Sometime in May 2018, a bunch of tenured professors convened at my university to decide if I deserved tenure. This blog is about my reflections in the year that led to the decision.
The “final” day: On writing, tenure and living
If you have been following, no doubt you have realized that I did not deliver on my “write every day” commitment. It appears that I write more frequently when I am not writing. Mumbling, many call it.
It turns out that the university (well, people, but the institution of people…) decided to give me tenure, for which I am eternally grateful. What does it mean? Although it sounds like “ten years,” tenure actually happens after about 5 years of university employment and, once awarded, implies academic freedom with a job for life – depending on how you want to define your life and assuming you don’t do anything supremely stupid. (No tenure not only means no job for life, but also no job at all…).
I did not jump for joy upon hearing the news. I was more confused than anything else. Coming from industry, I had never considered the idea of a job for life; I simply assumed that I would have one (both a job and a life), in some way shape or form, and that I would deal with employment (and life) as events unfolded.
The tenure process was painful – a five year probation period, where I felt that my work was being scrutinized from one minute to the next (and actually was). I asked myself daily, “Am I working on the right stuff? Is the quality of my work at the expected standard, or is it surpassing that standard? What IS the standard??” And when I wasn’t working on anything school related, I still searched for meaning in what I was doing, and how I could translate it into some sort of academic output.
Five years on, wherever I turn, I see a potential research project and a genuine desire to pursue it. I think in terms of dependent and independent variables, moderating and mediating factors, boundary conditions, relevance, theoretical domains… My brain is now partitioned into sections: introduction, lit review, theoretical arguments, methods, data gathering, analysis, discussion, conclusion and, oh yes, references. When telling a funny story, I include citations, to be sure that nobody thinks I am taking credit for the jokes of others.
Upon reflection, I doubt, however, that I have changed all that much. There were many instances while at Nortel where I stood on my desk shouting, “It’s systemic! We must change the system!” I looked at every business problem as one that could be solved, in some sort of fashion, by playing with variables and outcomes. To me, issues were rarely caused by individuals specifically, but stemmed from poorly designed systems. Fix the system, fix the problem. I have always felt that people genuinely want to do a good job. Do some wake up saying, “Today, I will sabotage my work, my job, my employer”? I doubt it. And if they do, there is likely a set of variables that can explain how such an intention came to be.
Naive? Maybe. But the way I see it, we all go through life trying to navigate the systems in which we participate. From education, to family life, to social activities and, of course, work, we twist and turn through rules and processes – a mess of variables – and during that time, we live – we experience life for whatever it is, making choices or dealing with the choices of others – and we all seem to keep on going, putting one foot in front of the other.
I had my doubts about academia but tenure seemed worth pursuing, if for nothing else, to prevent an uncomfortable discussion with hubby that would no doubt have started with, “You mean you did a PhD for nothing?!” But now that I am here and have the luxury to look back on my life, I am reminded of the time when I sat in a Nortel management training session, pondering the meaning of life. At the break, I told the instructor (an org behaviour expert) that I didn’t really feel at home, to which she replied, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
I now realize that feeling at home comes from within, as does living a good and meaningful life.
Day 302: Functional Stupidity
(Editor’s note: we chased the author for months, and finally found her trapped under a blanket of news headlines).
Last year, I attended a HEC Montreal research talk (there are tons of them – a smorgasbord of research talks), hosted by my favourite HEC Montreal research team, The Strategy as Practice Study Group. Now, I’m biased, I’m part of the group, but it truly is my favourite, as I love strategy and especially how it plays out over time.
