Strategic Doing

Home / Posts tagged "Strategic Doing"

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?

Hack of the Week: Asset-based Collaboration Worksheet for Student Teams

This week’s hack is from a member of our very own PCRD team, Scott Hutcheson. If you were at the Open conference recently, you’ve already gotten a peek at this, but we wanted to share it more widely. The worksheet is a structured way in which students can identify the assets they bring to a collaborative project, most effectively as a precursor to the Strategic Doing collaborative approach.

Have a hack for us to share? Email us.

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.