The Incubation List and the Visualizer

21 Sep

If the environment is one of change, and you need to be responsive (ours is and we do), then traditional ways of ensuring consistency, uniformity, continuance of organizational existence, correctness, appropriateness, wise administration, consideration, carefully-weighed decisions–all this stuff becomes less important.

You need to encourage novelty and autonomy and experimentation and reduce administrative overhead.  While keeping just enough administrative overhead to make sure you produce value.

Do I know how to do this?  Not really.  But here are two ideas we think have promise:

The Incubation List

We invited staff to propose things they thought had potential to improve teaching, learning, and research.  They were required to develop a lightweight research plan, advocate for their idea, and report on their findings.

Ideas were collected in a Google Spreadsheet.  Incubators had 2 minutes to pitch at an open meeting.  The people in the room voted. Incubators then bought their gadget or their resource, tested it, and blogged their findings, all within about a month (you can see ’em: look up entries from June 2010 here: http://blogs.brandeis.edu/edtech/).

Results: staff used their intuition and supported it with hands-on research.  We acted quickly enough not to lose the first beautiful wondrousness of their ideas. We limited our natural inclination to ask for long proposals we might never read and have long meetings examining every detail before committing.

Now, can we recreate the experiment with community involvement (i.e. not just our folks, but faculty, students, and other staff involved)? That would be something.

The Visualizer

Image you have a team with various expertise(s) all engaged in working with faculty, staff, and students on a variety of topics from traditional library services and instructional technology support to archives work and outreach and critical literacy instruction and faculty committee work and new media creation and grant writing and organizing workshops and who knows what.  That would be our team. Projects of various length and complexity; and of course operational work.

How would you track all this stuff?  How would member A know what member J was involved in?  How would you know what your team capacity was at any given moment? How would you make the tracking of it easy enough it didn’t require 27 FTE and daily interviews right out of an IRS audit?

Answer: the Visualizer.  The Visualizer is a foolishly simple spreadsheet that lists key projects or operational activities on a calendar.  Imagine rows of projects vs. columns of weeks in a semester, with an X in the week column if the project is active that week.  Then in the columns past the weeks you list staff names.  You put in the intersection of the staff name and the project the percentage of the time said staff member works on that project.

The Visualizer then does two things: it lets you see what key activities are going on in a given week (of course) just by a quick scan of the Xs. But it also adds up all the time staff are committed to do things.  You can make a variety of helpful charts. You can see who’s at or beyond capacity in a given week.  You can see team capacity.   You can see when you’re in a crunch week and in response shift projects around.  You can categorize your work and see which categories take the most work.  All in a very short while.  All without learning Microsoft Project, Boot Camp, dot Project, or your pick of team organizing solutions.

The Visualizer really gets neat if staff both advocate the projects they think you should do as a team and bid on the projects they want to work on as team members . . . thus combining the Incubation List with the Visualizer.  We didn’t do this; managers in our case did most of the project assignation and data entry. (You need to leave something to fix in the iteration.)

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