Back in the olden days, I was one of those people whose bedtime was established by end of the Johnny Carson monologue. Carson’s opening act often included an interchange where he would lead with the line “it’s hot/cold/smoggy and the audience would respond “how hot/etc. was it?” to set up the joke. To this day, when someone makes a statement “it’s whatever”, my mind responds with with the audience’s line. “How whatever is it?”

This time of year, I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out “how bad is it”–not as a way of setting up a joke, but in trying to figure out what problems are important enough to solve “at the root” rather than just dealing with the symptoms. For example, we’ve opened a new building on campus and one of my staff members just spent about a third of last week dealing with issues have nothing to do with academic technology–she’s chasing down questions about wire molding, conduit, network connections, door locks and other stuff that clearly is not her responsibility. (I guess these things are technology related in some broad way–they all do have wires.) She gets the questions because she knows all faculty in the building and because there is no clear communication path established as to who really is responsible. When we try to figure out a way to deflect those questions so she can focus on things are clearly are her job she comes back to the relational question: “If not me, who?”.

In complex, decentralized, underfunded organizations, figuring out who actually does have the responsibility for even something (relatively) simple like coordinating all those building changes (and then documenting the process) may require hours of phone calls, meetings, memos, negotiations and communications–even staff training. Deciding whether or not to try to fix the root problem is a judgment call that we make dozens of times a day, and, more often than not, it’s easier to just spend extra time to solve the immediate problem rather than to try to dig down and fix the root. Our faculty are busy folks and they’re generally very appreciative when someone–whoever–helps them.

But I have to wonder what the long term cost is when “fixing the symptom and ignoring the cause” becomes ingrained in the organizational culture and it becomes the accepted way of doing business. In my real (non-William and Mary) life, I much prefer to deal with organizations where the simple things are simple. No matter how helpful, friendly, and courteous someone might be in helping me navigate the corporate run-around (think Cox or Comcast here), I much prefer not not to get embroiled in a mess in the beginning. I’m wondering if we’re as much a part of the problem as the solution?