On being done with a project

Back in 2012, I began in earnest on a project that reached its last milestone on March 30, 2018. My first publication of a co-authored paper in an academic journal. You can find it here: https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/10.1287/orsc.2017.1176

There are many other academics into their second year who have more publications than me. It can be very difficult to get a job at one of our top tier schools without one more more publications in a top-tier publications. Due to the nature of my work, I imagine I will be lucky to have a dozen opportunities to engage in a project like this in my career. 

Data collection took about 14 months, data analysis took years, we (Linda Argote, Brandy Aven, and myself) wrote for months even before submission, and there were of course the slow but thorough series of peer reviews we received. We collected 109 groups for this paper. Each session was 2 hours and required about a half hour on either side to setup. I probably had to cancel 20-25 sessions due to no shows. In aggregate, we probably easily used 450 hours of lab time to collect the data for this study. I was there for most, but not all of it (I had some wonderful RAs). The time works out to something like an hour a day, every day, throughout the data collection period.

I wasn't always happy about being the lab, the frustrations of late or no-show participants, or technical problems. But, I thought we were onto something, and it's wonderful to get validation from others that we were.

The force that binds us together

If nothing else has caused an increase in the discussion of the role of leadership in pop culture (and a disheartening number of think pieces on the dangers of feminism), it would probably be Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There will be fairly major spoilers in this essay.

As soon as the film was over, there were discussions in the car (I had forced my entire immediate family of 11 people to go with me) about our thoughts on some of the major events in the film. I had recently been thinking about project advocacy and leadership in my Project Management course and was seriously considering discussing some of the issues with both of these characteristics in the film. I’ve had a number of conversations with my family and other organizational scholars and though not everyone agrees with the perspective I’m sharing here, I hope it will at least make for an interesting read.

The film begins with a main character of Poe Dameron continuing to demonstrate his incredible prowess as an X-wing pilot but his lack of perspective as a commander in over-ruling a direct order from General Leia Organa in continuing with an attack on a large vessel called a dreadnaught. In this battle, the majority of the Resistance’s fighters and all of their bombers are destroyed. The poor outcomes in terms of ship loss leads Leia to demote Poe as a signal of her displeasure in his ability to follow orders. Chaos ensues after an attack on the fleet that leaves Leia out of commission and Admiral Holdo in charge of the Resistance fleet.

Issue 1: Admiral Holdo develops a plan for the Resistance to deal with the issue they face that is not shared with the majority of the crew, most importantly Poe.

Many fan theories argue that the majority of the bad things that happen in the film are due to this decision by Admiral Holdo. Poe approaches her to find out what is going on and she responds by stating that Poe is dangerous. There is also an implication in this conversation that due to Poe’s demotion, Leia would be in agreement that Poe did not deserve to be in on the decision. If Holdo had told Poe her plan, it is certainly possible that he would have agreed with her. It is also less likely that Poe would have mounted a mutiny later in the film. Regardless of how you feel about these possible outcomes, however, no one is happy with the way things turn out in the end. The outcomes are universally bad for the Resistance and it is not really any one person’s fault.

One thing that is left to the audience to decide in the film is what Admiral Holdo’s plan is and why she is not sharing her plan with anyone. On an initial viewing, the second part seems obvious: there could be a spy on board relaying messages about the location of the fleet. Therefore, if information was shared pre-maturely about their impending actions, then the spy could have time to share this message with the First Order who would have time to respond. This line of reasoning is unsatisfying by the end of the film as there is no spy. Finn and Rose determine in a very brief conversation that the First Order is probably tracking them with a new piece of technology that (bizarrely) can only monitor one ship at a time. They bring this information to Finn who decides not to share it with Holdo. This decision (which seems fairly reasonable in the information conditions in the film) leads to some pretty bad outcomes later on. Finn and Rose bring a hacker back to the fleet that ends up causing the death of the majority of the Resistance fighters. There were alternative ideas that could have been discussed if this finding where shared with Admiral Holdo and the rest of the Resistance. They could have, for example, decided to abandon the lead ship (which was already part of Holdo’s plan) board the remaining support ships and jump away. The First Order would not be able to track the other ships if they were still tracking the lead ship or the lead ship could jump to a different location entirely, leading the First Order away. The lack of openness on Poe’s side can be clearly seen as a detriment to the decision-making ability of Holdo. She was left to wonder how they were being tracked and made best guesses at good courses of action due to this.

