On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

Fast forward a few months. We’re still early on in our work—we’ve had three meetings of the full task force so far—but it’s already becoming clear to me that it is possible to do both. To explain more, I’ll first need to explain some of how the task force was set up and some of its early work.

When setting up the task force, I felt very strongly that it needed to focus not just on things individual graduate students should do. I’ve been frustrated by how much the discussion of graduate student mental health focuses on what I think of as “self help for grad students”. Sleep, exercise, and meditation are all great, but at some point we need to address the larger systemic issues that contribute to poor mental health in graduate school. So, our task force will be focusing on changes for 1) individual graduate students, yes, but also 2) for faculty mentors and graduate programs, as well as 3) at the Rackham-level.

In our early meetings, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about particular areas the task force should focus on. At some point, I will report out on what those are and our process for deciding on them***, but, for now, I’ll just say that we’ve tried to identify areas that impact graduate student mental health and that we’re in a good (sometimes unique) position to improve. Based on our work in the first two months, we identified four focal areas. It’s possible things will shift somewhat, but we’re going to focus on these for the time being.

This means we’ve ended up with 4 focal areas and 3 levels. We’re shifting to splitting up into 3-4 working groups, because it seems like that will be more efficient than everyone trying to work on everything at once. At first, I proposed that we should have the working groups each focus on a different focal area. But then someone wondered if we should have the working groups focus on the different levels. I could see reasons why that might make sense, but wasn’t sure if it was a better plan than the original one. I had a regular weekly meeting with Heather scheduled and we asked another task force member to join us (Gina Shereda, who is also wonderful and also works at Rackham) as we thought through the options. That included going over pro and con lists that I’d come up with for the two approaches ahead of that meeting. After discussing it, we decided that there were definitely pros and cons of both, but that the original approach we had in mind—the working groups focus on different areas, not levels—made more sense. We developed a whole plan around that focus for the working groups, drawing in part on structures used in active classrooms to promote broad engagement. After the meeting, I wrote the person who had suggested the alternate option, thanked her for her suggestion, explained our thought process, and explained that we’d decided to stick with the original approach.

The next day, we had our third meeting of the full task force. The plan was that, for a substantial portion of the meeting, we would discuss the four focal areas. But, during the meeting, the discussion kept shifting to focus on different levels, and it became clear that some people were really interested in and good at thinking about particular levels. Over and over and over, at a structural level, the conversation kept moving to be focused on the different levels, not the different focal areas.

At some point, I started thinking maybe we’d made the wrong decision.

When it came time to talk more specifically about the working groups (based on the agenda I’d set before the meeting****), I was a little unsure how to handle it. I’d had a clear plan, but now it seemed like maybe it was the wrong one. In the end, I decided to say something like “The next thing for us to discuss is the working groups. As you know, I originally proposed splitting by focal areas. Someone else suggested it might work better to split by focal areas. When Heather, Gina, and I met yesterday, we considered both options pretty carefully, and settled on the original plan of working groups split by focal area. But now I’m wondering if we should reconsider that decision.” At that point, I turned to look at Heather, who had a big grin on her face and was nodding in agreement. I said to Heather, “I’m starting to think we should consider going the opposite way?” Heather said, with feeling, “All the way.”

I’m sure some of the humor and power in that moment will not come through in my retelling of it, but I’m also sure that I will think of that moment for years to come. Yes, it was good to read obsessively about change and leadership and how to run meetings and how to set good agendas. And I will always be a planner, trying to get all my ducks in a row, then adding more and more ducks and making sure they’re in a nice, neat row, too. (There’s a story related to that in terms of setting up the task force in the first place, but that is also a topic for a future post.) But at some point, it’s also important to adjust on the fly, including admitting in front of a group I am leading when something I originally proposed needs to change.

I took on the work of this task force because I really hope we can move the needle on grad student mental health. Along the way, I hope I will end up learning a lot about leading a diverse group of folks as we work on a big, challenging project. The things I’m learning along the way will definitely help in other areas and, right now, one of the biggest personal lessons has been in how to both plan ahead and be super organized while also embracing messiness and changing on the fly. As I reread this post shortly after teaching a big lecture, it’s obvious to me that this occurs in teaching, too. But, for me, it has felt different in this new role, and I’m still working on adjusting to it. When I think of that adjustment, I will forever think of Heather’s, “All the way”.

I’d love to hear from others in the comments about how they balance planning vs. adjusting on the fly, especially when in leadership roles!


* Two key books I’d read were Influencer by Grenny et al., which is on the “overdetermine success” side, and Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, which is on the “embrace vulnerability and tough, messy work” side. I learned a lot from both of them.

** Some day I will write a blog post on this topic related to ecology specifically. I’ve always found the way we teach about certain topics (density dependent vs. density independent force) frustrating.

*** The process included me taking a long walk in a cemetery as I tried to think through different options for how to structure the work, and ended in me sketching out what a final report might look like, as I thought about how we might want to eventually explain our work to the campus community.

**** I also read a lot about agendas before our first meeting! I want the meetings to be efficient uses of peoples’ time, and agendas help with that. So, while it felt kind of corporate, I prepare an agenda ahead of time, including listing the prep work people need to do before the meeting so that we can use the meeting for things that require the whole group. Brian’s old post on good meeting culture is definitely worth reading!

5 thoughts on “On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

  1. Great post, and I love the idea of the smile on Heather’s face. That kind of subtle joint leadership in a meeting is something I’ve found goes a very long way (even if it feels a bit Machiavellian if you set it up).

    Leadership toward change and new programs is hard in any organization. I think it’s harder than usual in universities, largely because people tend to be very wedded to the idea of collegial governance without necessarily understanding what that means and that it has shortcomings as well as advantages as a governance model. (A post I wrote years ago is at least tangentially related: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/04/07/the-university-as-an-organization-collegial-or-hierarchical/. That post was part of a series reflecting on a really excellent little book by Skuli Skulason, A Critique of Universities – https://amzn.to/2N7OHa0 – which isn’t concerned with leadership per se but on how universities function and how that aligns (or doesn’t) with what their goals are.

    Looks like I got led astray a bit there (ooh – squirrel!), Kudos on tackling this important issue, and on the thoughtful way you’ve approached the process of getting it done. Too often I’ve been on a committee and I’ve just presumed it will work – without any sort of metacognition or metaplanning – and you can probably guess how that works out!

  2. So glad to see steps being made to address these sort of issues. Also, by the sound of it, Heather has already provided part of the title for the book she suggested you write, “All The Way”, hahah.

  3. A really nice, evocative portrait of the reality on the ground of what service/change driving looks like as a more senior faculty member.

    Personally I find thinking about organizational dynamics and change management fun and fascinating.Very complex and high dimensional (and yet with some tractability) just like ecology.

  4. Sounds a lot like running NCEAS working group meetings! You spend ~3x as much time planning the meeting as doing the meeting, but you need to be ready to change break out groups or trajectories mid-meeting as new ideas come up.

  5. Pingback: Graduate student mental health at Michigan: some key factors & potential things to address | Dynamic Ecology

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