would get at underlying complexities and the true costs perhaps they would be far less than what we guessed they might be.
None of this re-label work would be wasted since the newly re-labeled would go into the new label side. And we would have a much firmer idea of how to do this project, if and when decided, and what the most effective procedure would be.
While not a new approach of doing the work, Id use the opportunity to leverage a quid pro quo from the re-labeling advocates.
The same clients agitating for a merged system were largely opposed to storing files off-site. Perhaps if we agreed to re-label the most heavily used (all files had records of use) and store the least used, the opposition might go along not only in reducing the size of the re-label project but also getting them to be a bit more positive toward the use of off-site storage.
That might have been an acceptable trade off.
Probably the ratio would be around 60% for storage while the remaining 400,000 could be relabeled and merged with the new system; Id be happy with 50/50.
Doing so, we would gain badly needed on-site space and reduce substantially the redundant and other work required by a re-labeling process.
In any case, the more we showed a full faith and inclusive effort to study the problem, the more trust we could between the two factions.
But, as happens in traditional organizations like bureaucracies, reason does not always prevail.
As it turned out, in a few years, many of the old and new labels would be replaced with barcodes linked to e-records for off site storage.

Copyright John Lubans 2020

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