Positive new-normal won’t just happen, it has to be invented

Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.

Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.

Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.

Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.

I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.

  • Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
  • Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
  • Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
  • Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
  • Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
  • If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?

This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.

Shiny objects, bright ideas, and your team

Recently I read about a cool project in a magazine and shared it with one of my managers. Another university had had success with it, it was related to a challenge we were having that week, and honestly it was just cool. I had some level of self-awareness at least: I described it as a shiny object that I was just passing along for interest, and said I would not follow up. To her credit and mine, it has never come up since.

No harm done, I suppose. And ideas are good, right? But a supervisor’s ideas, even off-the-cuff ones, are hard to ignore. This manager might have moved my idea from pile to pile for weeks, unsure what to do with it but reluctant to throw it out. Like an appliance left plugged in that draws current in a steady trickle, it might have exacted a small but real cost in mindshare.

Better to jot the idea down and let it rest. I’ve always enjoyed musing aloud about cool things, but coming from the leader of a largish team, such talk may not read as blue-sky chitchat. Some people will give impulsively-shared ideas no more weight than they deserve; others will be alert for cues about what they should be doing. The latter will misinterpret notions as direction.

If you’re into brainstorming, it should be a planned event with ground rules and equal participation by all.

Operations maturity and innovation

What says “Operations” to you? For many, it’s all about planning, process, documentation, compliance, standardization, optimization, and efficiency. Good, solid stuff, and not in any way sexy.

What about “innovation”? Innovation seems to be about chaotic change, fluidity, rule-breaking, risk-taking, creativity, and disruption. Rebels on motorcycles!

This sets the stage for tension, because innovation typically touches on technology, digital platforms, data, and applications – projects that demand IT and technical expertise. Led by the wrong team, such projects are subject to high risk and failure. Yet led by traditional Ops, they might also not be very innovative.

I think Operations maturity must be characterized by seeking a middle way in partnership (and fruitful tension) with the more innovative elements of the Advancement organization.

  • Traditional Operations plans, then executes. Innovation executes, then iterates. A mature partnership pilots, learns, then executes.
  • Traditional Ops avoids risks. Innovation takes risks. The mature partnership identifies risks and mitigates them.
  • Traditional Ops insists on process and procedure. Innovation doesn’t have time. The mature partnership finds ways to continuously improve.
  • Traditional Ops seeks to optimize. Innovation prioritizes impact. The mature partnership figures out the right thing to do, and then figures out how to do it right.

Traditional Ops is reactive. Innovation is proactive. That contrast disappears in the mature partnership that has both sides working from a common strategy.

Innovation rewrites the rules for collaboration across teams

An ongoing upheaval in the way people give and engage requires us to find innovative approaches. The question is, who should do the innovating? Operations is better known for policies, process, and compliance than creativity and smashing things, while other teams have great ideas but err when making decisions related to technology.

Dysfunction occurs when one team has its foot on the gas and the other has its foot on the brake. Two adverse results seem likely: 1) Ops gets its way, and slows down good ideas or kills them completely, or 2) Ops doesn’t get its way, and projects plow ahead without regard for process, compliance, or risk.

Either way, innovation fails in the long run.

In the past I’ve been attracted to the notion of a “skunk works” team, separate and liberated from all the rules and cautious incremental improvement that hinders innovation. Small, disruptive teams have done wonders for some corporations; Lockheed coined the term skunk works and achieved success with it back when the company was an aircraft manufacturer.

In more recent times, however, corporations have found skunk works teams produce great, one-time ideas but not continuous, company-wide innovation and execution. These days, when everything is being disrupted, organizations need to execute on the core basics and keep inventing new products and approaches.

I’m not sure it’s true that innovation must be defined as entrepreneurial disruption smashing an Industrial-Age mindset concerned with efficiency, standardization, and process. This might be true of whole industries or monster-sized corporations forced to reinvent themselves. It’s a bad way to think of the work of our relatively small Advancement teams.

We can align our mindsets better than that. Would it not be ideal if the two forces were integrated and part of the way the organization runs? The answer for Advancement might be to adopt new rules for collaboration across teams.

For investments in engagement technologies, for example, would it make sense to form a small team made of equal parts marketing, engagement, and operations and give it ownership of that ecosystem? Given a clear mandate to execute on Advancement’s well-defined strategy, such a team could enjoy the creative autonomy of a skunk works to innovate over the long term.

Feel your freedom

My first year at Dalhousie University was hard. I had been hired to manage Phonathon, the student caller program in Annual Giving. I had expected that hiring and training 25 students a year would be my least favourite part of the job, but in fact I enjoyed it. And my new colleagues were great (and still are!).

It was everything else. All our systems were being upgraded at the same time and everything was broken. There was no documentation. So many technical problems, and so few answers! Some days I felt helpless and angry … what had I signed up for?

In hindsight, however, the biggest problem may have been me. As my first calling season approached, I was very concerned with replicating the program as it had been before, right down to the details of segmentation of the calling pool. I wanted status quo first, make changes later.

Sometimes status quo is the right answer. In this case it caused a lot of unnecessary pain.

One day during that stressful time I met with a previous Phonathon manager, hoping he could help me replicate the structure as it had been. He shrugged and said, just do it your own way. If you think it should be done a certain way, he said, then do it that way. Learn from the result and do it better next year.


In that moment I realized that it was my responsibility to make decisions. Not as an onerous duty, but the freedom to follow my own lights. Obviously taking ownership in this way means owning mistakes, and I did make mistakes. But it was far easier to learn from my own mistakes than someone else’s.

Taking ownership and responsibility doesn’t mean you don’t consult and ask questions. The difference is that you’re not asking others to tell you what to do; you’re laying out your plan and getting others’ perspectives on things such as risk. You build mitigations into your plan, you carry it out, you own the results (good and bad), and you learn.

That was almost ten years and several positions ago, but “feel your freedom” still sounds like good advice.

A culture of innovation values questions over answers

One day my eye was caught by an ant crawling in circles on our bathroom floor. Around and around it went, expecting, I guess, to come upon a chemical trail laid down by ants who’d gone before.

I left the room thinking a routine would eventually have to kick in to make the ant try something new, such as head in a straight line, like a Roomba. Ten minutes later I returned to check. Nope – still circling.

Had my ant struck out in a new direction without the benefit of a blazed trail, he could have starred in this post as an example of innovation in nature. Alas, his story ends here.

Ants are stupid individually, but they are awfully successful in large groups. Are humans the opposite? Innovation is expected to come from lone disruptors, or very small teams. We assume large groups suffer from inertia, trudging in circles, starved for new ideas and stymied by a need for consensus.

I see it differently. I’d venture that in Advancement, innovation manifests itself in collaboration. The lone genius whipping up the new app that upends an industry is not something you’re going to find in our world. (For one thing, we don’t disrupt – we are being disrupted.)

For an organization to become innovative it needs to change the way individuals in the organization relate to one another. Such a change is suggested by author Warren Berger in his book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” The fostering of a “culture of inquiry” encourages us to look beyond constraints and assumptions and make the creative associations between concepts that lead to fresh ideas.

The future lies in asking more and better questions, not starting with answers. Organizations of any size are capable of it.