Making Change

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Go Slow to Go Fast?

Apparently this saying comes from martial arts (I’d wondered). Maybe it works in that context – but when it comes to strategies for transforming engineering education, I have an amendment to put forward.

I’m always interested in the issue of “pace” in conversations with schools thinking about transformation in engineering education. On one hand, schools that are already considering change have – at a certain level – already made a decision and just want to get on with it. They’re also usually veterans (or victims) of a strategic planning process that seemed both interminable and ineffectual.

On the other hand, the nature of academia – and perhaps STEM fields in particular – is that some of the best results need a long time to develop. Many people in the corporate world would argue that the institution of tenure also contributes to a culture in which the expectation of quick results is very low. As a former colleague of mine – who had previously worked in a very fast-paced New York media organization – once said, “The only time we would have ever had a meeting this long was if we were shutting the whole place down!”

“Agile strategy” announces its difference right up front – it’s quick, both to implement and adapt. This causes a certain cognitive dissonance for many academics. Here are some of the questions I’ve heard more than once in guiding the Pathways teams using strategic doing as a specific methodology for agile strategy:

  • “How do we know we’re considering all the options?”
  • “How do we know we’ve picked the very best place to start?”
  • “Don’t we have to get all the stakeholders on board first?”

My answers – “you don’t,” “it doesn’t matter as much as you think,” and, well, “no” – aren’t particularly comforting. But, when a team finds the courage to pick a tiny corner of their world to start working on, one that they don’t need permission to address, and begins doing the work, something extraordinary often happens. They (usually) get a taste of success that keeps them motivated. They gain confidence in their ability to identify the options and pick the right one(s). And people watching them – and there are always people watching, if they make “sharing small successes” part of their plan – are drawn to the chance to make something happen. Soon their small success is multiplied and turns into much more significant change.

If their first effort isn’t successful (which is sometimes the case for a variety of reasons), it’s critical for teams to quickly rebound – or as the disciples of agile put it, to pivot. Good teams will immediately debrief, extract lessons and then pick a new tack and get moving again. What they don’t do is to blame the approach – “if we hadn’t moved so quickly, we wouldn’t have failed.” Failure sometimes happens – but an agile approach will help ensure that failures are small, early, and don’t call the entire endeavor into question.

Go small – not slow –  to go fast. That’s my new motto.

What’s the weather like where you are?

A few weeks ago we were in Phoenix with the 14 new teams in the Pathways program that’s part of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. This was our third time around with this part of the program, and we have the benefit of having watched 36 teams already go through the arduous task of designing a strategy for change on their campus.

All the teams reached the finish line – after about 5 hours of work over two days, they could present their strategy in 60 seconds or less, complete with the metrics they’ll use to determine success and an action plan for the next 90 days. It seemed easier compared to our experience with the first groups – maybe this group of teams was more focused, or maybe we’re getting better at guiding them.

Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing for all the teams. A few had trouble at one point or another, either agreeing or getting to specifics. Why was that? It would be easy to point at an obstructionist team member or the sometimes-glacial pace of academic change.

The cause is more fundamental – every team has a moment in which success seems elusive, and that’s a good thing. It’s part of what Bruce Tuckman put forward as a model of group development, in which every group has to go through four stages:

  • Forming: the group is just gathering and sizing up the task ahead; many haven’t worked together before and are just getting to know one another.
  • Storming: familiarity breeds contempt – or at least, differences in workstyle or opinion arise. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. Good leadership can keep the group focused on the desired strategic outcome(s), while still acknowledging each member’s feelings.
  • Norming: in this stage, the group accepts one another’s differences – and welcomes all points of view – but agrees that the work overrides personal preferences. In Strategic Doing, there’s a suggested set of “Rules of Civility” that groups can agree on as a set of norms for working together.
  • Performing: the group knows how to conduct itself and resolve any differences and can focus on the challenge of plotting a course for change.

Some teams get from forming to performing quickly, others take more time. The teams in Phoenix that struggled aren’t necessarily in danger of disintegrating – in fact, they were in just the right place to get help working through the “storming phase” – so they can move on to high performance.
Where is your team, and how can you move to performing?

What is Engineering Education Transformation, Anyhow?

It’s confusing to talk about transforming engineering education. There are a lot of campuses doing quite interesting things, but the “flavors” of those activities vary quite a bit. I’ve made an attempt to describe that amazing variety visually below:

Hacking Spheres

It’s not a list of different flavors, as you can see – the overall theme is some sort of active learning in which students take on “real” projects, either in a simulated way or by actually getting out into the field, to better prepare them for the work world and solving big challenges after they finish their education.

Beyond that, there are many different emphases – innovation, entrepreneurial mindset, start-up or social entrepreneurship, global ventures , leadership – what have I missed? These emphases not only overlap with the bigger theme, they overlap with one another (and in reality, there’s a lot more overlap than is displayed here; the two-dimensional world of the blog doesn’t work too well to illustrate this point). Another theme that doesn’t really appear in the graphic is the growing interest in interdisciplinary courses or programming, in all of these different areas.

