What Panic Buying Teaches us About Timetabling
What Panic Buying Teaches Us About Timetabling: The Analogy of Teaching Space Supply and Demand
University timetables and the management of teaching space are often beset by problems caused by the over-inflation of demand. While many of these problems can be alleviated by improvements to data quality, process adhesion and policy management, the particular issue of space or activity hoarding can remain impervious to solutions, and will often only become visible once the timetable is in its scheduling phase, rather than in the planning phase when interventions can be more easily managed. Indeed, the over-inflation of demand may remain hidden until it surfaces as ‘booked but not used’ activity in space utilisation surveys, prompting the circular debates between Estates teams, Timetabling staff and Academic Departments as to realistic levels of teaching space requirements. While the over-inflation of demand is not a deliberate attempt to undermine or sabotage the central timetabling or space management processes, it creates negative outcomes for all stakeholders, namely:
The Timetabling team struggle to accommodate all activity within policy constraints and room availability;
Academic staff may find that their activity has to be allocated to a less than ideal space or time slot;
Space Managers will have difficulty in effectively planning for, or modelling, future demand if there is implicit knowledge that timetable data is inaccurate or inflated;
Students may lose the ability to access the promised level of choice on their timetable or must deal with a fragmented timetable which affects their ability to participate in extra-curricular activity.
During the panic buying phenomenon which the UK experienced during Spring 2020, we noticed several parallels between the public’s approach to shopping for essential provisions and the approaches to teaching space availability seen in Higher Education during the annual timetabling process. This paper will examine how an exaggeration of demand beyond rational needs , when coupled with a perception of scarcity of resource, can lead to irrational behaviour and mutually reinforcing vicious circles, which if left completely unchecked, will eventually cause a total breakdown of the resource management system. We have long advocated a detailed understanding of constraints and the mathematical logic behind their impact on the timetable (what might be termed following the science). In this paper, we follow more the social science and look at issues which span psychology and behavioural economics.
The Scarcity Mindset
The problem of resource scarcity, symptomatically, forms as nothing more than a sense of a shortage, or a perceived extreme pressure on a particular resource. In the case of teaching space, this may be the real or perceived inability to access a certain type or size of space at a preferred day or time. The reasons for this inability will usually be perfectly logical and therefore easily explained, however, it is often not the logical response which is formed, but a more primitive response based on the triggering of visceral fears . When left unchallenged, this can then develop into a more damaging mindset with a more wide-ranging and longer-term impact.
The result can take a similar form to the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which a shared resource system is undermined by individuals acting independently according to their own self-interest, their behaviour being contrary to the common good of all users of the resource by causing the rapid and unnecessary depletion of the shared resource.
The scarcity mindset is prone to seeing evidence of scarcity behind the natural logical working of constraints. However, if the logical response  taps into visceral fears about one’s ability to do one’s job, a negative feedback loop can emerge. In this scenario, which may be exacerbated by issues of personal motivation (which are usually very high in academic, knowledge working and professional service contexts), the signals of scarcity are interpreted as barriers to being able to do the job to a suitably high standard or with the appropriate level of professional autonomy. This in turn may be exacerbated by the perception that management does not help and that the bureaucracy only “gets in the way”. In this context, a reasonable response is to protect the resource which is needed and again we have the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Moreover, if this behaviour is seen to be normal, others are behaving similarly, the negative loop is reinforcing the behaviour at every turn.
In the case of timetabling, there may be a belief that the allocation of a less than ideal timeslot or resource will lead to poor student feedback, with consequent implications for job security or future opportunity. The resulting anxieties about being inhibited from doing the job professionally prevents the exploration of viable alternatives to address the problem which, let’s remember , is frequently one of mathematical constraints not actual resource scarcity. This can then lead to behaviours within the system constraints which are amplified and negatively reinforcing.
In response to these behaviours, any actions which address the problem must avoid exacerbating the initial fears and anxieties which created it.
Behaviours and Responses to Scarcity
The behavioural economics of resource management rely on the effectiveness of moral duty, with people ‘doing the right thing’ where command measures such as rationing are not in place. As the UK’s response to panic buying has shown, introducing a perception of scarcity by showing other people engaging in problematic behaviours is an ineffective way of changing behaviours, and instead only manages to worsen the fears and anxieties over supply chains for food and essential provisions.
In the case of timetabling requests, a perception of scarcity around the institution will often not lead to a rational approach to space allocation, but instead trigger three actions which intensify any issues:
Staff will request more activity than is actually necessary, in the hope that this increases the chances of being allocated a preferential room(s) for at least some of their needs;
A level of time contingency is introduced into activity, in the expectation that by increasing the constraints on an activity, it will be dealt with earlier by schedulers and therefore receive a better allocation;
The retention of what has historically been allocated on a ‘just in case’ basis, rather than releasing for the benefit of others even when it is generally understood that the allocation is no longer required. This is known as the “endowment effect” , in which individuals assign a higher value to objects they possess or hold over those they do not. Thus departmental control of a meeting space or classroom is more highly valued than the intangible benefit of being guaranteed a fair slice of a shared pool resource.
