Dave Odom: How to balance predictability and imagination in administration

Administrative meeting

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Good administration provides predictability -- a clear purpose and guardrails that mark the outer limits of what is permissible -- while also empowering employees to choose a path or suggest a new trail, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

When someone asks me where I work, I reply “Duke Divinity School.” The next question is usually, “Do you teach?” If I am in a hurry, I say, “No, I’m an administrator.” This typically stops the conversation -- though a few wonder aloud why the school needs an administrator.

Administration is the work of creating orderly processes, including guidelines that structure how people complete certain tasks. When it works well, administration offers predictability: if people do something in a particular way or follow a particular rule, they can reach the desired outcome. Yet at the same time, when administration works well, it fosters in employees resourcefulness and creativity.

Unfortunately, few people think administration works well, because prescribed processes often create more work and stifle ideas for doing it better. But we can learn to administrate in a way that allows for both predictability and imagination.

One of the joys of startups is doing things the way you want. You hire the people. You create the processes. Having worked in three startups, I have noticed that the need for administration begins when the new venture bumps up against established systems and external expectations. Startups must determine when to conform to established systems -- perhaps in the case of taxes or donor support -- and how to consistently meet external expectations. This need for consistency in a few areas drives the creation of prescribed processes so that imagination can be focused on the mission and the constituency.

A hallmark of fragile organizations is their lack of helpful administrative processes. Employees, members and clients find themselves unable to depend on the organization to get paid or have high-quality services delivered on time. What should be routine administrative tasks seem to require heroic efforts.

I once interviewed to be the head of a small school. On a tour of the building, I saw the computer network servers in a flood-prone basement. The search committee declined to give me a financial statement because they were not sure of its accuracy. The mission, faculty and students were great, but the infrastructure was weak. In this case, even a few effective administrative systems would have given me more confidence in the school’s long-term future.

Big, stable organizations have processes that give the term “administrator” a bad name. An organization that has thousands of employees develops systems that involve rules about rules. In such an environment, I have found it essential to develop friendships with long-term, knowledgeable employees in critical areas layered with rules -- most often human resources and finance. I ask those friends to coach me on when and how to follow the rules.

The biggest challenge in each of the big organizations where I have worked has been keeping the purpose of the rules in mind. For example, my current institution prohibits contracting with former employees to work on projects. Practically, this means it is difficult to invite former employees to serve as speakers or writers. This rule is in place because the institution wants to avoid eliminating jobs just to save benefit costs. The intention is to protect employees, but the rule has created a new set of problems. When the reason for the process gets separated from the purpose, administration becomes rigid and self-defeating.

Most administrators begin with the goal of making a clear rule that describes the best way to accomplish a task. This makes it easy for the rule maker but difficult for the rest of us. If the purpose is clear, employees may well see several effective ways to achieve it. Administration is most helpful when it provides a clear statement of purpose and the guardrails that mark the outer limits of what is permissible -- the predictability -- while at the same time empowering employees to choose one of several paths or suggest a new trail.

This approach requires imagination to envision multiple approaches, overcome obstacles and see a broader picture. For instance, when I get stuck trying to move a project through an administrative thicket, I explain my goals and the obstacles I am facing to someone outside my system. Because that person doesn’t know all the rules, he or she is often able to help me see additional ways forward.

Imagination in administration includes:

  • Offering alternatives that accomplish goals in a new way.
  • Questioning what has been accepted as fact.
  • Sharing in a way that encourages others to imagine.
  • Being playful by tossing around wild ideas that may spark creativity.
  • Creating temporary solutions that will invite rethinking later.

For new, small or fragile organizations, imaginative administration involves discerning the time-consuming activities that, made routine, could free up energy for other tasks. For large, complex organizations, imaginative administration involves discerning the rigid processes that, approached differently, could advance progress on goals.

Some people find rules very comfortable and enjoy having clear ones to follow. Others find rules maddening and enjoy finding ways to be free of them. Imaginative administration requires both viewpoints. Perhaps we can find part of each in ourselves.