Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Enlisting Social Pressure

Sometimes, the key to creative leadership is setting up the right administrative structure and then getting out of the way.

That's what I did way back in the 1970's while still a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University. We all had research assistantships, which meant we all had to work for our stipends. Work ranged from the sublime (assisting a Nobel Prize winner with a new project) to the less sublime (making arrangements for the department Christmas party).

One of the least sublime jobs was being responsible for getting people to sign up for these tasks, and keeping track of who had signed up to do what. Believe it or not, I volunteered for that one. I soon discovered that people's first reaction to my requests was invariably "No!"

I learned that when someone believes they have the freedom to reject a request, simple persuasion is not a lot of fun. It is also not very effective. So I devised a social-influence-based administrative structure to solve that problem: I persuaded the department to give me the right to assign a task to a student if the student had no active tasks assigned and had already turned down three earlier requests of mine.

Boy did things change fast! I started to receive a much warmer welcome when I came around, and I never had to assign a task to anyone. Where my job had once been about overcoming resistance to assignments, it now was about learning the likes and dislikes of my fellow students (so I could help us both avoid having to resort to assigning tasks). The social nature of my strategy had eliminated the knot of the management problem.

I eventually graduated with a master's degree, and my life moved on. CMU keeps in touch with its alumni, so I get their magazine and occasional phone calls. Well, sometime in the 1990's, I received a commemorative book about the first 25 years of the computer science department, with remembrances of now-famous faculty from my era. Lo and behold, on page eighty-something there was mention of the beloved Lieberman Queue, the administrative structure I've described. It was still in operation after all those years, and I couldn't believe it! I guess it was a pretty good idea.

Then, last year, I ran across a research article (that only a computer scientist could love) enumerating strategies for managing volunteer assignments in large clubs. In it I found Carnegie-Mellon's Lieberman Queue cited as one of the most radical.

Of course, I'm proud to have these footnotes in the history of my illustrious alma mater. But more importantly, I want to pay my respects to all ideas like this – ideas that make complex management problems evaporate simply by changing their frames of reference. What a powerful concept!

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