However, Holdo is not blameless in this situation. There are a few reasons that she ended up being unsuccessful. I think can be useful to explore these through the lens of social networks, leadership, and advocacy.

Issue 2: Holdo failed to achieve advocacy for her plan from important players in the Resistance.

Many of the top members of the Resistance have been killed toward the beginning of the film. Admiral Holdo is a respected member of the Resistance and has demonstrated herself in at least a few important engagements—Poe alludes to this on hearing that she was next in the chain of command. There is therefore some level of hesitance when faced with this new leader as, though she is well respected, she is not personally known to our heroes. Holdo though providing some level of inspiration in her first speech, primarily states that the situation is under control. Though this appears sufficient for many of the crew, this does not ring as inspirational for others. Poe is unsatisfied as described earlier and Rose has caught a number of people attempting to escape (including Finn). Finn has some justification for wanting to escape (finding Rey) but others seem to feel strongly enough that the Resistance is doomed (which they may have felt whether or not Holdo showed stronger inspiration) that they want to desert.

We know from research on leadership that one of the strongest, most universally positive forms of leadership that we can engage in is called Transformational Leadership. This leadership style uses inspiration to motivate individuals toward their jobs. Trying to demonstrate that individuals are important, their jobs are vital, and that they are part of something bigger. I think that Admiral Holdo is actually trying to engage in transformational leadership but runs into some problems. First, there are no tasks besides survival. This isn’t active, isn’t sexy, and for many of the individuals on the ship, it goes against their active, guerrilla tactics from the past. Second, she is unwilling to sugar-coat that the flyboys and other fighters are not as important now as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily bad (she is being honest) but it isn’t satisfying to an influential population on the ship.

I think that Admiral Holdo should have realized that she needed advocates for her and her plans from some of these populations within the crew. When Poe came to her, she was engaging with him as an individual, ensuring that he realized that she owed him nothing. She was informing those that needed to know what the plan was but not letting the details slip farther than she should grasp. Poe wanted to subvert his position and assert himself where his rank and role dictated that he didn’t belong. I have heard arguments that Holdo’s response in this conversation is gendered in that this interaction where a male subordinate feels entitled to information they don’t deserve and are more willing to ask for it if their superior is a woman. I think that this is a plausible reason for Holdo’s dismissive treatment of Poe (he’s just another hot shot who needs to be knocked down a peg), but there is very little evidence that the Star Wars Universe has the same prescribed gender stereotypes that we do on Earth. Therefore, I think that this reading of the situation is partially hampered.

A bigger issue was that Holdo was interacting with Poe as a person in that situation as opposed to recognizing his influential position within the social network of the Resistance. Holdo was not necessarily in a position to see how Poe could be a great advocate for or against her. When she treated him in the way that he deserved to be treated to keep the hierarchy of the Resistance in place, she unfortunately created a new faction within the Resistance that eventually attempted a coup. Holdo does not appear to have recognized the importance of finding others to advocate and support her decisions. In typical times, her legitimate power would be enough to lead to unquestioning loyalty. But she was working with individuals who only respected her based on her position of authority (which some didn’t see as legitimate) and her prior actions (which did not seem to align with the response she was mounting). Holdo needed additional supporters to commit to her until the plan was finally enacted. The time periods in the film are fairly compressed so she only needed something like 36 hours so she may not have seen the value in convincing others that she deserved her legitimate authority. In a perfect world, she shouldn’t have had to find others to advocate for her. But this was a desperate situation and though her management style worked for some, it led, in part, to bad outcomes for everyone.

