Periodically we run across, in various fields from religion to education, a principle from organizational psychology that while often rendered in slightly different form states, “When everybody is in charge, no one is in charge.” Since we can find no attribution or source, we have dubbed it the Law of Organizational Entropy.
What does such a fancy name as the Law of Organizational Entropy mean? In simple terms, the law is a call for leadership—in any group somebody must be in charge. That person might be a facilitator or CFO, an alpha or beta, but someone has to take the ultimate responsibility for the group, running it and its actions. While admittedly some groups seem to run themselves, we’ve never seen a team achieve great and lasting success without a field leader, a coach, a captain, or such.
Why? Without a central focus, a quarterback, each of the eleven members of a football team could be running a different play. The strength of a team is its unity of purpose in striving to reach its goal. The opposite effect is entropy, a gradual decline into disorder. Organizations should be known for their accomplishments, not their chaos.
Example #1: Group Work
With the advent of active learning in the 1990s, group work became a predominant sight in the P-20 classroom. Instructors broke the class into small groups, assigning them the same or different projects, turning them loose, and periodically checking up on the various groups. In theory, collaboration works well. In books such as our Introduction to Applied Creative Thinking (2012), we have cited studies that show ideational levels can increase up to 600-700% in such groups. Unfortunately, just having a lot of good ideas is rarely enough. The ideas chosen by a group must be well thought out and eventually applied to attain a sought goal. The proof of a good idea is in the product and what the product itself accomplishes.
The main problem with groups, though, is inequity. Not everybody contributes the same amount. Like Puritan “lie-a-beds,” some group members lurk on the fringe, offering little, while alphas, usually driven by a desire to excel, perform the bulk of the work. Haven’t you ever closely observed group work in your classes and noticed how the alphas and others shake out? To combat this deleterious effect, we, as faculty developers, have tried to stress the importance of two principles:
- Every person in the group should be assigned a distinct job. One functions as facilitator, another acts as scribe, one serves as the reporter to the class, etc.
- When the group work is over, each member of the group receives an evaluation and rates each other member’s participation. A set of three or four questions is asked, and one of those questions always deals with an assessment of each member’s assigned duty.
Specific Assignments for Faculty Innovators
Wea culpa. When we created our system of Faculty Innovators (FIs), we made the very mistake we just described in poorly run group work.
To review, Faculty Innovators is our program in which we select the very best faculty, train them in various subjects (e.g., facilitating meetings, classroom observations, help), and send them back to their individual colleges and departments to provide faculty development. A year and a half into our FI program, we realized that we had done a good job with the teaching and sending back part, but when it came to the FI organization itself, we had struck out. Periodically, we hold FI meetings and retreats (we call them “progresses”). We started by having each member report on his/her activities since the past meeting, but the FIs did little to run the organization. That task fell on the four-person FI Executive Committee, but as the FIs became more and more successful, continually adding programs and new members, we found the Executive Committee could not — and should not — handle all the old and new tasks.
Rather than having the FIs devolve into chaos or entropy because of overload, we adopted a plan similar to the one we used to run group work in the classroom. Each FI would henceforth be placed on a group or subcommittee. To start, we devised four committees (plus the Executive Committee):
- Awards: This committee’s charge was to establish a series of awards for campus instructors, devise the rubrics and methodology for the awards, and even search for funding sources.
- DEEP: This committee provided new courses and mentors for our online professional development system, Developing Excellence in Eastern’s Professors.
- Outreach: This committee was in charge of publicity—creating notices for all our Teaching & Learning Innovations Series as well as our Dialogues and Professional Learning Communities. They also produced our bi-weekly tip series, “FYI from Your FI.”
- Events: This committee developed all the events in the aforementioned series.
Each committee meets outside the FI regular meetings and progresses as often as the members deem necessary to get the job done. Every FI on every committee has an individual assignment.
And the best news? So far no chaos or entropy.
Charlie Sweet is currently Co-Director of the Teaching & Learning Center (2007+) at Eastern Kentucky University. Before going over to the dark side of administration, for 37 years he taught American Lit and Creative Writing in EKU’s Department of English & Theatre, where he also served as chair (2003-2006). Collabo-writing with Hal Blythe, he has published well over 1000 items, including 15 books; of his 11 books with New Forums. Meet Charlie.