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Encouraging Culture Change

April 2018

By Howard Teibel

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When leadership gives up some control and allows the campus community to incubate and implement initiatives, institutionwide transformation can result.

Programs such as Creativity and Innovation for Effectiveness (CAIFE) at California State University, Fresno (Fresno State), are an impactful mechanism to engage a campus in culture change for the benefit of the institution. Historically, the business or administrative side of the house identifies a concern about resource allocation, reducing expense, or finding alternative revenue sources. However, instead of engaging the higher education community in a positive process, the announcement of such an initiative often taps into a deep anxiety. This opens up the opportunity to create a bottom-up approach to culture change.

The CAIFE project at Fresno State and other projects led by Teibel Education at institutions such as the University of San Francisco, Loyola University Maryland, and Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa., focus on understanding the broader needs of the community, as defined by the stakeholders. These initiatives are about unleashing the community to drive the change they can imagine, and, in turn, encouraging leadership to give up some control. A core principle is that people doing the work understand what needs to change better than those who are two to three levels up in the organization. (Read also “Bold Takes Hold.” Visit to watch a video on ways to implement change on your campus.)

Promoting Divergent Thinking

The organizational structure of higher education often binds us to ways that we can reinvent to meet our customers’ needs. Individuals leading functional areas (such as vice presidents that make up the cabinet) are not in the best position to define how the work can change. It’s necessary to move two or three layers down into the enterprise to see how the work is actually being performed.

Even organizing a team from a division invariably creates a limited view of what’s possible (such as a team solely made up of facilities staff). To encourage divergent thinking, bringing faculty, IT, and HR staff together in one team broadens the perspective of how to solve problems on campus and, more importantly, engages people at all levels of the organization in “who we want to be.”

For example, a team looking at facilities utilization or student success need not be led by the facilities director or head of student affairs or academic affairs. Functional knowledge is beneficial, but even more useful is the knowledge of the benefactors of the work performed by these groups. Students, faculty, administrators, and staff outside of facilities can speak to the effectiveness of how classrooms are being used or ways that office space can be organized more effectively across campus.

On a recent Teibel Education project, a facilities utilization team, led by the athletic director, worked with a group comprising individuals from HR, IT, and a professor from the biology department. These individuals were not selected because of their subject matter knowledge or expertise, but because of their capacity to provide insight gained from being outside the facilities area.

On another project, a team of student affairs, facilities, and IT staff were focusing on campus safety issues. During their brainstorming session to innovate campus safety, a member from the facilities division identified a concern about roof inspection. Roofs on multistory buildings were inspected by climbing ladders and wearing special shoes to minimize falling. A team member, who worked in IT, said that he flew drones as a hobby and that securing a drone to do the inspection was a possibility. His background and experience brought a fresh perspective to the problem and moved the conversation from better shoes and ladders to a transformational improvement.

On the project at Fresno State, employee onboarding was re-envisioned by a team that included HR, academic affairs, university communications, organizational excellence, a cabinet member, and faculty. This led to a completely fresh approach to new tenure-track faculty onboarding (versus orientation) that has been extremely well-received.

Creating Exceptional Teams to Develop Ideas

So how can you create exceptional teams to do this work?

1. Define working groups based on real life concerns. For example, organize teams based on the outcomes that you’re attempting to address (such as student success, organizational structures, academic portfolio) and not based on the siloed structures of departments and divisions.

Evaluating organizational structures is a concern for all areas of the enterprise. No one group owns this concern and, therefore, team building encourages a broad perspective and participation.

2. If you have eight to 10 working groups, ensure that you have faculty participation on most, if not all, teams. Faculty perspective is critical. At the same time, you want to identify faculty who are prepared to be full members of the team and have the time to participate. Putting too many faculty members on a team runs the risk of poor attendance because of their primary commitment to students, research, and classroom time.

3. Select individuals who bring a “yes, we can” versus “why we can’t” perspective to try new things. Nothing kills a project faster than individuals who see change as an attack on tradition rather than an opportunity to create practices that benefit those you’re serving. Don’t confuse individuals who ask tough questions about new ideas with those who are cynical about change.

There is a significant difference between skeptical and cynical. People who find themselves in a skeptical mood are often engaged but have tough styles. People who bring a cynical mood have no interest in the change. Pay attention to the difference; it is vital to any project.

Making These Teams Effective

In addition to picking the best people to participate in these projects, it is important to establish norms for the teams.

A critical early step in team development is asking these and other questions to build a sense of mutual accountability. When a project such as CAIFE begins, conduct a team-building event that is both fun and instructive. One strategy is to ask the team to read an innovative approach together and then incubate ideas during a workshop.

The CAIFE program placed throughout its development an emphasis on innovation and design thinking, which encouraged teams to be productive while having fun in brainstorming and “prototyping” their ideas.

The Why Behind It All

In the end, these projects do not aim to produce change for the sake of change. There needs to be an articulated value for people to get the most from a project that can last anywhere from six months to a year, and demands a commitment above and beyond that of their day jobs. Answering the question, “Why should I care?,” can be summed up as follows:

HOWARD TEIBEL is president, Teibel Education Consulting, Natick, Mass.

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