“If you leave it to the last minute, it only takes a minute.”

And if one accepts that, then it’s also possible to do things in the first minute.

I came across this idea via an American friend who told me about “one minute management.” It isn’t always the right approach, but there often is a place for speed.

In some ways America is that place. I was always struck by the efficiency with which things were done in their leading universities and in fast food establishments. Speed is highly valued in the US.

One minute management not only saved managers time, it also let staff get on with their work. The alternative – “micro-management” – created “busy work,” where the theatre of endless planning, reporting, monitoring, and policing, got in the way of progress, and in the way of experts, who were trying to do actual work.

Micro-management happens for a whole raft of reasons. The primary reason, of course, is that people who love to manage often find their way into management roles.

Universities, however, do not always welcome such people. In some departments yearning for high administrative office can exclude you from consideration. Instead, the Bradman principle is often used – the player with the best match statistics is put in charge, even if they haven’t actually sought a leadership role. This approach carries some risk, so it’s best to have a mix. One needs some professional manages and some players turned manager.

From time to time organisations can benefit from appointing people who spend more time on management – let’s call them two minute managers. These people can be particularly valuable when either there is something seriously wrong that needs fixing, or when things are too comfortably right, and it’s reasonable to try a few new things and take some risks.

Some people think management is all about strategy. But ChatGPT has recently shown it can write compelling university strategic plans – research, teaching, community engagement, and equity to improve the world – add your own emphasis.

But it’s not all about strategy. It’s more about culture and embedding the plan. Managers often operate as umpires. The quality of their decisions and how they are communicated helps set the culture.

Interestingly, many of the decisions that bubble up tend to be the ones that were not made at the coal face. If it is obvious – 99 per cent of arguments in favour, 1 per cent against – then the decision doesn’t need escalating. The 50/50 decisions are sent up.

The great thing about 50/50 decisions is that you can’t really be wrong. Hence organisations, and even countries, tend to muddle through, whether or not their leaders have the wisdom of Solomon. But when 50/50 decisions are made it is important to invest in explaining the decision so that the community is not polarised.

The other type of decision that migrates upward is, of course, the unpopular decision. The one where everyone knows what logic requires but which everyone fears, because life and communities are complicated, and rationalisation is not always an answer. It is important to have managers who can skilfully communicate why hard decisions are needed.

The decisions and the way they are delivered sets the culture. Then the culture fine tunes the direction of travel every time that checking with HQ isn’t feasible. That is most of the time. Getting the direction of travel right is critical, since if it is slightly wrong, after a while the institution will be well and truly off course.

It’s worth thinking about the new directions your university is taking at this very moment and how that will affect its identity, and its culture. What is the prevailing culture and what adjustments would help people?

There will be many choices as finite resources and time are painstakingly apportioned. Hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to have input and to do some good, and the process of prioritising will bring people together – it’s worth thinking about. For at least a minute.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW SYDNEY


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