The talk was given by Mats Alvesson, a business professor from the University of Lund (Sweden) and looked at a number of topics, one of them being about something he and his co-author, André Spicer, call Functional Stupidity. So what exactly is Functional Stupidity? The authors have a nifty explanation in their journal article abstract:
“Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications. We argue that functional stupidity is prevalent in contexts dominated by economy in persuasion which emphasizes image and symbolic manipulation. This gives rise to forms of stupidity management that repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action. In turn, this structures individuals’ internal conversations in ways that emphasize positive and coherent narratives and marginalize more negative or ambiguous ones. This can have productive outcomes such as providing a degree of certainty for individuals and organizations. But it can have corrosive consequences such as creating a sense of dissonance among individuals and the organization as a whole. The positive consequences can give rise to self-reinforcing stupidity. The negative consequences can spark dialogue, which may undermine functional stupidity.”
Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. 2012. A Stupidity‐Based theory of organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 49(7), 1194-1220
I have worked in many organizations to know that functional stupidity exists and, unfortunately, persists. I have found myself standing with others, at times, saying, “Where are we and how did we get here!?” And upon reflection, realize that somehow we had lost our way. And while some will say, “We cannot see the forest through the trees!” others will respond with, “WRONG FOREST!”
For the past few years, I have been involved in a grass-roots David & Golaith kind of project, where a bunch of individuals have attempted to make sense of an economic model that appeared to be both illegal and unethical. We found each other through the internet and began collaborating, virtually, through email, facebook, websites etc… It was tricky. We had never met, we came from different backgrounds, but with our varied skills and singular objective (to crack the code), we remained focused on the task at hand. We argued (a lot) and were often frustrated with each other, but our debate and disagreement, along with our unique focus, fueled our progress. We built a coalition and learned a ton along the way.
After about a year and half, however, the coalition changed a bit. The objectives of the group were put into question. We debated which path to take and why. Rules were established on who was responsible for what; who could say what, to whom and when; how each communication medium would be used (or not). Some felt this was all required. And as a strategy person, well, I get that. Strategy and structure go hand and hand. To achieve a strategic objective, there must be mechanisms. But mechanisms for the sake of it, rules and regulations simply because we feel that something lacks formality, well… that sounded a bit like functional stupidity to me.
And that is exactly what transpired. The consequences so nicely articulated by Alvesson and Spicer (2012) blossomed. Strategic objectives were lost to the wind. Attention and resources were directed towards creating, implementing and monitoring the rules; and disciplining those who didn’t follow them. Learning and debate went out the window. And within about six months, the entire thing blew up.
Functional stupidity is alive and well in organizations. And for those in leadership positions, it’s so important to be cognizant of what you are doing and why. Debate and disagreement, when effectively managed, can propel organizations forward. Functional stupidity, well… it can destroy organizations and send people running to the hills.
No, this is not an advertisement for the authors or their publication. I just love the Functional Stupidity concept as I have seen it in action for years. The authors also have a nifty book. Just google “The Stupidity Paradox.”
Day # who-knows: teenagers and work
Like many teenagers, my two work – in various jobs, at various times – as do their friends, and other teenagers with whom I have had the honour to meet. The relationship between the student and the business is a precarious one, which pushed me to write this op-ed for the Montreal Gazette.
Day 92: The beginning of Heather Heyer’s legacy
Tragic deaths are just that. Tragic. When someone dies suddenly, tragically, it is incomprehensible; there is ache for meaning.
Yesterday, I watched Heather Heyer’s mother give her daughter’s eulogy. She spoke with conviction about her relationship with her daughter, what her daughter stood for, and how to make meaning from tragedy. It is worth watching, even for those too young to understand what is currently happening. — Speak up. Be heard.
Day 91: The Meandering Path of Learning
I like movies, but not over and over again. Or old ones, for that matter. Watching a familiar actor at a much younger age simply reminds me that life is short. But sometimes I pick a movie without looking at the year: The Secret Life of Bees. The movie lingered with me for days, especially the images of the South in the early 1960s.
A few days later, as I was looking at my bookshelf, I spotted my very old copy of Black Like Me. I read the book in high school and it lingers like a few others (To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Beach, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies). I read a few pages and put the book back on the shelf.
That same week, I flipped through the HBO documentaries, and landed upon 4 Little Girls. Another old movie (1997), also about the Civil Rights Movement.
