Sisyphus and organizational learning

sisyphus at carnegieIn a post last spring I shared an image from the Carnegie Foundation that compares change management to slowly pushing a ball up a hill. It highlights the challenge of making long-term progress toward educational reform within the shorter-term contexts of public policy, grant funding, and the state economy.

A particularly astute reader at Sacramento State commented that state bureaucracies (like, say, the one that employs me) are responsible for much of the gravity opposing Sisyphus. Here’s my favorite part of what he wrote:

When the force moving a ball up a hill is countered by an even stronger force pushing it back, the result is at best inertia. Pretty soon the air gets squeezed out of the ball.

It makes sense for administrators to advise would-be reformers to garner support from their colleagues before trying to make any big change. They know the strategy is ineffective and therefore does not challenge the status quo. They know it is a surefire way to keep things on track according to policies and executive orders.

As the frequent steward and occasional author of those policies and executive orders, I have to ask how responsible I am for that paperwork weighing on him and other reform-minded educators. And the answer is “very.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, trying to figure out why I’m nonetheless hopeful for change. I chalk it up to a few things:

  1. Temperament. I often find myself on the optimistic end of whatever spectrum of opinion I’m in. Can’t seem to help it. Savvy colleagues have learned to apply a mental discount to my predictions. But this time, swear to God, I think I’m right. We are better positioned for positive change – at least in my setting – than we’ve been for a while. And despite fifty-plus years of effort, state systems of universities haven’t yet extinguished the creativity and passion in the rank and file of higher ed, even here in the big ones. On the contrary, I think we attract it.

So there’s reason number 1 for optimism, optimism itself.


  1.  Our chancellor. True story: presentations our office makes six times a year to the Board of Trustees used to be pretty ragged. About a year ago the big guy couldn’t take it anymore, and instituted agenda rehearsals a few weeks in advance of each meeting, where he and his division heads assemble in our empty auditorium to watch us present what I think of as the rough cut. I have come around to thinking it’s a good idea. The board meetings are better. And internally, we’re less siloed as we learn more about each other’s work.

Also – and here’s the relevant part – at these run-throughs I’ve noticed he tries to sniff out and extinguish that public sector tendency toward the defensive, our habit of glossing over bad news. His feeling is that if we try something and fail we should say so. If the news really is good and everything works fine, then we’re probably not risking enough. There’s what could charitably be called ample room for improvement, and we should be in an aggressive learning mode.

I eat this stuff up, and it’s not just me. Many of us find this liberating, and it’s also won attention from foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and others, who see in us an opportunity to figure out some hard things.

  1. Community psychology. So I looked up the references in that comment to my Sisyphus post, and found this in the New York Times obituary for Seymour Sarason:

He regarded traditional schools and what he called the “encapsulated classroom” as enemies of learning and human potential, sealed off from the larger society around them and crippled by a lack of collaboration among teachers.

000If Sarason was right then the field he helped create, community psychology, is an antidote to the ills of higher ed. So is community engagement and service learning, and group work from students (and for that matter educators) on purposeful projects. Get people together, regularly, informally, and productively, and we can leverage their collective strength.

I take the point that cynics in my position might offer such advice to stonewall, but there’s really no substitute for community organizing.  The key is keeping our eyes open, conducting meaningful and intelligible research as we go, but above all staying in touch with each other.

Living from 1919 to 2010, Sarason got to see the creation of the global virtual community, no panacea but a powerful boost to the tools he promoted.

tibetan-smartphoneAll this puts me in an odd position. One way or another I’m managing that policy archive lashed to my friend’s back, as he struggles to push reform uphill. But that same vantage means I’m in an unusual position to help, negotiating the space between brainy innovators in the field, and a genuinely curious and committed set of stakeholders to report to, including the system boss.

The trick is just figuring out how, before my friends fall downhill.


2 thoughts on “Sisyphus and organizational learning

  1. Pogo time:

    “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    How many academics does it take to turn on a light?

    Just one.

    Thanks for constantly doing that for us, Ken.

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