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Loosen the Grip on Silo Thinking

February 7, 2017

By Howard Teibel

How many times have you heard something like this: “There is never enough parking”; “transfers don’t bring in expected revenue”; “international programs are available to too few students”? The list of ongoing campus issues that require attention seems endless. Yet, these frustrations are often symptomatic of an underlying issue, which is an inability to work together productively to solve problems. Year after year, whether your institution is large or small, too many leaders lack a willingness to take actions that genuinely get people working together more effectively. With a new year beginning, now is the time to commit to a new standard for collaboration.

THE PROBLEM WITH SILOS

The term silo comes from the practice of storing a commodity to effectively separate it from other commodities. While organizational silos contribute to the difficulty of working together, they can serve a useful purpose. In the higher education space, silos such as departments, divisions, or organizational processes can provide a structure for accomplishing discrete tasks and ensuring people know where to go for what purpose. For instance, if students want to pay a bill, they can visit the bursar’s office. A big downside to silos is that they reinforce separation of individuals and are often a significant impediment to collaboration.

When enterprise systems replaced outdated legacy systems on college campuses in the early 1980s, something began to shift in the workplace. These automated systems gave rise to the need for process flows that transcended traditional boundaries, and so a new kind of collaboration began to emerge. For instance, a new HR system promised the possibility for tying together the employee onboarding process with performance appraisal, all the way through to termination.

While many leaders might like to blame the less-than-satisfactory results of some of these system implementations on poor software design, could it be that at least some of the disappointment about their performance stemmed from inadequate conversations about the outcomes sought? Is it possible that solving a big problem is foremost about bringing together individuals from different disciplines to understand the problem?

GROUNDS FOR COLLABORATION

The simple concept of pulling people together from different areas to tackle core challenges has been taken to a new level at the University of Colorado Boulder, thanks in large part to the leadership of Kelly Fox, the university’s senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer. “I was on a flight reading a book on creativity in the workplace, and I was struck by how much the principles in this book reflected a vision I had for my division,” says Fox. The transformation of her campus began with a simple request of her direct reports: Read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (Random House, 2014), which tells the story of Pixar Animation Studios and its rise to excellence. For Fox, the book painted a picture of what it looks like to be transparent and let go of egos, and she recognized an opportunity for her team to develop skills and break down barriers to collaboration across the division.

After reading the book, 50 leaders from across the university’s administration and finance division came together for a two-day retreat, facilitated by Teibel Education, to explore and incubate Pixar techniques into university strategies. (See sidebar, “Pixar’s Big Ideas for Innovation and Collaboration.”) Internal planning for this effort was initially led by Jill Pollock, vice president and executive advisor, and then by Merna Jacobsen, assistant vice chancellor and deputy human resources officer and director, employee and organizational development. The goal: to transform how people think and act to impact the way they understand, communicate, and solve problems across campus.

Unbeknownst to the attendees, the retreat would end with a call for proposals to address campus areas of need, with funding for the best ideas submitted. Departments that won could be awarded up to $25,000, with individuals receiving either $1,500 for proposals that included team members from one organization or $2,500 per person for proposals that included team members from multiple areas. In the end, 60 proposals were submitted that involved more than 150 individuals. Proposal reviewers included leaders from across the campus, along with a university regent representative. For the first round of this experiment, five of the 60 projects were funded, with an expectation that others could be funded in a later round.

A sampling of proposals submitted include:

  • A health-and-wellness initiative to create a university focus on programs to benefit the community rather than individual department-based initiatives.
  • A new transfer pipeline creating a tighter partnership with local high schools to introduce CU Boulder’s campus experience and offerings earlier in the process to prospective students.
  • An international affairs service learning and retention program, building experiences for at-risk students versus catering only to those excelling in their undergraduate experiences.
  • A program to simplify the process of tuition classification to seek residency status from the university through an automated tool modeled after the TurboTax application.
  • A solution to provide students who don’t have the ability to complete their degree because they are not able to come to campus with a way to stay present in the classroom experience using a telepresence robot tool called KUBI.

The retreat brought together people from across the university’s administrative and academic service areas, including custodian supervisors; supercomputer programmers; enrollment, finance, research, and human resources managers; and staff from faculty affairs, student affairs, and public affairs. Brand new employees were included, along with veterans of CU Boulder who had more than 30 years of experience at the institution. Bringing together this diverse array of perspectives allowed CU Boulder to lay the groundwork for an environment that truly fosters innovation. The retreat experience provided a collegial venue to help participants understand how to be inclusive beyond their typical boundaries. It also helped instill confidence, since for some participants, this was the first time they were asked to consider some of the issues facing the university from a much different viewpoint.

MAINTAINING MOMENTUM

Following selection of the winning proposals, a mentoring opportunity was made available for those who did not receive funding to learn how they could improve their proposals for resubmission. Within three months, a second event was organized, bringing together another 140 managers and staff members from three and four layers deep into the administration and finance division. After two rounds of this experience, divisional leaders are now considering how they might support and even provide some financial assistance for good ideas that weren’t initially selected for funding.

Over the long term, incentivizing initiatives cannot simply come from a central finance group. The initial idea generation and proposal awards have helped seed the idea that departments can and should start considering funding initiatives on their own, seeking and rewarding innovation within or across a group. “We’re trying to build a culture where all levels are looking for ways to promote great ideas,” says Fox. “It has always been true that there is money available where a compelling case can be made for a return on investment. This exercise is actively teaching people how to make this case.”

