Analysis Paralysis - Environmental and Facilities Planning in Higher Ed

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If you are reading this article you are likely passionate about the mission and success of your institution. You recognize the importance of a supportive, honest and collaborative culture in making lasting change. You have likely seen ideas go from “that might be interesting” to a fully deployed, “big win.”  As an insider you also see many ideas get axed for good reason, such as: too expensive, too risky, not a good fit with our systems or processes.

You have also seen many more ideas hashed and rehashed, studied, tabled and restudied without ever seeing a definite “yes” or “no.” The dreaded “Analysis Paralysis.” Sure, scrutiny of large, capital-intense projects need careful consideration and vetting. Careers are made and destroyed by the perceived success or failure of these decisions. However, in many institutions prudence and due diligence have given birth to culture where the most precious commodities, the time and attention of key decision makers and their staff, are squandered. Without “yes” or “no,” too often the least impactful, most risky “opportunities” quickly suck up all the attention.

Decision makers know this trend all too well. Their days are filled with endless presentations; most asking for money; all asking for attention. They are in an unenviable position. To be effective they have to know at least the basics about every aspect of their institution to make informed decisions. Their leaders are focused on the true core mission of the university which is education and research, not maintaining functional and reliable facilities.

At the end of the day they don’t need more studies or more details.  Presumably they hired you since you understood your field. Instead they are looking at the bigger picture.  How will your proposal affect all of the other things they must worry about? Sure this idea might save money today, but what impact will it have on the long-term health of our institution?  What if student enrollment, fuel prices, or interest rates rise or fall? What if the state keeps cutting our budget?  If we commit to this approach today, what options does it take off the table? How can I sell this to: the president, the board of trustees, the student body, or the community at large?  If this fails who will get the blame?

As a manager or a department lead, how can you present ideas in such a way that anticipate these types of questions? As an institution what type of decision framework do you need to make sure your teams focus on what really matters — ideas that can move you to your broader goals? How do you exit the world of analysis paralysis and political jockeying? How do you create an environment where good ideas get the proper attention and vetting and where decision makers can have confidence they are moving down a viable path?

Here are three simple ideas that start to answer these intertwined questions:

1) “If it works, will it matter?”

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The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program uses the mantra “If it works, will it matter?” This program has a mission to create transformational changes in energy, so this motto seems right at home. However, why should managers in an established institution take their job any less seriously? If you can’t describe how a change to your “business as usual” will matter, then why are you talking about it? To make a change you must first be able to visualize and articulate what that change looks like. Only then can you begin to weigh the time and financial costs of making that change. We spend endless hours describing the “what” and often forget the “why.” The next time you are considering pushing forward a new ideas, start with this mantra first to prescreen and pre-contextualize your idea for your decision makers.


2) The power of the cross-functional team

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A confounding aspect of many of the problems facing institutions is that they are not isolated.  Often, there is a complex web of interdependencies where fixing one problem may cause another. Even more insidious, is when you fix a problem only to uncover some new bottle-neck that prevents you from realizing the full benefit of your fix.  We tend to scope and fund our projects with the institutional silos they most seem to fit, even though these silos are largely arbitrary. This leaves us in a gigantic game of whack—a-mole.

The energy folks may see a myriad of options to improve performance and efficiency. The financial team may have creative funding strategies that turn costs into investments. Planners can help provide a longer term perspective to a decision that may have implications for the next 50+ years. How can the quick payback of incremental changes, help fund the longer paybacks of transformational changes?  How can you build a program to systematically address a set of common issues building internal capacity that can get better overtime? How can a demand-side improvement take the pressure of a supply-side system?  How can you group projects into a system-wide portfolio and create opportunities much larger than the component parts.

When you build a cross-functional team, everyone must think outside of their own box. Without the safety of their respective silos, everyone must learn. The team will approach problems with the power of many, varied perspectives in mind and skill-sets to leverage. The ideas that will emerge will be more resilient, more fully fleshed-out and more completely in the best interest of the institution. You’ll be able to better anticipate the questions from your decision makers and ultimately get to decisions faster.


3) “Not yet” is vastly better than “not sure.”

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Change is a challenge for any large organization.  Bureaucracies are created to mitigate risk and to compartmentalize tasks into smaller workable chunks. This creates stability and predictability for those involved, but also makes turning the ship around a very slow process.  In our work, we see many situation where just the possibility of change can cause initiatives to stall and frustration to swell.  Individual departments must react and operate within their understanding of their role in the institution. This might be: “keeping the lights on”, “saving energy”, or “being financially responsible.” Major changes make these core responsibilities more difficult to execute until a new business as usual can be established.  Major changes are typically proposed based on a compelling case for saving time, money or other resources. When a compelling case is vetted, decisions makers are doing their job. As managers we are used to lobbing for a “yes” or “no.” What we typically get is a “not sure.” The option we often forget is potentially much better: “not yet.” Here are a few examples:

Example 1:

“I have 20 buildings with potential energy conservation projects identified, but the planning department is talking about remodeling some of them…”

NOT SURE:  “…so I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with any of them until they make a decision.”
NOT YET: “They told me that 10 of the buildings are not likely affected so I’m focusing my team on those buildings first.”

Example 2:

“If we fixed that boiler we could improve its efficiency by 5%, but there is talk of a major plant overhaul…”

NOT SURE: “so we’ll keep it limping along until they can make a decision”
NOT YET: “However, we know that isn’t scheduled to happen for at least 5 more years. By then, the repairs will more than pay for themselves.”

As a decision maker, remember the cost of not making a decision. As a manager trying to lobby for a decision, remember to consider the option of “Not Yet.”