Twenty-two months ago, I was hired as the staff president of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). My newly-created position’s responsibilities were scoped within a revised governance structure that shifted the board from operational focus to strategic design and execution.
Operationally, the organization was dealing with a traditional challenge that many associations work to address: A slow response rate to market and member needs.
The root cause was a traditional hierarchical need to get permission before acting on new or emerging opportunities. The decision matrix was very limiting for staff and ultimately cost the organization a lot of unnecessary time and expense. To add to the challenge, other businesses supporting higher education were responsive to emerging trends and topics, often offering a webinar or white paper within a week of a significant market event. We were taking months in “discovery mode” and missing huge opportunities to enter into the higher education discussion beyond our traditional offerings.
If the environment of our members is shifting constantly and quickly, how could we possibly serve them if we could not keep up?
It became clear our issue was at a structural level and we needed to be doing what was in the best interest of SCUP and our members – removing administrivia and bureaucracy and letting our staff do their best work. A beautifully simple concept but very difficult to implement.
We responded to the structural challenge by launching an operational redesign, which we are still in the process of implementing. Essentially, the plan is to remove departments in the traditional sense and replace them with cross-functional, product-centered teams. We introduced the concept by creating three teams, with three employees assigned to each. An assigned lead is responsible for setting the meeting schedules, agendas and for providing the team’s progress report at the monthly all-staff meeting.
It’s important to note product teams are not responsible for logistical execution. Individual team members would have their role in this. For example, when a marketing rep on a product team says, “let’s come up with a communication strategy,” the execution would happen outside the team, but the design comes from these multi-disciplined conversations within.
When we first announced these changes, there was a lot of confusion among the staff. Is this concept a restructuring? Would layoffs occur? What would this mean to their day-to-day jobs? What were we even thinking?
To build confidence, I held town hall style meetings where I answered the questions the staff threw my way. In the first meeting this was done anonymously ahead of time through an online form. I had tough questions to answer like, “This is unnecessary change — what’s not working?” and “How does this support the strategic plan?” However, putting these questions out in the open and having the opportunity to respond to them was a very crucial step. The subsequent town hall meetings were not anonymous, but at this point confidence had been built up, and people were not shy to voice their concerns.
Sometimes my honest answer was, “I don’t know how we’re going to do this,” but that was okay. With the mantra of, ‘co-develop and act’, seeing what happens and being nimble is a big part of this process.
It’s important to note: We do not have a people problem; we have a process problem. I inherited a strong, intelligent and open-minded staff, and thus far, each and every one has remained on board since my arrival.
To further break down hierarchal boundaries, I am also assigned to work with product teams, and not as a lead. I have authority in the sense that my role gives me final decision making on resource allocation, but while we’re in the room discussing a product or process, I am just another voice. It takes work, focus and discipline to step back from the traditional notions of authority but, to develop a culture where your staff is comfortable co-developing and acting, it is absolutely necessary.
We started implementing the product teams in November of 2015, so this is all very fresh. My board came out with the refreshed strategic plan in March of 2016, and although I could have waited until the plan was delivered before diving into the new system, I favored a bias toward action. We are working together as a team to build the necessary structure for our association to thrive in a member and market responsive environment.
I am sharing this not as a case study of success. We are still the midst of the process, so I truthfully have no idea if everything will pan out as expected. The point is, we recognized the need to make a change within the organization, and identified it at the structural level. Rather than allowing ourselves to be bogged down in bureaucracy, we took a leap with the overarching goal of creating maximum value for our members.
I look forward to sharing more as we gain experience with our operational redesign. Your thoughts on our journey are appreciated and encouraged.