Doing the Ordinary Extraordinarily Well


For three years I helped to lead a project to assist community colleges with integrated planning. With so many initiatives and priorities injected into the system, the project team I was a part of was tasked to help find and create agnostic integrated planning tools and resources to help educators make better sense of how initiatives and priorities align (or don’t), and how to better implement them in a coherent and cohesive manner. This was no small feat. Nonetheless, a key finding from this project is that sometimes it takes campuses doing the ordinary extraordinarily well to achieve positive outcomes.

As I began to introduce tools and resources in the field through regional convenings, I made it a point to share the concept of a setting with participants. Simply, a setting is a time and a place for educators to get important work done. Participants appreciated the tools and resources shared, but when I posed the question, “What is your setting for integrated planning?” more often than not I saw deer-in-the-head-light looks. Most people didn’t stop to think about what setting was necessary to ensure that their organization implements integrated planning. Often, it’s the smallest things that can escape us. My question forced many participants to think about what existing settings could be modified or how to create a new setting for integrated planning (who’s involved, meeting frequency, process used, who leads it, etc.). Without an established setting, all of the integrated tools and resources in the world would not make a significant difference because the institution would lack a structure to continually test and refine the work.

Another important area is to implement a collaborative inquiry process. Convening participants were encouraged to explore iterative processes such as Appreciative Inquiry or Plan, Do, Check, Act. We also developed a process for them composed of five components each with a set of tools and resources: Discover, Develop, Implement, Evaluate, Report (see below). Again, participants appreciated the resource, but without a setting, a collaborative inquiry process goes nowhere.



However, simply establishing a setting isn’t enough. These settings need to be as highly productive as possible so that educators meaningfully engage in the work on a consistent basis. One of the challenges I’ve heard from educators frequently is that their campus lacks the culture to engage in integrated planning (i.e., change). Changing the culture of an organization is no small task, but it often starts with making sure people feel the work is productive. Through productive work, people’s attitudes can begin to change in a positive direction. This means making sure that these settings have an agenda with the meeting starting and ending on time, a facilitator who genuinely values everyone’s opinions and can champion and lead a collaborative inquiry process, incorporates data, and effectively follows through on any issues. Also, external coaching or facilitation can often play a key role when the institution struggles to get off the ground, is "stuck," or wants to take their meaningful work to another level.

It's worth noting that the government agencies tasked with injecting mandates into the system should also have clear settings with a collaborative inquiry process. It's critical that this structure have highly productive meetings, ensuring that one person does not dominate the conversation. When government agencies lack clarity and coherence as a result of not doing the ordinary extraordinarily well (i.e., integrated planning), what do you think campuses will experience when the mandates are issued? That's right...A lack of clarity and coherence, which results in confusion and a lack of consensus at campuses. A government agency can and should espouse a vision for success (i.e., end) for the institutions it oversees, but if the roll out of initiatives (i.e., means) are poorly executed, we can't exactly lay blame on the colleges exclusively. If government agencies effectively mandate that colleges create a culture of continuous improvement, then the agency demanding it should serve as the example. To be clear, I don't express my criticism with a malice heart. Quite the opposite. Government agencies tend to have severe capacity issues. Therefore, agency personnel are some of the hardest working people I've come across. They're also good, well-intentioned people! I propose that they learn to work smarter, not harder, given the environment they inherited. How well initiatives are rolled out to the system has a significant impact on the colleges' ability to implement and get results.

Establishing and maintaining a setting (or a series of supporting settings) can often be about doing the ordinary extraordinarily well, but don’t underestimate its implementation. Leadership is key. A leader is, in a way, the “oil” that keeps these settings running like high performing engines.

What settings are available at your institution to get important work done? Given that Guided Pathways is a flexible framework that allows institutions to plan and implement equity within their context, how are you leveraging Guided Pathways settings to deepen and broaden the equity work even more? For government agencies, given that the legislature injects mandates into your organization, what settings will you create to foster a greater sense of clarity, coherence, and consensus?

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