Because of all of those overlaps, we’ve decided to take the broad view at Hacking Engineering – all of these efforts can learn from and inform one another. We’ll be doing more work in coming weeks and months to build opportunities for that kind of interaction – in the meantime, if you’re involved in any or all of these kinds of change initiatives, join us.

What’s happening at the University of Toronto

The Ontario government has invested $15 million in a new Centre for Engineering innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto. This investment adds to the $26 million that the university has raised for the Centre. That includes $1 million raised from students the University of Toronto Engineering Society. Read more from the University here.

Learn more about the Centre, including a video and a floor by floor tour, here.

Pitt Adds a New Innovation Competition

The University of Pittsburgh has launched a new student entrepreneurship competition with $18,000 in prizes. The Kuzneski Innovation Cup, funded by Laurie and Andy Kuzneski, will run through the Pitt Innovation Institute. The Kuzneskis are serial entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh.

The Innovation Cup is a student pitch competition that includes $10,000 dollars for the first prize, $5000 dollars for the second and $3000 for third. You can get detailed rules here.

Help Us Customize the New House

Welcome to our very new community of Hacking Engineering. This post is in the way of an introduction beyond the mission statement and – hopefully – the start of a conversation.

The intent of Hacking Engineering is to begin to connect the many people, institutions, and networks that are addressing transformation in engineering education. There is so much good work going on all over the country (and, we’re learning, all over the world) – while there are different flavors of transformation, all of it in some way is aimed at giving students new kinds of learning experiences so that they are better-equipped to help solve problems big and small. There is tremendous power in that network for accelerating learning, adoption and dissemination.

But – you’ll notice that the house is still a little sparse. Yes! If you’re a Strategic Doer, you’ll recognize the principle of “build on the assets that are around the table.” We have some ideas about what the network should look like, but we’re also trying to build around what’s wanted and needed. For example, should we host an in-person meetup, either nationally or regionally? Is there a need for any sorts of workshops (that isn’t already being filled)? Could we facilitate online peer interaction (and if so, how)? Please tell us – either by replying to this post or emailing me.

We do have some larger beams in place – like this blog. The hope is to post at least three kinds of entries:

  • Events: things going on that might be of interest to the community, whether in person or virtual.
  • Assets: pointers to resources that can be used in transforming engineering education.
  • Making Change: assets is about the “what” of change; this category is more reflective, the “how” to make change.

We’ll be reaching out (continuously) to gather fodder for the blog, but want to have efforts at the institutions and organizations in the network front and center. Email me if you have an idea.

We’re also building in a way to share small successes like an idea for a student project, or a way you’ve gotten around bureaucratic hurdles. We’re calling it Hack of the Week. We’d love to have so many ideas it becomes Hack of the Day. Again, email me with your hack.

Finally, to address a question we’ve already gotten: is this just a Purdue effort to spread their own ideas and models? Only in the sense that Purdue is beginning the conversation and wants to share what they’re learning in their own transformation projects. We are confident that there are plenty of others that want to share what they’re learning as well. While the house is indeed under construction, the chairs are around the table, waiting for you. Come on in!

What we are learning in Pathways

One of the projects we’re involved with at Purdue is the Pathways initiative that is part of the larger Epicenter effort. Epicenter is a five-year, NSF-funded project that’s aimed specifically at undergraduate engineering and incorporating content on innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) for those students.

Pathways engages teams of faculty and administrators from 50 institutions from all over the country. Teams are exposed to a vast range of programming options for embedding I&E into their curricular and co-curricular offerings and receive coaching and support as they design and implement new efforts. We’re helping teams use Strategic Doing as their methodology for change. The first 12 schools have been at work for two years now, with another 24 coming on last January – and this week we’re in Phoenix working with the last 14 schools (the NSF funding for Epicenter will end this June).

The results from the 36 teams already in the program have been outstanding. We can identify more than 300 different “projects” undertaken by the teams so far and are continuing to track their work over the next several months. We’re working with the staff at VentureWell (which is managing Epicenter along with Stanford University) and the project’s external evaluator to learn more about teams’ experiences, but some findings are already very clear.

One of the cornerstones of strategic doing is the idea of “linking and leveraging” assets. Those assets can take many shapes, including physical, financial, and social resources that can be accessed by the effort to create progress toward one or more strategic outcomes.

A corollary to this idea of leveraging assets is that the activities undertaken will depend almost entirely on what assets are available to the group. The schools in Pathways are an astonishingly varied lot – public & private, large & small, urban, rural & suburban, minority-serving institutions and others serving a predominately white student body. Thus, while the overall goal of Epicenter and Pathways is a unified one – increasing access to programming in innovation and entrepreneurship – the 36 schools already in the program are taking 36 different routes to get there. We expect to see the same thing with the 14 schools we’ll be working with this week.

If you’re looking at other schools for a model you can implement, think carefully. While those schools can be great sources of ideas, don’t move forward until you understand how you can link and leverage your own assets in your version of that model.