Thursday, May 23, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 20 Completing projects

Completing projects*

Q: Why do projects fail and what can be done to increase success? I remember when I was writing office automation programs, I was assigned projects that from the beginning I questioned the scope of the project. I was told just give them what they want and don’t worry about the scope or goals.

A: Too many bean counters are concerned with the monetary returns on investment (ROI). In education ROI numbers concerning money are largely a fiction because not all returns are quantifiable. Many returns are not measurable for years. People’s feelings can’t be measured with hard numbers. We test students’ knowledge and count how many graduate, but those numbers do not always equal success. [fn 1] If the margin of error in a survey or test is too great the survey may have little value.

For a major project the cost of business transformation is never included in original set of numbers. For example when the library or business office purchases a new management system, the new product may change the way they do business. The project planners need to plan for the new ways of operation and how that the transition and learning will impact daily transactions. The time investment in training needs to return a time savings later. The new system should be evolutionary with a clear goal to improve operations, not change for the sake of change. When one brings cultural change into the ROI calculations the numbers become impossible to get right. However, when we realize the grey area of calculations, the project can be more humanized.

The accountants and business people think analysis is a science. They think the numbers should predict the cost of the project and its potential return. The front-line people think planning is an art that is all touchy-feely. In a well-run organization planning is a combination of research, number crunching, and seat-of-the-pants experience. In a poorly run company investment decisions are exercises in proving one investment is better than another. The poorly run process is a marketing exercise trying to get the upper management to buy in to the project. I work hard to tune out these marketing exercises. Any strategic project at the College must pass the test of being sensible economically, organizationally, culturally, and psychologically. If it doesn’t make sense, we shouldn’t do it.

Projects cost money, time, and other resources. Money should be invested where it can give a good return, but the return is not always based on pure numbers. Some of our programs cost a lot of money and the return to the community is greater than the return to the College. That is part of the reason we get tax money as part of our income.

The scope of the program must be multi layered. For some projects some early returns are needed to show people we are on track to success. A missed opportunity for a show of success early in the implementation may doom the entire project. Early good results will win over some skeptics and help pave the way for continued support.

It is not possible to do the number calculations right because projects costs and benefits are a social science, not a hard science.

Q: If there were competing projects that demanded more resources than the College could afford how would you choose which projects to support and fund?

We have to be very careful to choose projects that are for the good of the College not for the good of the promoters’ or decision makers’ careers. In business rarely do the people in upper management have the technical skills to manage complex technical systems. The technology skills needed can’t be found in the board room. At one time I was very technically knowledgeable, but today I have to delegate responsibility to those whose responsibilities include keeping up with the products and systems in their area.

Let me share some stories – In a family owned business the current president is the son of the founder of the company. He moved up thought the ranks and his last position before being president he was the manager of the IT department. He took over the business when his father retired. He still thinks he has the IT knowledge to make IT decisions in the best interest of the company.

The president hires a new IT manager. The IT manager finds out dated desk top computers, printers, and servers. He proceeds to inventory all equipment and discuss the computing needs of all employees. Many employees complained about broken or inadequate hardware, software and systems. After a couple of months he turns his analysis into a proposal which he gives to his boss, the president. The president goes over the proposal, but in the discussions he clearly does not like the idea that someone else did this analysis. The president holds the proposal and does nothing for two months. The IT manager finally asks the president about the proposals and he gets the brush off. It is clear that the president does not want to delegate. He asks around the company and finds the president frequently ignores non-family members’ requests and concerns. The IT manager is frustrated and the other employees blame him, not the president for not getting new systems. After three more months the IT manager leaves the company for a new job.

The president did not trust the manager to do the job for which he was hired and is an expert. The project was for the good of organization, but the president saw the project as a threat to his domain.

I was giving a seminar in the College for managers. In a question/discussion period, a midlevel manager from a financial services company, asked what he should do when competing with other department heads for funding when he know the other projects were more important for the company’s success. A senior executive from another company advised him to do everything within his power to fight for his project. He said look out for yourself and your team over the good of the company.

