NBOA 2012—The Power of People and Making Change Stick

Welcome to part two of my brief series of posts leading to the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) 2012 Strategic Leadership Conference in Chicago. Click here for background.

Last time around, we talked about the power of uncertainty over our teams, and the fear that comes with innovation. This time, I'd like to narrow the focus a bit and talk about the challenges we have in bringing our teams into alignment with our strategic objectives around change.

The right questions and the right people

If you're asking the right questions, then you're putting the stuff you don’t want to talk about square in the middle of the conversation. That's a very powerful thing. Questions like:

  1. How can we ensure our academic programs create the learning outcomes we expect?
  2. What programs that are core to our mission should be retained and what programs need to be reworked?
  3. How should our division or department be structured to best meet the needs of our core customers?

These big questions demand a broad perspective, especially from those using the services and programs we’re trying to improve. Success means different things to different stakeholders and the right people need to be part of owning the solution. But it's not our natural inclination to think so broadly. Instead, we charge these questions to the most obvious stakeholders and expect them to solve the problem in isolation. If our problem includes a dollar sign, we send it to the budget office. If the problem includes enrollment numbers, we send it to admissions, and so on. This narrow assignment of responsibility is a form of denial, and we can do better. 

Being effective in leading our institutions through change is about learning what will impact our areas of focus; defining a broad constituency charged with understanding—not solving—the problem; and then developing a plan that includes those who will implement and live with the change. Our charge, and our responsibility to our people, is rooted in a measured approach to understanding and gaining broad perspective on our problems from those who know best. 

It's that last point that stymies even the most experienced groups. How, when faced with paralyzing economic and financial forces, do you find the strength as a group to come up with new ideas, and energize your team around change?

  1. Figure it out yourself, identify what you don’t know, build the expertise in this area, and then engage the best of your workforce to be part of the solution.
  2. Hire an expert and have them tell you what to do.

We’re biased against hiring an expert thanks to inconsistent performance in the past. We may like doing things ourselves because no one knows our business better than us. We may be reluctant to use cross functional teams because of the risk of accidental public disclosure of our sensitive challenges.

I could go on, of course. It's our past experience that limits our ability to choose from among broader strategies today. Our personal—and organizational—comfort levels can be a key limitation to growth.

If you missed our podcast summary of the talks I'll be hosting at NBOA this year, I invite you to click play below, and join us with your comments. I look forward to meeting more of you in Chicago and will have more thoughts to offer in part three, later this week.