Friday, February 06, 2009

A Useful Planning Technique

In Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane, the author describes a strategic planning process called scenario planning, which begins with a "breathing in" phase of gathering information without filtering it. Adam worked at Shell during a time when they used this long-range planning technique, and subsequently used those methods to attempt to solve really tough problems like the political enmity between the Basques and the Spanish. We use an abbreviated form of this technique to envision the future when wrestling with big fuzzy problems, like what should the university look like in 10 years?

In the breathing in phase, one gathers information and opinions without judgment. There's a particular kind of broad review of a domain of interest I've learned about from my good friend Jon Shannnon. I have interpreted it here, and may have put an unexpected twist on his methods, so if it sounds dumb, it's my fault and not his.

The idea is to identify interested constituents and their goals. In practice, I ask a small group to take a couple of minutes to write down all the groups who have something to do with whatever the subject is. For the purpose of illustration, let's imagine we're wrestling with the general education program at a university, and trying to envision possibilities. Interested parties include students, faculty, administration, potential employers, etc. We combine our lists on a whiteboard by writing the names across the top to make columns. Inside the columns will go the goals or particular interest of each one. The result would look something like this:

This of course, is just an abbreviated example. If you did this with a group, your list of constituents would probably include your accrediting body, the administration, and others. The goals list would be different too, depending on institutional culture. Obviously, one opportunity at this point is to get some of the constituents involved in the process and ask them what their goals are, rather than imagining them yourself. Once all this work has been done, you can find some interesting things out by looking at the matrix.

One pointer Jon gave me was to look for collisions: goals that point in opposite directions. If there aren't any of these, it may be possible to satisfy everyone's goals simultaneously. In this case, if students really want minimal requirements in a general education curriculum (so they can get on with the major, presumably), and the faculty want a 'great books' sequence or something, there's a tension there to be resolved. Often such tensions involve money. Parents want to pay less, but the administration would like more net revenue. Faculty want release time for research, but the chair needs to cover all the courses with a limited adjunct budget.

Alignment of goals is another pattern to look for. In the example given, everybody wants to be able to schedule courses reasonably. This goal often leads to practices like reserving slots for new students so that returners don't consume all the available seats in COM 101.

These considerations can lead to very interesting discussions, if one has the right group of people around the table. I had thrown this particular example together without much thought, simply to use for illustration in this article, but now that I'm looking at the matrix, something very interesting occurs to me. It's probably not coincidence that it's related to yesterday's post on deductive vs inductive thinking.

Consider the students' desire to understand relevance of the material juxtaposed to the faculty's desire to teach general thinking skills. What we hope for as faculty is actually the development of the inductive/creative skills that I've written about several times. Typically, these students have been subjected to a curriculum and standardized test regimen that heavily emphasizes analytical/deductive thinking. That's what they think education is about, likely. And the first thing we want out of them is to demonstrate and develop inductive/creative thinking in a general education program. See the problem? Perhaps what we should do instead is emphasize the parts of the curriculum that look most like high school: math and science, foreign language, writing correctly, how to give a speech, etc., and ease them into the parts that demand more imagination and generation of connections. I'm thinking of literature, history, and the rest of the humanities. Ideally these courses do not comprise a list of facts to memorize, nor processes to master, but sophisticated connection-building and pattern recognition.

It would also help, as I argue relentlessly, to point out to students what we're doing. We can explain what the different types of knowledge are, and why courses are scheduled in the order they are, what problems to expect, and where to get help.

Forgive my digression into a familiar topic. The matrix is perhaps a rorschach test, for one to see what one wants. But a useful one. With the right discussion group and good leadership, the two dimensions of constituents and goals is a great way to begin breathing in the big picture in order to do strategic planning.

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