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In Praise of (a certain amount of) Messiness

28 Jul Posted by in Observations, Policies | 1 comment
In Praise of (a certain amount of) Messiness

A big university like Mason inevitably has accumulated, even in our case of a relatively short life, a number of organizational peculiarities and anomalies. Not everything is located in tidy boxes. It’s certainly appropriate recurrently to look at the resultant anomalies. If, particularly in the current fiscal climate, organizational untidiness costs unnecessary money, or results in duplication or missed opportunities, the results certainly need attention. But not every example of suboptimal rationality needs attention, and some are positively meritorious. I would argue that prudent tolerance of some organizational ambiguities is an essential part of effective leadership, lest too much time be wasted tilting at harmless windmills.

In defense of this proposition, let me offer two examples. First, any institution’s history produces some organizational arrangements that have internal political value, or at least help avoid needless internal conflict. If one were starting from scratch, the resultant organizational overlaps or joint location might best be avoided. But in the event, relocation in the interest of tidiness would clearly antagonize some units unnecessarily – most obviously, units from which part of the responsibility was taken, and the result just isn’t worth it. Internal political friction sometimes deserves more attention than maximum structural clarity. Further, some overlaps may indeed encourage exactly the kind of inter-unit collaboration, around some key research or service functions, that otherwise we’re seeking to encourage. Again, any irrationality can be examined but my plea here would be, let’s not streamline without counting political cost and the possible collaborative benefits of a certain amount of messiness.
On my second example I’ll be more specific. Mason has offices relevant to global activities in a number of units, both academic and service. I know it’s tempting for some observers, both internal and external, to look at the resulting crosshatch and urge consolidation. On particular items, I might actually agree, so this is not a mindless plea for status quo. But on the overall proposition I actually dissent – here, some messiness is positively desirable. Part of the reason relates to the prior paragraph: sometimes, change just stirs up more resistance than is worth encountering, for often modest or on-paper gains. But more important: one of our strengths is, actually, having global fairly widely dispersed, so that a host of units have a stake in global activities, contribute to these activities with different perspectives, connect the activities to a wide range of other functions again both in the academic and the co-curricular domains.

Again, I’m not trying to defend rank inefficiency or mindless heeldragging. But I think experience suggests also that rationalization for its own sake can have undesirable costs, and that some complexity is warranted for historic/political and even functional reasons.