Ultimately, the three actions above can only lead to further problems in the relationship between supply and demand, creating timetable congestion that will prove difficult to unlock. Command and control behaviours such as space charging or holding more space utilisation surveys to highlight ‘booked but not used’ activities will be ineffective in freeing up supply and alleviating the congestion, as they will not move the institution out of its mutually reinforcing loop due to the lack of confidence in the system response.
The Mutually Reinforcing Loop: How “Panic Buying” Leads to System Breakdown
In the diagram below, we have already seen how the scarcity mindset and catastrophising creates the first negative reinforcing loop and leads to panic-buying behaviours. At this point, much depends on how the system responds. If there is a delay in the response, if the response points to tangible evidence of scarcity, or the response fails to address the underlying concerns whether rational or not (as can often be the case with the interpretation of space utilisation surveys where the data are valid but appear as a “tin eared” response to legitimate staff concerns about teaching space pressures), then an inadequate system response serves only to amplify the panic-buying behaviours. We are now left with a vicious circle and spiralling problems which will lead to the eventual system breakdown. More likely is that these behaviours will encourage a mutual escalation of misperceptions in both camps – panic-buying behaviours are met with more ‘command economy’ responses and policing actions from management to regulate demand.
To drive a positive solution and escape the reinforcing loop we will need a correcting process to shift the loop from negative to positive behaviours and to stabilise the system. This will need to begin with an appropriate level of system response.
The System Response: Devising Solutions
‘The capability of an organisation lies in its demonstrated and potential ability to accomplish against the opposition of circumstance or competition whatever it sets out to do’. The ideal system response will reinforce trust and confidence in the system and support the correct behaviours, thereby weakening the negative reinforcement loop and allowing the system to stabilise. This response will ensure that none of the original issues are able to manifest and that the adequacy of resources and supply lines is understood. The system breakdown does not then occur but to be genuinely effective the scarcity mindset must also be tackled at source.
In the case of timetabling and space management, the ideal solution needs to allow the system to retain its baseline of integrity by a transparent fair process and participation by consent. There is a need to avoid introducing harsher ‘command economy’ style measures which often erode confidence in the ability of the system to understand and manage the problem, such as utilisation surveys or the rationing of space allocations. We see four key steps on the path to reaching an ideal solution:
The availability of accurate and up to date information or data is paramount to providing a clear description of the scale of the problem. The institution needs to form a clear unambiguous understanding of its needs and consequently the capacity required. By setting out the true picture of demand and supply it is possible to understand whether the pressures on space are real and what measures may exist for alleviating those pressures.
Application of Logic
Only by engaging with the problem in a rigorous manner, with evidence-based policies and establishing a rational hierarchy of constraints, will a route through to a solution become available. Moving from irrational responses to a rational set of solutions is not easy and, although required, logic is necessary but not sufficient condition for change. It is important to start by examining the data. Our paper ‘Capacity planning for teaching space’ explains in greater detail the paradox of appearing to have too much and too little space simultaneously.
The ability to deliver a message with calmness and to exude a natural authority, supported by the application of data and logic, will avoid triggering visceral and negative reactions and reduce the threat of panic. It is critical for people to engage with the facts but before we do, we often need to know our fears are understood. This is one reason why command and control does not work; it does not adequately admit to the need to listen. It is a good principle to ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’.
Competence and System Capability
The system for resource management needs to marshal and deploy adequate resources in a way which commands confidence. With rational planning of long-term effective capacity even short-term shocks should be manageable. Systems can become chronically unstable if we over-react, exaggerate genuine levels of demand or create turbulence without cause.
The Scarcity Mindset reflects an extreme reaction to a perception of shortages. We believe that an Abundance Mindset is an equally dangerous mindset, as it treats space as a ‘free resource’. An abundance mentality does not mean resources are infinite. Our system therefore needs to create a new paradigm, which we will call the Adequacy Mindset. This mindset believes that there is enough resource to go around in a rationally organised, well-managed and capable system provided that our individual behaviours are rational and reasonable.
There is a requirement for an integrated planning cycle and aligned timetabling processes to allow the adequacy mindset to develop, consequently encouraging the rational and responsible behaviours which reinforce the positive loop by strengthening confidence in the planning cycle. This reinforcing loop presupposes that the timetabling demand for space is accurate and adequate space is available.
The relief of short-term space pressures therefore relies on appropriate action in the short and long-term. In the short-term we are managing a zero sum game. It is unlikely that any new space can come online fast enough to alleviate the pressure and therefore the focus must be on managing constraints. In the long-term constraints must be balanced by making changes to policy and process which will allow supply and demand pressures to be resolved within the integrated planning cycle.
Genuine space pressures are likely to need capital investment over more than a 12-month period.