In early August, I was in Atlanta for an academic conference. So I took a few hours to visit The Center for Civil and Human Rights (museum), which included an exhibit on the American Civil Rights Movement.
And yesterday, by chance, I turned on the TV to see Trump’s (historical) news conference in real time.
I now listen to Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” frequently. Listen.
Day 90: Speech less…
Transcript from Trump’s press briefing today. Worth a peak. A day that will be remembered for a long time.
Day [insert math here]: Equality
Early Saturday (late Friday) Josh Freed wrote about his Trump addiction in the Montreal Gazette. Saved at last; time to draw my eyes away from the headlines. And then Trump surprised all over again, with a Charlottesville narrative that was simply unbelievable. “… on many sides,” he said. Sides of what? Unknown.
Day 25: Truth
A few years back, I took a course in qualitative methods with about 20 others. During one particular session, we all sat around a very large table and were asked to close our eyes. The professor then placed a dozen items on the table – statues, books, artwork, knickknacks, etc… We opened our eyes and were asked to record what we saw. Thinking the exercise was about observation techniques, we got busy quick, doodling, scribbling, creating systematic diagrams. When we were done, she had us change positions, eyes half-closed. We scrambled a bit, politely pushing our way to another seat far away from the first. And then we gasped.
It turned out that many of the objects looked different from the other side of the table. And in some cases, certain items previously invisible suddenly appeared. Truth.
When Comey recalled his nine meetings with Trump yesterday, whether you believed him or not, what likely mattered to Comey is that he was telling his truth. When he explained why he took notes after many of the meetings, he pointed to three factors: the context, the content and the nature of the person. And as a CNN commentator commented, life happens in context. It makes little sense to focus on one word, or one sentence, because stuff is said before and stuff is said after.
So Comey told his truth. Which some believe and others don’t. Because truth is so personal, created over a lifetime, but never really defined. We cannot hold it in our hands. It just hangs in the air, changing shape as things are said and done, ignoring contradictions, gobbling up new ideas, spitting out those that taste bad. And when one person’s truth challenges another, it’s messy, confusing, and sometimes painful. Because oftentimes we are sitting at opposite ends of the table, and it takes a lot of effort to stand up and change seats.
Day 23: Comey
It takes 21 days to create a new habit (or replace an old one). 21 days. Three weeks. I wanted to write a blog entry every day. But as I neared Day 21, I froze. I do actually write every day, but not always here. I write long-winded emails about ice being the gold currency of the local ringuette organization, or lists of family rules that start with “Hang up your towels.” I can write text messages in paragraph form, capitals, periods, semi-colons and all. And I write pages and pages of research, throughout the day… in my head, and sometimes dictate my writing out loud while driving.
So as I worked my way through today’s morning, wondering how I failed to blog every day, I decided to google the evidence. And learned that the 21-day rule is not much of a rule at all, but a manipulation of research results on a somewhat similar but not exact phenomenon. Off the hook.
And then I thought about other habits that take only days to manifest. Comey. I am hooked. Comey is testifying tomorrow. It’s in my calendar. I have put aside all other work, all other family commitments. I will be glued to my screen, and glued to the unfollowtrump twitter account. It’s a habit I cannot break.
I remember where I was the day that the Challenger blew up, where I was standing – the table, the position of the tv in the McGill library, where I was positioned around that table. I remember exactly where I was when I read a magazine article about MRI machines in the early 80s and thought, “I should buy stock in that” (I never did). I remember sitting in a restaurant with hubby, when a friend rushed in to meet us, blurting out, “Princess Di was killed in a car crash.” I remember shooing soccer players off the field during a lightening storm, and a parent scooping up her daughter while yelling out the window, “Michael Jackson has died.” And I remember delivering 30 newspapers that reported the death of my favourite actor, Peter Sellers.
And I remember precisely the moment that I learned that Comey had been fired. Within seconds, my Comey habit was formed.