Do good ideas get crushed at your job?

Do you remember sitting in class watching the teacher write notes on the transparencies of an overhead projector? At the university where I work, the powers-that-be want to phase overhead projectors out of the classroom.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Brad, trying to read the professor’s handwriting was so fun. Why would they phase that out?”

Great question. The suppliers of the transparent film the teacher wrote on are dwindling. As fewer suppliers sell the film, its cost is rising.

Moreover, modern classrooms are bursting with learning technology: wifi connected computers, projectors, smart boards, whiteboards, and chalkboards. Universities wire today’s classrooms for sound and video. Given these adequate substitutes, plus the rising cost of transparencies, the powers-that-be want to send overhead projectors to the trash to trim expenses.

Fear not, lovers-of-transparencies. Many professors are challenging this policy. For certain subjects, such as math or science, where instructors must present long chains of equations or multiple steps of logic, the overhead projector is a fantastic bit of teaching technology. You can produce these long chains of processes right before the students’ eyes, refer back to previous steps, all without having to stop to wipe the chalkboard clean every few minutes.

What we have, here, is a value conflict. The powers-that-be have a budget to manage, and so they value fiscal sustainability. Instructors, conversely, have students to teach. They value quality education.

Who should win?

A university is an institution of education. Professors administer that education. Perhaps, then, we should give the professors what they need to deliver that mandate regardless of the costs. That said, an institution that manages its finances poorly will collapse. Perhaps fiscal prudence should trump the needs of educators.

Previously, I argued multiple values within a social system are vital to solving those pernicious, complex problems flummoxing our society. Here, though, many values appear to cause conflict, preventing the system from acting. What gives?

It is true; complex systems do need a multitude of values to succeed. Universities require fiscal sustainability AND quality teaching for us to consider them successful.

The challenge with complex systems, however, is situations arise where values bump heads. Wise organizations need members of those social systems to manage those conflicts such that the organization meets the expectations of relevant stakeholders while successfully delivering on its mandate. How do we do that?

You could let power decide

Why not have all the relevant stakeholders fight it out and whoever has the power gets what they want?

Such power struggles happen in many organizations. Have you or your department ever tried to do something that you knew was in the best interest of your company only to stare in horror as the organization took your initiative and quashed it? Chances are your idea contravened some other group’s values, prompting them to lash out.

The problem with letting groups duke it out is the organization ends up sacrificing one of the values it needs to succeed. If universities resolved value conflicts through exercises of power, administrators would usually win. Since their objective is fiscal prudence, they would prioritize budgetary concerns over educational quality time and again until, ultimately, you would have a university that was cheap to run but delivered no value to society.

We need a better way.

Resolving value conflicts

The research literature lists over a half-dozen tactics organizations use to manage value conflicts. I will focus on two: hybridization and bias. With hybridization, individuals seek to reconcile conflicts without sacrificing any of them. This requires some effort.

In the example of overhead projectors, each side needs to recognize the importance of the value the other side pursues. As easy as that sounds, in my experience, that is the hardest step. First, you have to recognize the other side is acting to achieve a set of values and is not merely acting like a jerk. You then need to (perhaps grudgingly) agree that their values are important. This is something humans have difficulty doing.

Once each side recognizes the importance of the values driving the other, professors would research different education technologies that serve the same function as overheads at a cheaper cost. Administrators would provide resources to support the adoption of these new technologies.

Achieving hybridization requires individuals within the organization who have well-developed interpersonal skills. They need to listen, understand each other’s perspectives, and then effectively communicate those different perspectives to members of their group. It then requires creativity to develop out-of-the-box solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

Bias, conversely, occurs where senior managers tend to favour one value over another. Though this could happen for self-interested reasons (e.g. if bonuses are tied to a performance metric), it can also come from a deep understanding of the organization’s needs. If the organization is in financial duress, senior managers may favour the value of fiscal prudence. If its reputation is in decline, they may prefer educational quality.

A wise manager can communicate these needs to members of the organization. They also recognize the damage done by subordinating one value to another and, if needed, will circle back once the organization is in a stronger position to fix that damage.

Our stories are powerful

They are how we understand and change our world. If you have stories of value conflicts–heck, I’d even enjoy a good overhead projector story–please share it in the comments.

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