Friday, February 09, 2007

The Paradox of Risk

Steve Gilbert and I have been working with a major university system on issues of strategic planning. Their planning teams have developed a huge list of imperatives for institutions and the system office, in order to improve teaching and learning with technology. I wondered how they would choose among those priorities: like everyone else, they have only limited funds, and even more limited time and attention. Choice is crucial, even when all the alternatives are wonderful, important and interdependent.

It reminded me of an evaluation that was done of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) when I was a staff member there. I think this was around 1979. The final report said that most FIPSE projects succeeded so well locally that they continued in operation at least 2 years after funding ended, and that they influenced something like a dozen other institutions, too. At our first staff meeting after these findings were announced, most of us were over the moon. But my colleague Alison Bernstein (now with the Ford Foundation) was disturbed. 'We're supposed to be a risk-taking funder,' she warned. 'This may mean we've been too conservative in choosing among proposals.'

I thought about that. Most seed grant programs had success rates far lower than FIPSE's: 10-20%, not 80-90%. Authors had written influential books about how likely innovation in higher education was to fail. So why were these FIPSE projects succeeding so often? The answer seems relevant to strategic planning today.

FIPSE's review process attracted people to submit their best ideas. The review process winnowed out almost all of them: less than 5% were funded. And 'apples' were always compared with 'oranges': which ideas were most learner-centered, cost-effective and capable of far-reaching impact?

I think the resulting ideas were so powerful that people inside and outside the author's institution would say, "Normally when you propose something I don't pay much attention. But this idea is different. It's so important that we can't let it fail. How can I help you?" FIPSE-funded ideas usually attracted resources and support far beyond what FIPSE had awarded. I remember talking with another institution that had adopted an idea pioneered by a FIPSE grantee, "Once we realized that it was possible to do that, our institution couldn't not do it."

Institutions and systems need ways to seek out ideas, from inside and outside. Sift them for the ones that are so important, and so potentially rewarding, that a coalition of support is easy to put together. A few ideas like that, successfully implemented, can help develop momentum and support for a second generation of improvements. Like FIPSE, it's also important to use some degree of external review to help sift ideas: external review can help the institution see if the ideas really are significant, and remove some of the political risk of making such choices purely with insider input.

What do you think? Wonderful idea? Impractical? Wrong-headed?

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