That is when we most hope for impossible reassurance: for an explanation of how we can continue to succeed, as we have for so long, without changing what we do.
|Flotilla of rubber duckies...Accumulating sign?|
Example: A "Reassuring" Consultation in the 1980s
In the early 1980s, a small group of textbook publishers invited me to bring a couple of lawyers who understood trends in technology, publishing, and intellectual property law for a discussion in New York City. We met our hosts for lunch in a nice restaurant. A casual and pleasant conversation began while we were eating, and continued as dessert and coffee were served - well beyond the usual duration of introductory pleasantries required by business courtesy.
I was confused when it was almost time to leave and we were still being asked superficial questions with no obvious focus. Our hosts seemed satisfied to request and receive no more than our most superficial observations about recent devleopments in information technology and the possible implications for intellectual property. We were not asked to speculate about the possible impact of recent changes on the textbook publishing industry. [Note: this meeting occurred shortly before the Internet had enabled a highly active used-textbook market in higher education.]
We solved the puzzle during our train-ride home. Our hosts could not ask their most urgent questions. Perhaps they could not acknowledge even to themselves what they wanted from us most. Reassurance.
They had hoped for the same thing that many capable, intellligent, experienced, successful people in many industries want in times of great change. Especially in times of great technological and economic change. They wanted reassurance.
They wanted us to explain how so many important things were changing, and how they could continue to be successful, as they had been for so long, without changing what they did.
For many years I told that story privately and smugly - as an amusing criticism of middle- to upper-level managers in the publishing industry who "just didn't get it."
But now I'm telling the story more publicly for a very different reason. Now I see it as an illustration of some important characteristics of human nature. Most of us prefer not to have major change thrust upon us. Most of us prefer not to have the practices and insights we've embraced over many years suddenly criticized and become dysfunctional. It is painful to discover that what we have believed and done as "right" is becoming ineffective and disrespected.
It is too easy as outsiders looking backward to chide and blame leaders who failed to act on the signs of change. It is much more difficult to recognize early symptoms of impending crises when they first arise and from within the institution. That is why it is so difficult to provide effective advice to those who must deal with these problems from the inside and with so many uncertainties - both the unavoidable uncertainties of interpreting symptoms of institutional illness and the uncertainties we feel when we find ourselves in disagreement with the perceptions and conclusions of respected colleagues who are equally committed to the institution. We don't want to believe those warning signs.
So, I still endorse the obvious advice to confront serious problems as early and directly as possible, but now I believe that it is not a lack of will or intelligence that is the most likely impediment. It is the lack of practices and structures that would encourage and enable those in key positions to overcome their typical human reluctance to recognize the warning signs, understand their implications, and respond quickly, collegially and effectively.
Steven W. Gilbert, President
THE TLT GROUP -- a Non-Profit Organization
The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group
PO Box 5643, Takoma Park, Maryland 20913 USA
IMAGE selected by Steve Gilbert 20120207
Photo of "closeup of ducks" from "'2011Blackstone Duckie Race'... 17000 rubber duckies dropped into the canal-- the first 50 over the finish line win prizes and the money goes to the library, boys and girls club, and other charities." ..."items are from 16 Oct 2011," by "izzysmumma"