Nov 232014

A truly marvelous article titled Stop Trying to Save the World describes how “big ideas are destroying international development.” With many examples to illustrate the point, the author calls out small ‘game changing’ projects which garner accolades and fanfare when piloted in the small, but which as scaled up efforts subsequently fail – and without much fanfare.

People intent on genuine advocacy of issues will find much in this piece, which is credibly researched and presented. Are you concerned with the effects of big government, which similarly looks for big game-changing ideas but doesn’t follow through to find what are the core pressure points to hit or know when to stop? (Are you channeling for Pat Moynihan?) You’ll see the same points here. Are you concerned with the fed’s penchant for investing in small research pilots, seeing good preliminary results and then presuming it will all work on a more grand scale? (Do you believe Fred Brooks when he asserts there is No Silver Bullet to jump start jeopardized projects, or to let you bypass careful attention to detail down in the weeds of your project?) You’ll find the author of this piece a fellow traveler.

Even if on a different scale this article introduces a notion which should be pressed upon every administrator on this campus, which is the danger of broadly applying some major policy or curriculum change without first understanding what were the essential preconditions to a pilot’s earlier success. Having done something special once, in controlled settings with a spectacular professor at the helm, we presume the essence of that success to carry forward is the pilot’s title, its powerpoint slides or videos, and the course eval figures (aka popularity) of the professor. (In worse cases, we launch changes without bothering with the pilot, then just declare it a success without any dispassionate assessment of whether this takes us closer to or further away from some core scholarly objectives.)

All of which is to say, as the author of the linked article was one step short of expressing, that we’ve lost the will or capacity to do substantive measurement.

 Posted by at 9:43 am on November 23, 2014