The positive momentum generated by these first two experiences has indeed opened the door to a new culture of innovation. Larry Levine, the university’s associate vice chancellor and CIO, participated in the first retreat and observes a change of mindset permeating the larger organization. “The change the workshops brought, that we now live daily, is that we’ve all put collaboration and innovation on the table.” The two efforts Levine helps lead include creating an integrated, online student experience and forming a single, prioritized environment of major administrative applications. “We were essentially competitive units. Now our first allegiance is to the goals of these efforts, to make the university better by innovating and collaborating, not simply to try to benefit or protect our area,” says Levine.

“We are so much better positioned to start this year with an engaged community of leaders, managers, staff, and students,” concurs Merna Jacobsen. “Our challenge now is keeping up with those who are actively promoting innovation across our campus.”

Howard Teibel is president of Teibel Inc. Education Consulting, Natick, Mass; e-mail: hteibel@teibelinc.com

PIXAR’S BIG IDEAS FOR INNOVATION AND COLLABORATION

The mechanisms Ed Catmull frames in Creativity Inc. are ultimately about candid feedback, setting aside egos, and recognizing that the group has more value than any one individual. Each mechanism used by Pixar Animation Studies represents a unique approach to elevating problem solving to an authentic group activity and provides concrete fodder for enhancing group innovation and collaboration.

  1. Share your early efforts. Pixar’s practice of showing incomplete work to a team allows for earlier iteration on a problem. Rather than waiting for a nearly finished product, animators were encouraged to share their incomplete work in group meetings with colleagues and take direct feedback. Imagine developing a new compensation process and inviting faculty and staff to dissect it before any decisions have been made. Two things would happen: 1) key issues will be uncovered early on, and 2) the result will be a better product that meets the needs of those you’re serving. When we share incomplete work, we short-circuit the tendency to move forward blindly.
  2. Take research trips. Pixar executives recognized that to truly understand the look and feel of their animated characters, the artists needed to live among what they were drawing. As a case in point, for the movie Ratatouille, artists were sent to Paris to observe chefs in Michelin Star-rated restaurants. More impressively, the artists observed rats in their natural sewer habitats. In the work of finance and HR leaders and staff, research trips mean getting out of the office and away from focus groups and surveys to observe people doing their work before suggesting ways to improve how the work should be done differently. We often we operate with too many assumptions about what we think we know.
  3. Set limits. Pixar executives discovered that artists could spend days or weeks working on a one-second segment to capture every aesthetic element for “the perfect shaded penny” that no one would ever see. For most of us, doing good work means getting it done perfectly, which often leads to a lower return on our investment. This desire for perfection is the enemy of what’s often good enough. While we cannot avoid the limitations of budget, time, or resource constraints, we can control what we commit to in pursuit of an outcome.
  4. Integrate technology and art. In Pixar’s world, the mantra: “Art challenges technology, technology inspires art,” articulates the idea that when everything is functioning as it should, art and technology play off each other. With the insight of technology as a tool to improve the delivery and quality of the animation, Pixar can push the boundaries and continue to improve the movie experience. If you compare films from today with those from 1986, it is clear that current-day films are light years improved. Even as there are purist animators who consider technology as cheating on their craft, there are holdouts in the world of education who believe technology is devaluing the classroom experience. Yet, opportunities undoubtedly exist in education to use technology to vastly improve student, faculty, and staff experiences.
  5. Conduct short experiments. Pixar Short Films represent the best example of the power of experimentation. Through the short-film format, Pixar intentionally focused on building skills and new practices in their artists versus trying to generate revenue. While the true goal was to give artists the room to test a hypothesis, solve problems, and ultimately learn, iterate, and improve, over time these short films went on to win Academy Awards. The application for higher education is evident: Experimentation changes culture by giving people permission to risk failure without risking the bottom line.
  6. Learn to see what isn’t there. Artists are trained to see the “un-chair,” which is the space between and around the object that gives a drawing a more accurate perspective. Most of us, if asked to draw an object, would see only the elements of the chair itself, and our drawing would be an inaccurate representation. By focusing on what is hidden (the un-chair), you open yourself to identifying assumptions that we all make without realizing it. Learning to see what is evident and what is not can help us all be more accountable to results.
  7. Insist on postmortems. As Catmull suggests: “Institutions, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional.” Most of us know the importance of reflecting on a project once it’s complete, but rarely do we authentically follow through. If our goal is to genuinely improve how we do something better the next time and to learn from our mistakes, postmortems are indispensable. If the bar is to be exceptional, knowing how we fall short is key. This is another example of the need to let go of ego and be receptive to constructive feedback.
  8. Design opportunities for continuous learning. Pixar University was created as a means for all employees to learn from each other and to stretch into spaces of personal interest, whether that is sculpting, acting, meditating, or programming. Putting a lighting technician alongside an experienced animator, who in turn might be sitting next to an account manager, is aimed at breaking down social and collegial barriers and building genuine connections. Professional development programs designed with rigid structures that limit engagement with individuals working in other areas misses a crucial opportunity to cultivate curiosity among all employees.

Howard Teibel is president of Teibel Inc. Education Consulting, Natick, Mass; e-mail: hteibel@teibelinc.com