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Never the Twain

It’s tough to learn from mistakes you never made.

Mark Twain

While I spend hours tapping out prose to make and amplify thoughts, I keep finding that short zingers like this one get to the point far more quickly.   Further,  the best are actionable without further ado.   Suggestion:   think of or discover a quote that you like.  Ask yourself what you could do to express its core meaning next week.  If you can’t think of anything, try a new quote.    Email me if you want a good batch that I have found not just wise but useful.  My way of expressing this passage is to require myself to identify one screw up a week to ask what I will do differently next time.    They are all different. Never the Twain shall meet. 

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Human-Centered Design: Part 2

Last week, I reprinted the first three principles my client Dave Haney described for Human-Centered Design. Continuing from his newly published article, In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process in Inside HigherEd:


No. 4: Engage in prototyping. Too often institutions spend months planning a major initiative and then roll it out with great fanfare, not knowing whether it will produce the intended results. When possible, it’s better to prototypeby implementing a small-scale, low-risk version of an initiative that can test the critical concepts involved and allow you to readjust according to what works and what doesn’t. For example, instead of launching a new degree program, start with a badge or certificate and carefully examine how it plays with students. A prototype can also be a simulation: before creating a new enrollment office, build a mock-up (physical or virtual) and run students and staff through a simulated set of enrollment interactions. This approach can help create a culture of continuous improvement in which new ideas are constantly tested, evaluated and revised.

No. 5: Resource the early adopters, and let consensus follow later. The downfall of many strategic plans is that everybody agrees with them at the outset. If that’s the case, then it is probably too general and probably looks like everyone else’s plan because it represents the lowest common denominator.

In results-based strategic design, institutions instead provide resources, often minimal, to individuals and groups so that they can try things (prototyping), and then consensus is built around successful or promising results, not prior agreement. (From a slightly different perspective, the higher ed consulting firm CREDO also advocates abandoning consensus as a goal for the “new university.”) The Rensselaerville Institute refers to community members who are energetic early adopters as “community spark plugs.” You know who they are on your campus, and they may be administrators, faculty members, staff members or even students — where they are in the organizational chart is often less important than the energy, creativity and attitude they bring to the table. When other people see that the spark plugs are getting the resources, producing results and having more fun, the number of early adopters will grow.

No. 6: Don’t try to do everything. Too many strategic plans try to cover everything an institution does and therefore sink under their own weight. I prefer Hal Williams’s definition of strategy: something is truly strategic only if it requires a behavior change when business as usual won’t accomplish the desired results. For example, one institution included as a strategy within their plan to review the food service and facilities contracts with external vendors. Do you really need a strategic plan to tell you to do that? If such reviews are not part of business as usual, then you are looking at problems that are not going to be solved by a strategic plan.

Instead, focus on the things that require major behavioral changes. For example, one institution increased both efficiency and organizational health by changing siloed behavior in administrative offices. They cooperated with other offices to ensure student success became a specific job requirement at every level of the institution — a result that would be evaluated in performance reviews and lauded when it succeeded. That was truly strategic, because business as usual required a sharp behavioral change. Rather than spending the five years of a strategic plan checking off boxes toward the plan’s completion, it is more effective to adopt a strategic design with recursive cycles of prototyping, learning and improvement.

When I led a strategic design process in 2017 as a college president, and the steering committee had completed its preliminary design for the institution’s future, an initially skeptical faculty member gave the process an appropriate endorsement: “This process was messy as hell, but the result is good.” The times are even messier now, which makes it even more imperative that we design the future of higher education rather than simply try to plan it.

David P. Haney is the former president of Centenary University. He and Jeremy Houska, director of educational effectiveness at the University of La Verne, will present on results-based strategic design at the SCUP 2020 Virtual Annual Conference, sponsored by the Society for College and University Planning. For more resources on results-based strategic design, see davidphaney.com.

I’ll comment on how I use these six principles with remarkably easy steps in my next blog entry. Stay safe.

Hal

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Riding for your Brand

Marc Chardon, the bright and inquisitive former leader of Blackbaud Inc, and I wrote several pieces together that will be featured on this site. One theme we call, “Riding for the brand.”  Brands we note, do not establish a class or cohort of groups. They exist to define and protect the distinctiveness of an organization, whether a cattle ranch in Wyoming or a drug treatment organization in New York. Where’s our beef? It’s underneath our brand!

As foundations move from funding programs to investing in results, they shift from sprinkling money among many organizations to investing more on those organizations that achieve the strongest human gain for the dollars available.  Yet when I ask many nonprofits where they think they stand on achievement relative to other groups in their field and geography, most do not know. And a few shrink from the question—suggesting that this means having to at least implicitly call attention to differences with colleague groups. My advice is to get over that. You need a way to move from blending in to standing out.

No need to badmouth other groups. You simply show your results relative to those of other organizations taken as a whole. You let the viewer draw his and her own conclusions. And if you are interactive with other groups to the point that shared action determines your success, say so. Be clear about how collaborations with other high achieving groups lets you together create results that are well beyond those that sum from your separable activities. Then supporting each party to the collaboration makes good sense to investors.

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The Achievement Lock of Education

Marissa Dobbert is a middle school math teacher at a charter middle school in Sarasota, Florida.  She was selected as the 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year in Sarasota County, Florida.  I used her as an example of tracking milestones in a January workshop for nonprofits in Manatee County.

I read about Marissa in an article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune and called her.  Being in the Results First business, I began by asking her how her students achieved academically compared with other students.  In Sarasota County, 55% of students in the lowest 25% performing group made gains on the Florida State Assessment (SFA) in the last reported year.  In comparison, 67% of her students made progress.  

Marissa reflects the characteristics of sparkplug leaders to a T.  First, she is drawn to challenges. She taught advanced courses and could not wait to get back to working with struggling students. Second, she is highly energetic, noting that she stands on chair and moves quickly—bouncing around the classroom to create and sustain attention “like a crazy person.”  Third, she is very focused on achievement and has two highly specific steps she considers essential to achieving them

First, Marissa focuses on creating a connection.  Her sense is that calming fears of students who have never succeeded at math and creating a connection between her and the student is an essential starting point.  In my parlance, engagement is her first milestone. She is clear that no amount of teaching will make much difference until she can see and hear some level of connection between her and each student.

Second, Marissa forgoes dutifully teaching the full-to-the brim math curriculum.  While she is held to the same standards of academic achievement on the Florida State Assessments (FSA) she teaches at a charter school that gives her some flexibility in approach. She uses that to concentrate on what she sees as the most important skills. Her assumption is that knowing all math content is less helpful than knowing the small number of essential tools that let students handle problems in most, if not all, content levels.

Marissa also uses problems to which the kids can relate.  Rather than a text book question, she translates textbook questions to the kinds of situations she and her students face. This gives not just context but motivation. 

There you have it. The procedural lock in social and educational programs is to get through all prescribed content. The achievement lock is to change the process and hold results as the constant.