Short-term mindsets drain people of creativity and motivation. They make longer-term strategic visions fade into the background.
Drawing on recent work, Paul Gentle examines the shift needed to release people from the tyranny of to do lists and break free of a short-term mindset.
Last year, I ran an intensive workshop with a group of razor-sharp scientists in one of Asia’s most prestigious universities. They had been identified by their Dean as a new generation of challengers: the ones who question the status quo and make change happen.
None of them really had time for the two days they’d needed to set aside to work with me. Everyone was busy finalising individual grant applications for next year’s research funding.
Within twenty minutes of getting started though, a discernibly constructive tone had set in. Colleagues were discussing what was working best in their faculty, and what needed fixing. Another hour later, and it was clear that the points where action was required were things they could do something about themselves. Over the remaining workshop time, this group of 15 academics led three sequences of conversations with their peers in professional services, with members of their senior management team and with the Dean. They experimented with different approaches and got better at each attempt.
People arrive with a list of things to do as long as their arm, and if they’re lucky they leave without having too much added to it.”
What struck me most powerfully was how those taking part never have this kind of interaction.
‘This has really got me thinking,’ said one associate professor. But what did he mean by this?
Putting energy into connecting with colleagues is just not what happens in regular faculty meetings. The normal pattern is stuffed with personal agendas, power politics and nobody really listening. It’s also dominated by short-term thinking. People arrive with a list of things to do as long as their arm, and if they’re lucky they leave without having too much added to it.
What we did over those two days struck colleagues as being very different; a glimpse into a world of deep engagement and meaningful connections. There was a wonderful question generated by the end of the workshop which suggests understanding of colleagues’ potential agency for change:
‘How can we harness our willingness to collaborate so that we change our ineffective meetings?’
This was a telling exercise. It reminded me of the many occasions when I’ve asked groups of senior university leaders to think about how agendas are organised in their executive meetings.
How much time do they spend on operational issues, as opposed to strategic ones?
When do they look externally rather than internally?
People are often shocked when they realise how much time they give to internal operational issues, most of which are short-term. They are swamped by matters which often seem too urgent to ignore. There just isn’t the time and space for anything more reflective or future-focused.
As everyone knows, all that long-term stuff is what awaydays are for. And what happens on awaydays? Some great ideas can be generated, but as soon as the day’s over, familiar short-term reactions start all over again.
Another institution has engaged 70 students and staff in conversations about their narrative of teaching excellence, as an investment in thinking about future rounds of TEF submissions.”
This doesn’t have to be how it is. Last month alone I worked in two very different institutions back home, both committed in their own way to carving out time and space for long-term thinking.
In one case, this means thousands of hours of staff and student time spent on building a vision for the university in seven years’ time.
Another institution has engaged 70 students and staff in conversations about their narrative of teaching excellence, as an investment in thinking about future rounds of TEF submissions.
When we make time for thinking strategically and creatively, magic happens. There is a sense of flow and enjoyment in the room.
This shouldn’t be confined to one-offs like awaydays. We can design it into all our conversations. The short-term issues won’t go away, though we may look at them differently. They won’t loom as large, and the tyranny of that to-do list may just begin to dwindle.