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Balancing Collaboration & Autonomy with Effective Management Practices

Here's another dichotomy to ponder: collaborative & project-driven structures that encourage innovation versus authoritative & hierarchical structures that ensure we're reliably offering the services we've agreed to provide in the manner and time-frame we've agreed to do so with the populations we support.

If you've ever heard of the Enneagram test, my personality type is #9 (Peacemaker/Mediator), which makes a lot of sense if you know me. One of those reasons is because I'm always trying to avoid conflict & mediate when possible instead. The political theory of my former life as an academic also centered on the thought of Michel Foucault, particularly with regards to his teachings on Power-knowledge. So, it's not a big surprise that I'm not especially opposed to diffusing power-structures and power-dynamics through conflict resolution and decentralization.

With that being said, I'm starting to realize that the collaborative and non-hierarchical structures in which I rest most comfortably may not always be the most effective strategic approach to manage a support team and ensure that expected services are being provided at expected levels of support.

My particular environment does a great job at collaboration. Many years before I showed up, the decision was made to re-organize based on a project management structure, which is very effective at achieving the things that require collaboration. This is especially true when collaborating with people in different units (or 'silos,' if you will), with whom the hardest part in a less collaborative or project-driven environment would be otherwise getting those same individuals together in the same room at the same time.

In this sense, whatever hierarchy or siloing we may otherwise have is less emphasized or much of a hinderance since our silos are constantly collaborating with other silos. In that sense, we are less hierarchical, and more decentralized. The irony here is that our campus IT support structure is much more centralized than many other campuses. That central structure, however, doesn't always have as clear or definitive hierarchy as what may exist on some of those other campuses with a more decentralized IT support structure.

In any case, while we may be historically great at collaboration (and likely because of this), the authoritative structures that normally govern most management practices may not always be as present. The dichotomy I'm experiencing is providing the structure to manage my team as needed while still ensuring they collaborate as well as do with each other and other teams. Another way to frame this would be 'autonomy' vs. 'bureaucracy.' Too much bureaucracy can stagnate environments, but too much autonomy may allow for too much chaos to ensue.

Intensifying the disparate persuasions featured in this dichotomy would be another element of what makes my environment wonderfully unique: the employees who staff the service desk I supervise are all also students. Even though the average age of students on my campus is much higher than other campus, thanks to the glorious diversity provided by our many non-traditional students, the employees I help to manage and, hopefully, empower for success are not yet firmly rooted in their careers like we are at the full-time staff level.

When you have experienced full-timers staffing a service desk, a more hands-off approach to management that will facilitate autonomy may be more effective, especially after they've had plenty of time to solidify an engrained routine that often exhibits the kind of reliability you'd normally facilitate through more structure. For employees without solid professional experience, it's important that we provide structure in order to facilitate the behavior and level of service we'd like to encourage.

At this point, I'm looking for ways to channel collaboration through certain opportunities when appropriate and trying to institute more structure in other ways. In this sense, it's really a bit of a 'push and pull' or 'give and take' rhythm until we stumble upon our groove. Going forward, I'd like to implement both collaborative structures and hierarchy, at least as much as needed.

I'm not sure Foucault would approve, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest he probably never managed a service desk. Of course, at the same time, the academic in me would never support disregarding the theory of any great thinkers in the interest of facilitating easily manageable organizations (or any other reason for that matter). In this sense, as in all things, the key is in the balance.