Saying no and the Red Queen Trap

How are you? I mean really how are you?  I’ve had so many conversations lately where people I have seen a palpable sense of relief when I have said, that actually I’m not that great.  That’s allowed them to say the same.

I cried when Nicola Sturgeon announced stricter lockdown measures here just over a week ago. Although I knew the announcement was coming, when she actually made it, I felt the most overwhelming wave of despair. I just broke down and cried and I mean really cried. I felt I couldn’t “do this anymore“. 

Those feelings have passed, I’ve come to terms with the situation, but I know lots of people are feeling the same. Tired, stressed, and in my part of the world anyway suffering from shorter daylight hours. The seasonal change to winter is even more acute this year. There might even be a hibernation analogy here. We are being forced to lock down, but we can’t sleep, we can’t properly rejuvenate ready for spring – we have to keep going. Putting Christmas light up early is just another distraction from reality. It’s going to be even darker when we have to take them down.

This image was doing the rounds last week on twitter. Where I am on the scale fluctuates wildly, but I’ve not been in that green zone for a sustained period for a while. 

A lot of that is down to my choices. I choose to be self employed so I have to live with an element of risk around paid work.  But that risk has seemed heightened lately.  I’m lucky in that I have another outlet that keeps me sane. It has its stresses too, but it has been the lifeline I’ve needed to. I know I have retreated from much of my professional network over the past months. Some days I just don’t have the energy for twitter, and when I do my posts are more irreverent.

I also have a lot of guilt too. I feel guilty when I hear from colleagues who seem to still be working 15 hour days; who don’t manage to get outside some days as by the time they’ve finished work  it’s dark, wet and cold.  Quite often I don’t do 15 hours of paid work a week! Now that’s a whole other worry for me and not for here. Many of them are spending more time checking their teams are OK  – perhaps even using that table above. That’s getting harder now too when everyone is still working from home. It’s really hard to get “out of the office” with people.  Work piles up – universities are still ploughing on with “business as normal”. And you can’t afford to say no to anything.

Last week as I was contemplating on a few conversations I had been having, Kate Bowles share this post The Red Queen Trap,  by Teodor Mitew.   It’s a really insightful piece about organisational chance, and how organisations adapt  (or don’t)  to change.  The piece proposes that the more hierarchal an organisations the harder it is for it to adapt to any changes in context.  As the Red Queen explained to Alice,  “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”  Remind you of anywhere you know?

It seems to me that over the past 9 months that’s exactly what HE (and in fact the whole education system ) has been doing  – running to stand still.  And doing that has used up a huge amount of energy. I wonder if anyone will do some kind of cost benefit analysis of the time staff have spend in online meetings with productivity (whatever that actually might mean in an educational context)?  I suspect there might not be a direct correlation. 
Anyway as the post so elegantly explains this is where the Red Queen paradox comes into play again:


In the absence of surplus  energy and provided there is no energy transfer from the outside, it must somehow free up energy from within its internal state in order to adapt.  The question is, which internal elements should be sacrificed to free  up that energy? This is where the Red Queen Trap’s simple elegance is  fully revealed.
Essentially, there are two options – a seductively easy one and an  unthinkable one. The seductively easy option is to sacrifice the  periphery, or elements of it, and preserve the decision-making center.  It is an easy choice for the center to make because it naturally sees  itself as the key element of the system and this choice allows it to  remain intact. It is a seductive choice because the center suddenly  finds itself with a flush of spare energy which it can use to maintain  the pseudo-equilibrium and often even to grow itself at the cost of the  periphery. Alas, the elegance of the trap is in the fact that the seductively easy option removes the center even further from external conditions; less  periphery equals less opportunities to observe and react quickly to  external reality, thereby further magnifying the initial conditions that  brought the system to this state in the first place. By making that  choice the center sinks further into the trap.
By contrast, the unthinkable option is to sacrifice the center and preserve the periphery, thereby flattening the internal structure of the system into a less hierarchical form. It is an unthinkable option for the center to make because, as pointed out above, it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice forces it to sacrifice itself. It is also unthinkable because it involves a thorough rethinking of the internal structure of the system, which until that moment was organized entirely around vertically integrated decision making, with little to no autonomy in the periphery. The centre must not only sacrifice some of itself, but also reorganize the periphery in such a way so that it can now perform those functions in place of the center. This would allow the system to free itself from the trap”

The “traditional” curriculum has been tweaked not changed, face to face is still the holy grail for delivery. The economic realities of maintaining almost empty physical spaces is taking its toll. So the apparent logical solution is to cut at the periphery – get rid of staff, keep the centre safe until everything is “normal” again. Don’t stop to really engage with the realities of our context, and leave the staff (who are left), those who are actually keeping things going even more stressed out with endless meetings, developing new strategies to delivery ambitions from a defunct reality, and no time to breathe and think. No meetings/ email Fridays sound great in principle but the reality is that they just give you time to catch up on the rest of the emails that have piled up during the week.

Why are we trying to do another “normal” semsester when actually we all know it’s not going to be “normal”? Why can’t we take time to spend a couple of months really engaging with digital capabilities and our wider context? To learn and share from the changes that have been made? To help us think about how we are going to be able to cope with the mental health pandemic that is going to hit us next year. That might actually let everyone escape the looking glass. But hey, what do I know.

And that’s another worry of mine. Because I’m not in “the belly of the beast” so to speak, am I becoming irrelevant as I haven’t worked in a university through that covid/lockdown experience? I don’t really understand what it has been and continues to be like.

In a number of keynotes this year I have argued for the need to give time to rethink what and how universities are doing in terms of curriculum delivery, and completely rethink at the very least the way first year is delivered. Of course, no-one is really going to listen to me, but being on the outside I can perhaps see more clearly the whole system and everyone everyone caught up in it running to standstill. . .

4 thoughts on “Saying no and the Red Queen Trap

  1. I don’t suppose that was an easy one to write or post, Sheila. Thank you for keeping going and continuing to share your thoughts.

    I thought you might like this tune that I came across recently – Turn Off the News and Build a Garden by Lukas Nelson ( son of Willie Nelson). Or paint a picture. It seems particularly sound advice if you wanna keep sane in these times.

  2. I enjoyed reading this latest post, Sheila. It was both insightful and very recognisable: the ‘running to stand still’ analogy particularly so. Being part of the Nursing team that delivers our courses over 3 ‘full-speed’ trimesters, we have been denied even an opportunity to draw breath whilst reimagining and reconfiguring the delivery of our courses. On a positive note though, I have to say the university has been very supportive and pragmatic during this period. Colleagues in my own and departments across the university have ‘stepped up’ to the challenges and made them a little more bearable.

    1. Thanks Tom, and glad to hear that you are all surviving just now and, I know it’s not been an easy time for anyone. Hopefully you’ll get a bit of a break over Christmas, maybe even stop running for a bit!!

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