How to, and how not | | DJS

How to, and how not

Challenges to authority cause problems. A very few managers are willing to receive observations that could, if the same thing were said to others, be understood to be criticism. Therefore it may be possible to couch what you feel is necessary comment in ways which are not seen as, nor taken as, criticism.

Throughout these processes, there are two underlying principles: 

(i) Always refer to us, the collective. It is very difficult to direct comment at an individual without this being taken as criticism and, while in an inferior position (underneath), criticism is usually more than unwelcome, it brings forms of revenge and retribution. Always refer to 'us' and 'our problem', even if you can see that there is a particular individual making sure that a process cannot be improved. Keep any personalisation to yourself.

(ii) criticise the system, not an individual. The individual is not at fault, the system needs improvement. Again, even if you identify the central problem as an individual (with power, probably), this will not change unless they recognise that there is an improvement to the system.

The sort of situation that often applies is one in which, if you were to put forward an idea it would be ignored for several reasons:

(i) your idea threatens someone in a position 'above'. It doesn't matter whether this is true, it matters that this is the perception. It is dismaying how often the mere existence of a suggestion that there might be improvement available is seen as threat. This invades the secure space (Chapter N) of the obstructing person above

(ii) Your idea has validity, but it threatens the the system, so the system itself will fight back to prevent change. This is a form of institutional inertia and, often, the solution is to move elsewhere, after you've tried whatever you can to cause the work to morph into something better.

(iii) a combination of these, in that the existence of a suggestion is itself a threat, irrespective of its worth.

A related situation is that there are places where a suggestion worth having is stolen, in the sense that it is present ed higher up as being owned by the 'finder'. So the finder claims authorship and looks to turn this to advantage. At first this theft and the concept of this theft is very uncomfortable. However, a little more thought suggests that this is actually in your interests, that you'd like for a higher up—and perhaps a chain of higher-ups— to each take the idea as their own. Practically, you don't need the fame and difficulties that associate with having had a good idea (you'll be expected to produce them forever and never to be wrong), as much as you need for them to take possession of the idea, to own it more fully than they intended —they steal it, but it possesses them. You want the idea to work, or least be tried. So when some higher-up type comes back with a form of your idea, you can enthuse appropriately, run with the idea, show what will and will not work of their version and show loads of enthusiasm  for which your immediate boss will feel responsible and may get credit, but at the same time this all means that next time there is an idea at your level, the boss will be just that little bit more inclined to hear it out.

So this points to a realm of mechanisms you can seek in which you put an idea into someone's head. I have found that the most successful routes centre around making this 'their idea', so that they own it from the start. Like you steer them to reword the germ you want to plant and immediately you reflect it straight back and call it their idea; if you can, you attach their name to the idea and you do this often enough so that others use the phrase. You (and others, who'll catch on to your enthusiasm) run with the idea just enough to show the boss that this has support and a little apparent or real brain-storming, which doesn't need to be across a short time but can be, reworks the Boss's idea into the beginning of a plan, at which point either the boss change be challenged to try it, to at least to take up further up the chain.

This works in teaching of certain sorts. Students learn well if they 'own' a discovery, ideally by making the discovery for themselves. Or, thinking that this is what has occurred. In any class where the students have the confidence to put forward ideas without being shot down too roughly, there will be ideas that provide an opportunity to explore and, if the idea is labelled say Molly's conjecture, there will be quite a bot more enthusiasm for the exploration than if it was, say one of Euclid's postulates. As the study progresses, so one can add ownership to the class, Edward's  corollary, for example. Putting these up on a separate board while the study goes on can not only motivate this class, but other classes using the same room may seen that something really interesting (weird, even) is occurring, such as a class actually enjoying maths.

Example: one of a class referred to grains of rice on a chessboard. this was some reward for some salacious story in which the hero gets the girl or some such nonsense, and, having all laughed at the inappropriate setting, one wondered just how much rice that was. A week's lessons later (five lessons and the associated homework time, the class has established that the amount of rice in the last square is a very big number, and that all of the rice required made the chess board itself very large; that if we had the rice and put it on Dartmoor it might well spill into the sea and that if we put it on the Brecons we might just see it from Plymouth. We had serious doubt that there had ever been that much rice grown and we were fairly sure that there had never yet been that much rice grown yet. We had become used to very large numbers and had developed ways of being sure that we had a good grasp of size, so were switching between cubic units like litres and cubic kilometres with confidence, having worked out ways of checking our numbers, still ridiculously large, were at least consistent with previous work. We'd done work in groups and individual work; we'd chased different ideas in different groups; the class had set its own homework and returned to class with ideas. the general feeling at the end of the week was that the class understood the idea of exponential doubling pretty thoroughly and that they had a common experience with which to label this. No-one asked whether this was on the syllabus, because it so clearly was not— in some ways, it couldn't possibly be on the proper course, because this was fun. And maths is never fun. I never discussed what was learned with the class, but there were no more issues with place value in number. If I could guarantee that such a project would produce such a result, I think I could argue that every class ought to do something equivalent.

But the point to apply to other lessons and other situations is that, if you can move the possession of the idea to those of the group, more is learned, more is contributed and the return is out of all proportion to the effort applied. This leads to the idea of teacher as facilitator bit, if you understand the tale more as a parable, then you see that the facilitator has to have a bigger grasp of the subject matter than is obvious during the experience.

Summing up, the strategy then is to not be at all possessive of an idea, any idea. You actually want the idea to be treated as bigger than any one individual and you want it to cause infectious enthusiasm. If there is to be an identified source of the idea, make it the targeted person who should have the task of making the idea work, or even whose job it is to have such ideas at all. In turn that means that it is to everyone's apparent advantage if they are assumed to own the idea and to the advantage of the boss (boss minion, sometimes) given ownership if they can supplement the attraction of the idea with a load of support for the idea.

A long time ago and in uniform I was listening to someone talk about leadership. They'd been talking about the value of hearing (asking for and listening to) ideas from the soldiers. The military is broadly divided into men and officers, but it is always clear that decisions 'belong' to the officers - if it goes wrong, it is quite clear who owns the decisions that helped things go wrong. So the aside that I remember ran along the lines that when you've made your (military) decision, it doesn't matter how much you're right if the soldiers will follow you enough to make it work.

I had a boss who often canvassed opinion quite widely when a decision loomed. However, no matter how fiercely you'd argued for a position not taken, the leadership level was such that, when he had decided what we were going to do, and no matter how much in conflict with your pre-decision ideas the chosen policy was, you tried very hard to make that decision prove to be a correct one. On occasion there was explanation, generally along the lines that these (a short list followed) were the factors to be balanced and that, having done that balancing, here was the sensible course of action. With which one agreed, because among what we were being shown was that the view from a bit higher up was quite a bit different. One consequence of the associated learning process was that when one moved on from there, one went upwards, not sideways. 

Seeing where people move on to might be a good test of an employer; see the chapter on metrics.


Expansion of this chapter; it needs to be at least twice as long.

why?  Email:      © David Scoins 2021