Poe also felt legitimate in his actions but failed to recognize the risks and dangers inherent in this strategy and felt unwilling to support Holdo for fear that she would not understand and would prevent the knowledge of the tracking technology from being put into active consideration in their response. This perspective from Poe is ludicrous in that he believes that Holdo must want them all to die in some sort of last stand that would then win them supporters in the rest of the galaxy. Something akin to a False-flag where an utterly destroyed Resistance is re-birthed after this crushing defeat. This is ridiculous on its face. Poe’s actions actually lead to the utter destruction and necessary re-birth of the Resistance though that was obvious not his intention. Though both primary parties to blame here (Poe and Holdo) made some bad decisions, they were both also seeing the problem space in a different way. Poe saw the loss of the flagship as inconceivable whereas Holdo saw it as unavoidable. Less posturing and less brashness on the part of Poe would have led to different outcomes. The film attempts to demonstrate that Poe has learned this personal fault later in the film when they are facing down the siege cannon. Unfortunately, this scene was not parallel enough to work for me. Destroying the siege cannon may be the only way to ensure that the remaining Resistance fighters can survive until health arrives therefore a sacrifice here seems much more reasonable than in the initial fights against the dreadnaught.

My Own File Drawer - Gym Sweat

The "file drawer effect" is a well-known issue within the social (and I'm sure other) sciences where null or minor effects aren't published. In my own case, I've completed a number of fairly small projects in classes or pre-tests that I didn't pursue further. I'd like to start a semi-regular series here where I talk about some of those projects. Many of these were personally formative in my experience but may not be all that interesting in and of themselves.

The first project I'd like to write about was completed as part of Sara Kiesler's Qualitative Methods class at CMU when I was a PhD student there. We were tasked with doing some sort of comparative analysis focusing on the situation and how it influenced the groups and individuals that were part of that situation. I had recently begun to get back into the habit of exercising so I had been going to the on-campus gym at CMU. As part of that effort, a friend of mine's boyfriend taught me how to lift weights. Though I had been around weights before, we spend about 4 hours with him showing me the primary exercises that each machine was for. At the time, CMU had 2 primary gyms. The University Center (UC) gym and Skibo gym. Though both had aerobic and weight lifting equipment, the UC gym had more aerobic equipment by far and the Skibo gym had more weights and variety of weights by far.

As an undergrad at CMU, I knew about the Skibo gym but also knew that it was mostly for/used by the student athletes on campus. I rarely walked near that gym (whereas I was in the UC all the them) so when I thought about the 'gym' I always thought about the UC gym as opposed to Skibo. But, the weights lesson was taught at Skibo, due to the presence of the weights I wanted to learn about there, and I started going to that gym in addition to the UC. The experience of attending both of these gyms highlighted a few interesting comparisons that I then decided to investigate. I will now quote (lightly edited) from the report I submitted as part of that class:

"The social values and norms of a location can be intriguingly strong, reinforced by both the design of a facility as well its users. I compared two different gym facilities at Carnegie Mellon, the Skibo gym and the University Center (UC) gym. These facilities, though only a few hundred yards from one another are very different in both their design and how they are used. Skibo, frequented mostly by men, has the most comprehensive weight training facilities on campus while the UC has dozens of cardio machines and newer weight lifting machines (though a smaller number of them). These two locations have surprisingly developed their own unique “atmospheres” and sets of social norms that dictate how people use these facilities. The extent of these atmospheres or norms even drives some people to the other facilities if it begins to bother them.

When I entered Skibo gym the facility I walked past two men who were toward the end of their work out, one struggling to do the last few push-ups of the day while he was being encouraged by his friend. The expansive, low ceilinged room was filled with machines and men. Weight training machines line most of the walls, almost all facing toward the center of the room where a huge assortment of barbells sit on a low rack along the central corridor of the room. The men are mostly silent, focused on their machines until they finish their “reps” and proceed to walk around slowly, examining themselves in the mirrors and watching the other trainers as they work. This pattern of lifting and then resting was described by an informant as necessary to get a proper workout, but the wandering glares were described by a female informant as uncomfortable, so much so that she no longer goes to Skibo gym. When asked about this incident, a male informant was surprised saying, “Girls may think we’re looking at them but we’re looking at everyone else too.”

