Reflections on Change — NBOA 2014 Change Leadership Workshop

Today was a banner day. I've just finished the Change Leadership Workshop here at the NBOA Annual Meeting, and I wanted to share a few closing thoughts as we gear up for the wonderful week ahead. 

People who attend change workshops tend to be people who are already primed for change. And yet, this group I had the honor of working with today was hands-down the most excited group of change advocates I've met. This was a group energized and ready to engage their campuses deeply in positive change. 

Photo courtesy  @LeahThayer

Photo courtesy @LeahThayer

What they shared with me was their thirst for a systematic approach to energize the people around them in big ideas. Why are they struggling with this? They're certainly not alone. They're not alone because common sense is so often thrown out the window when people are stressed. And when we attempt big, harrowing, audacious change ... oh boy, do we get stressed.

It's funny, then, that the most important lesson for a group of change leaders might not be the systematic change process after all. The lesson is one of permission. Permission to feel confused when confronted with change. Permission to feel frustration. Permission to feel denial and grief. It is absolutely appropriate to struggle with change, and to let your people feel the same.

In my conversations with attendees after the event, I heard some wonderful snippets of conversation. "I have places I can grow."

"I know I can be better." 

"I know I need to piss some people off." 

To attendees, you're going to head back to your offices in a few days and the conference glow will begin to dim. Before you succumb to the rhythm of work, before you let the day-to-day take over, remember that you have to practice this stuff to master it. So grab the people you work with and bring them all together. Find a problem, use the decision-model, and revisit your collective ability to approach tough problems. Don't skip steps, and don't wait to put these ideas in front of the people who need to see it. Oh, and if you'd like some help on-site, you know who you can call.

Thank you for the opportunity to work with you today. And I wish you the best in your change journey ahead. 

NBOA 2012—Building the Roadmap for Change

There is a roadmap to navigating a change initiative. That's the good news. The bad news is that using the roadmap is difficult because it forces us to work against our instincts.

Our instincts tell us to we should get all the right people in the room, present our biggest challenges, and then—like magic—solve those challenges. That sort of binary thinking is usually just the thing that drives us to the point of frustration. We must first temper our expectations.

Our goal is not to have it all figured out but to establish enough positive momentum that we create energy around the process. From there, it’s a matter of staying connected, staying engaged with those involved so that people are able to see the progress they are making. The road map below focuses on a hybrid approach of taking responsibility for those things you need to own, getting participation from a broad yet targeted set of stakeholders and finally, getting help where you need it.

In the second of the talks I'll be hosting at NBOA, I'll be leading a workshop on brainstorming and mapping organizational processes, so I'll refrain from delivering the bulk of my talk here, but I'd like you to think about these three concepts before we meet in Chicago. 

  1. What does it mean to identify the best people across your organization to help with your change initiatives? We've already covered the importance of the cross-functional team, a team that brings breadth of experience in operations, and is invested in the change they're tasked with addressing. But what are the individual skills and personalities that lead to being positive contributors, team members interested in moving the organization forward and solving significant problems?
  2. How do you frame the broad vision for your team? How do you ensure that your top performers have a clear understanding of what the institution's best possible future could hold, if they are successful? Careful visioning can uncover not just the best possible outcomes, but is the single best exercise for uncovering the silent risks.
  3. How do you know when you're finished? By simply asking that question of your team, you'll incite a healthy conflict, and likely uncover new constraints on your time. By coming to agreement on a target start and end date for your change initiative, you're defining a boundary of accountability, making it real for the folks who need to own the work to come. 

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! 

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.