The Importance of Trust and Confidence
Trust and confidence in the system will be a critically important foundation to address the scarcity mindset and associated behaviours. These steps are vital to building a true understanding of the real system dynamics i.e. the adequacy of resources and the complex impact of constraints in contrast to perceived space pressures and a spiralling anxiety about their impact.
For space users to have high levels of trust and confidence in the system, they will need to be convinced of three points which will demonstrate that the system will not fail should it come under further pressure:
There is enough space for it to be allocated where it is needed, and that business operations will not be compromised by an unidentified shortage or scarcity;
The user requirements are fully understood by the schedulers during the planning phase of the process, and therefore unsatisfactory allocations will not surprise the users at a stage in the process when it is too late to optimally resolve. This obviously requires clear and complete data accuracy and therefore a full commitment from the users to process deadlines and policy adhesion;
Should space prove likely to be a constraint in future, the institution will thoroughly investigate requirements and will endeavour to provide more space should data and evidence-based processes, and capital constraints, support this course of action.
Users will also need to be convinced that their ‘good citizenship’ in only requesting the level of space which is definitely required, will not be taken advantage of by any users who do not commit to observe similar levels of responsible use thereby avoiding the tragedy of the commons.
The application of Fair Process  to Timetabling is more likely to result in more accurate demands being placed on the system. In comparison to a traditional approach for resource management, Fair Process understands that staff want to know that their opinions have been considered in the process. Fair Process also builds trust and enables innovation, gaining valuable cooperation from all sides in the process. In the case of Timetabling, the process can become more collaborative, with open minds sharing ideas and solutions rather than forming entrenched opinions. Through greater collaboration, Academic Departments understand the constraints arising from the curriculum, staff availability and room availability, while Timetablers understand the aims of the Academic Department and assimilate these into a format which they can apply to the scheduling software.
The sharing of a resource such as teaching space means that the process must account for all demand before it can commence. There is a need to maximise the planning phase of the process in order to minimise change late in the process when flexibility has been lost. As such, both the schedulers and the academic department have a responsibility to the other for the process to succeed. The Academic Departments must respect and commit to meeting deadlines for planning and data capture which allow the schedulers to understand changes in demand before they surface as problems later in the process. The schedulers must support the slowest responding department through any operational issues in data collection, rather than punishing poor performance by commencing the allocation process without them. Both sides must commit to ensuring the success of a collaborative process rather than a process which is based on structure or hierarchies. Where priorities are likely to conflict, a policy framework will be required to manage conflict, clearly define expectations and reduce the need for policing structures. These policies must not be prescriptive, but empowering and proactive to both the schedulers and the academic departments.
The problem of panic-buying behaviours calls for a strategic focus on the whole system, appropriate levels of skill and understanding and the application of effective tools and techniques. When confronted by panic-buying behaviours, it is clear that a ‘more of the same’ approach will not be sustainable. Instead, the organisation must inspire purpose through leadership and integrated planning, linking visions, priorities, people, and the physical institution in a flexible system of evaluation, decision making and action.
For much of the last 10 years as practitioners and consultants, we have been focused on eliminating the paradox of simultaneously appearing to have too much and too little space by recognising and quantifying the complex characteristics which make up the utilisation problem. Our work in this field is increasingly recognised as both innovative and highly effective in identifying opportunities for meaningful change and any practical limits on realising that change. Effectiveness and efficiency in relation to teaching space are both inextricably linked to the curriculum, staffing levels and competing priorities. The worst effects of panic-buying have been avoided so far and similarly most timetabling systems do not collapse. However, tension and anxiety are often taken for granted in the normal run of a timetabling process. As we think about the logic of teaching space analysis and capacity planning tools, we recognise that the underlying adequacy, and in some cases excess, of teaching space is not very widely recognised. Timetabling constraints are legion and often give the illusion that there is inadequate space when in fact time is the scarce resource. Should the case arise where a fundamental attribution error (there is congestion in the timetable therefore we do not have sufficient space), combine with a personal or collective sense of anxiety about the impact of such a shortage on the ability to maintain quality of the student experience or indeed be perceived as a direct personal threat to one’s professionalism, a negative spiral can be created. As space becomes a battleground, the results of utilisation surveys appear as management’s tin ears and the logic is lost amid the anxieties which are not allayed. It is said a problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking which created it and this is never more true than in resolving the paradox of an institution having too much space and too little space at the same time. One thing is certain though, hoarding space is a much bigger threat than it might first appear.
1 Further described in The Beer Game from ‘The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation’, Peter Senge 1990
2 There is a considerable body of work on the ways in which higher executive functions of our modern/evolved brain can be sub-ordinated to a more primitive fight/flight reaction. For an entertaining view of the ways in which irrational behaviour can triumph, a good read is ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Professor Steve Peters 2012.
3 The logical response is resources are scarce, I need to protect my share…
5 ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics - Richard Thaler, 2015
6 Business Policy: Text and Cases, Learned et al, 1969
7 ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey, 1989
8 W.Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review 1997