This pattern of social staring was nonexistent at the University Center gym. There were several design and social factors that help explain this. The UC gym appears much more cluttered than the Skibo gym. Large, bulky machines sit in the middle of the room preventing you from looking across the expanse as you can at Skibo. The rooms most notable feature are the 11 cardio machines facing out of the second story window. These machines as well as many of the weight machines face away from the room, face walls, or are very close to other machines. Just standing in the room it doesn’t feel that all eyes are on you as it sometimes does at Skibo. In fact, I saw very little eye contact made between individuals that were not working out together in the UC gym. Many individuals kept to themselves watching television on their treadmills or on their iPads. Skibo seems to foster more of other kinds of social interactions as well. Individuals would ask to make sure that others were done with machines before they began using them where I saw none of this in the University Center. The nature of exercises at Skibo sometimes requires people to have spotters or other people to help do an exercise. In Skibo, it is not uncommon to see people spot each other or trade off use of a machine if it is busy in the room. In the UC, individuals wait in line for others to finish, generally unspeaking. That isn’t to say that there are no social interactions at the UC. I saw similar numbers of groups working out together at both locations.

Though these differences are stark, my interviews explained a lot of the reasons for some of these differences. Individuals that used Skibo gym generally indicated that they used those facilities due to the seriousness of their workouts. Informant 1, though at Skibo for the first time, said that he had come because the weights in the UC were not large enough to accommodate his workout. Informant 8 echoed these thoughts indicating that though the weights in the UC are useful for some exercises, he prefers the weights in Skibo. The overall opinion of those that preferred and used Skibo more was that its facilities were far superior to the UC but they based this solely on the weights and equipment, though several mentioned that the UC had better hours. Informant 6 mentioned that he preferred some of the other non-exercise facilities in the UC such as the sauna. Informant 5 indicated that the UC was a better fit because there were more machines and Informant 4 said that she wasn’t ready for the kind of equipment in Skibo. I feel that a large reason for this distinction between valuing facilities stems from the more experienced and more serious individuals who tend to frequent Skibo. If individuals are not serious exercisers, they may just use the UC because it is more user friendly or visible.

In general, Skibo is mostly male and fosters a certain atmosphere of men that want to compete against one another and are serious about getting fit. There are fewer people that use the gym and many of my informants kept regular schedules such that they recognized and knew many of the other people that use Skibo gym. The equipment at the UC gym does not support the kind of intense weight training that these individuals want so they generally avoid using it. On the other hand, the UC gym has video instructions on using the machines and offers smaller dumbbells. These kinds of elements attract those that may not be as serious about working out as those at Skibo or who may be a little intimidated by exercise equipment or other trainers. The combination of many of these elements partially leads to some of the differences I observed at these two gym facilities. The UC, due to the more individual nature of cardio exercise, the population that frequents this location, and the design of the facility does not encourage the same kinds of social interactions I saw at Skibo."

One last difference I didn't include in my original report was the prevalence of equipment cleaning materials and signage in the two locations. Whereas the UC gym heavily emphasized the importance of wiping down machines and equipment with eye-level signs, very few of these signs were present in the Skibo gym. The UC gym also had 3 locations to get wipes wheras the Skibo gym only had 1 location with paper towels and a spray bottle neither of which were always refilled on my visits. When I inquired to my informants about why the were was less emphasis on cleaning equipment at Skibo, I was told by that lifting weights leads to much less sweating than aerobics. Thus, if wiping down equipment is mostly to remove sweat, then it seems unnecessary if there is no sweating. Also, some Skibo gym regulars wore lifting gloves. This difference was interesting but didn't quite fit within the larger narrative so I left it out for simplicity.