April 22, 2019

Five Tactics for Immediate Institutional Change

Advising Leaders

We’ve all heard the characteristics of an institution that can’t change. Your culture eschews risk and punishes failure. You’re not good at coming up with new ideas to meet changing needs. Your structure makes it hard for people to work together across departments. You have trouble making decisions.

So, instead of using these realizations as a cudgel to get people to change, what if you used some proven strategies that make their work better and change your college or university at the same time? In what follows, we’ll share some tactics to do just that, along with some reference readings and examples from industry as well as within higher education.

1. Imagine New Programs, Services, and Spaces

It may be risk aversion, the rut of your current routine, or the momentum of the status quo, but many institutions are at a loss for what they can do to better meet the needs of their students and faculty. The good news is… you don’t have to because some of your students probably already have!

There is already a body of work such as MIT Professor Eric von Hippel’s Democratizing Innovation, which demonstrates that users at the leading edge of their practice come up with the best ideas. For instance, the Camelbak hydration system was invented by Michael Edison, a paramedic and distance cyclist who adapted an IV bag so that he could hydrate hands-free without stopping. To reimagine their new library, Georgia Tech conducted lead user interviews and uncovered workarounds and ideas they could support and scale-up; for instance, after hearing about how one faculty member tried out new teaching techniques and technology, they created a “teaching studio” for faculty to learn, practice, and get feedback before “going live.” This article in Planning for Higher Education provides an overview of the lead user methodology and the Georgia Tech case study.

The Teaching Studio at Georgia Tech

2. Test Ideas to Perfect Them

If you close your eyes, you can practically hear the committee’s discussion…“What if this new approach doesn’t work? Shouldn’t we study this further? Is what we’re doing now really that bad?” Embracing experimentation can be hard – especially if you put too much pressure on your experiments and don’t have a structured process that gives people a gradual on-ramp.

In the world of entrepreneurship, there has been a paradigm shift toward the “lean startup” that can serve as a good model for colleges and university programs. Rather than studying a market opportunity ad infinitum, the mantra is to test the market as fast as possible, get feedback, and change course (aka “pivot”) as needed. A great example of this is the Adobe Corporation’s “Kickbox” initiative, where instead of placing big bets on say a million dollar project, they realized they could first fund a thousand $1,000 projects! They gave each team a toolkit with instructions, inspiration, and $1,000 prepaid credit card. They encouraged teams to implement and test their ideas so that management was approving prototypes to fund rather than unproven ideas.

In a similar vein, American University wanted to decide whether to relocate the IT helpdesk within the library; rather than endless studies in the abstract, they took over a room in the library for a semester, created some signage and a simple queuing system, and tested it out. The results were an increase of over 600% in volume and over 90% user satisfaction. To get started, this insights post provides guidance on how to move forward with this kind of testing on your campus.

American University Technology Support Desk

3. Make Decisions by Consent not Consensus

One of our clients once quipped “higher education is the only place where a vote of 12 to 1 is a tie.” There’s a lot of truth to this. The desire to build consensus around a solution can be stifling, and also unnecessary because you can be rigorous, inclusive, and thoughtful without everyone agreeing.

Sociocracy is a system of governance for anything from a club to a company to a country. It’s distinguished by making decisions by consent – the lack of objections – rather than consensus. Groups can be trained to structure their meetings to make decisions using a three-act structure: present a proposal, ask only clarifying questions and respond to them, and then elect to or decline to make objections. Many Voices, One Song is a useful handbook for this methodology.

Some examples of organizations that have adopted sociocracy for decision-making include Dutch nursing agency Thuiszorg West-Brabant and Woodbury University’s School of Media, Culture, and Design. When Miami University Libraries adopted a new organizational structure that aligned to their service model, the discussion about how to move forward was unlocked by framing the question to working group participants whether the new structure was “safe to try.” How many initiatives in higher education are stymied because the bar is not “safe to try” but is rather “consensus and perfection”?

Miami University Libraries Organizational Chart

4. Create a Structure That’s Responsive

Layers of hierarchy within an organization slow down decision-making and separate decisions from the people on-the-ground with first-hand knowledge of the customer and their needs. Silos by discipline create separations that inhibit collaboration; for instance, where customer-service and marketing don’t share what they are each learning about customers.

Management consultant and theorist Dave Gray’s The Connected Company proposes an alternative approach in which small groups of people make up “pods” that are a kind of microcosm or fractal of the company; for instance, each pod might have research, product development, marketing, project management, and compliance. This “podular” organization provides a mix of expertise while staying small enough to understand customer needs and be responsive as they change. Rational Software had a podular organization, and consumer products companies often do this with “brand teams” that assemble a group for each brand or product. For many years, NC State University’s library system had a “learning commons group” that functioned much the same way by bringing together people typically separated into different departments together to operate and continuously improve one innovative place.

NC State Hunt Library Workplace

5. Design Project Teams to Get Stuff Done

Let’s say you have a great idea and the support to try it out. Chances are you’ll still need to work with other groups on campus to get it done. Chances are also that something about the design of your project team is lacking. Maybe you don’t have project charter or it’s unclear? Maybe you’re not sure how you’ll make decisions? Maybe you don’t know and trust your team members enough to establish a sense of psychological safety?

This article about organizing projects for success, provides a checklist leaders can use for project team design: the purpose of the group, roles of participants, the structure that relates the roles, the processes to perform the roles, and platform of information. Google’s Project Aristotle is another useful reference on what teams need, drawn from years of study of their teams; namely: psychological safety, dependability, clarity of structure, meaning, and impact.Putting this into practice, when the University of Michigan sought to create the “academic workplace of the future” in Weiser Hall they knew it would be not only a change in the design of this interdisciplinary office space but to its operations and services as well. So, they convened a “service design task force” that went from needs assessment to vision through implementation in order to reimagine academic and administrative services within the building.

Organize Projects for Success, Dean & Provost

Higher education is defined by history and tradition, and of course, this accounts for its stability and longevity. But in the face of big demographic, technological, and economic shifts, change is needed. So, instead of lamenting how resistant to change your college and university is, you can pick your spot(s) and get started. Tap your users to create the next big thing. Test it out to improve it. Set up your decision-making to give your team permission to consent to an idea that’s not perfect but is safe to try. Get your structure and process out of the way and organize your teams for collaborative implementation. Good luck as you move ahead!

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