From Good to Great in Higher Education

I listened to a recent podcast from Higher Digital featuring Jack Suess, VP of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, about going from Good to Great (the title of a fabulous book by Jim Collins) in higher education. The podcast covered many topics, but there was an effort made to tie in the great work done by Jack and his team at UMBC with how they have been able to go from “good to great” as an organization. How this or that initiative made the difference.

This got me thinking about the book and some of its principles, and how I might apply them to our organization at CalArts. I also wanted to take a deeper dive into those principles and apply them a bit more strictly. It’s not just about how an organization went from good to great (and, by the way, I am not claiming we are great. We have gone from “good enough” to “pretty darn good” for the most part, and “okay” to “a better than okay” in other areas. That is not a knock on the CalArts IT team. We are a small team that has had to do with remarkably limited budgets in the past, and are transitioning towards a position of greater efficiency, automation, and other tactics to improve our operations). It’s about whether we have a “hedgehog concept” and how disciplined our (my?) leadership is. Do we have the right people on the bus (all working in the same direction towards the same goal(s))? I want to also throw in there the question of what is our “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) which is actually from Collins’ (and Porras’) book Built to Last.

I want to apply these specifically, not just talk about what we’re doing to be “better” in general. So here goes.

First, what is our “hedgehog concept?” The example I recall from the book is from Walgreens. Their leadership held steadfast to the principle that they wanted stores on corner locations. They would actually close a store in the same complex as a vacancy if it meant moving to a corner. It’s an idea that leadership held onto stubbornly (in a good way – I’ve seen the word “fanatical” used as well) that allowed them to accelerate faster than competitors.

For us, I would say it’s operational excellence/efficiency. I’m not saying we’ve made great strides thus far (and again, I’m not saying we’re “great”), but something we talk about constantly and make investments in is improving the way we operate to be more efficient, more automated, and more reliable. So we have switched our computer setup process to be “low touch” (and hope to make it “zero touch”) such that a computer basically configures itself when we’re setting it up. No need to intervene at all. We are looking at vulnerability scanning tools for information security, and want one that will be automated rather than something we have to manually run every X number of months. Remediation through a combination of automated (sense a theme here?) patching and other tools would be something else we’d look at. This all wraps up into improving our actual operations to be solid if not flat out excellent. That’s our stubborn goal that I’ll work towards with every breath.

Second, do I have the right people on the bus? This doesn’t apply as well to higher education, which has both lower turnover (so voluntary changing of people on the bus) and longer staff tenure (for better or worse) than other industries. But you can modify this a bit – are we all pulling in the same direction? You might not have all top performers on your team, but are you all working towards the same goals? Is the bus heading in just one direction (don’t you love it when a metaphor falls apart?) Importantly, are you all spreading the same message when you “leave the room” where decisions are made? On the former point, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. On the latter, we/I could probably spend more time stressing this point. We don’t need (nor necessary want) consensus, but we should have the same story/message/etc. to tell when others ask. I think we do this well at the leadership level but I haven’t made it a point for the rest of the team.

Third, there is the concept of a “Level 5” leader, one who is both humble and steadfast/determined. This is a tough one to discuss because it’s about myself. What I will say is that I try to be humble, and to be vulnerable as a way of showing I am a human and worthy of one’s trust. I share myself, as a person, so that others know they can share themselves with me. I also work hard to use collaborative decision-making – again, it’s not about consensus, but I want to hear opinions, counter-arguments to mine, etc. At the same time, I do have a hedgehog principle, I articulate my goals clearly and consistently, and I am decisive when I need to be. Hopefully something adds up there.

Finally, BHAG. Again, this is from the Built to Last book but is something that has always stuck with me. What is my big goal out there? It’s somewhere between vision and mission statements. The former is what the world looks like if you succeed, and the latter is the guiding principle(s) for your operations. So my BHAG could be my vision, or it could be something else. Today, my BHAG is to be an organization recognized by others as an exemplar of achieving our hedgehog concept of operational excellence and efficiency. Not that it’s all about the opinions of others or validation, but because when you’re good, others hear about it, and want to follow your lead. I think that’s the best I got right now for a BHAG.

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