If one of my College department heads had that kind of thinking, I would do my best to either change his/her mind or escort him/her out the door. That thinking is enough cause to dismiss even a tenured faculty member.

Any strategic project needs to be done for the good of the College. However, small projects may be done for the good of a department or academic program. For example we have competitive grants for professors and departments. The winning projects do a lot for the individuals involved, but the contribution to the overall strategy of the College may or may not exist.

Q: Returning to increasing success for projects – How do you ensure long-time success for projects?

A: First some projects are meant to be short-term or have a limited duration. If the project is part of the College strategy and mission, involved parties must have responsibility and involvement for success. Eventually the project will evolve into a long-term part of our strategy or become a new and revised project. The hand over of the reins of the project to new people can invigorate and improve the project. In technology, projects last from two – five years. In the College a strategic project could take 5 -10 years. That is not because we move slowly but rather we have some many people involved and project evolve more than technology based systems.

The College has to plan projects that are nimble and agile enough to evolve to meet changing situations and solid enough to meet the legal requirements and educational needs of our students. Projects need a balance of involved people. Some people are engineers with the technical abilities to manipulate materials, resources, and time to complete a job. Others are the administrators who set goals and strategies. They connect the internal with the external needs and wants. The project manager keeps both the engineers and administrators on task. The humanist makes sure people feel good about the projects. The humanists have the people skills to unite the various personalities, skills, and temperament. They are also the marketing, promotion, and advertising people. The scientists want to measure and predict everything. They want to take the engineers’ projects and turn them into something that conforms to norms and generates reproducible data. Large projects need a diverse skill base. If you put twenty writers into a room you will get a lot of stories. If you put a lot of professors in a room, you will get a lot of grand ideas. If I create a good mix, we will have a better chance of success.

Q: Thank you very much. 

*Part twenty of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.

 Fn 1. Some of the ideas in this article are from “Why tech projects fail : 5 unspoken reasons,” by Coverlet Meshing (pseudonym for a senior IT executive at a large bank) in Information Week, April 22, 2013. Online version (April 8, 2013.): The follow-up article is: “5 Steps To Avoid IT Project Failures” Information Week. Online version (April 22, 2013)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 19 Search for a Provost

New President Interview -- Part 19

Search for a Provost*
Q: I heard that the College Provost is leaving his position at the end of the semester. He held the position for only two academic years. First what is the role and job description of a provost? Second, what happened to make him leave?

A: Dr. RP served the College with distinction and I was sorry to hear that he wanted to leave. He and I discussed the situation several times over the past few months. When the announcement was made, he asked us not to state a reason. He left for personal reasons that had nothing to do with his job performance. I am sad that he left because I felt we built a very close working agreement and we were a good team. Leaving at the end of the semester, a few days after graduation was the best timing for this change. That gives the College the three summer months to find a permanent replacement.

While two years in a provost position is not unusual, we hoped when he was appointed that he would be here for longer time. We hope for the next provost will be able to make a commitment to the long term success of the College. Some people have seen the provost position as a stepping stone to a bigger or better position while others have viewed the position as capstone on their career. The sustained growth of the College requires a commitment to the academic community, the students, and the larger community. We will be looking for someone with a connection to our city, familiar with our position in the community and is willing to make a long term commitment. We don’t want someone for a short tenure on the way to something else. We will be looking for someone who has strong local connections and perhaps we will find an internal candidate who is already familiar with our way of doing business. To accomplish this we will need to rethink our corporate culture and how we can make our College attractive to the new provost and ourselves. I have seen other universities make an almost advertising brochure about their university and community in the hope of attracting a large pool of candidates. We don’t intend to make such a document.

The Provost is responsible for all aspects of the academic program that includes being the leader who encourages and promotes the academic mission. The job includes setting goals and seeing them fulfilled with the faculty, the curriculum, and the academic programs. S/he in partnership with president and other stakeholders sets the priorities and manages the resources in a manner that serves the best interests of the College, the students, the staff and faculty. We will also be doing a self evaluation to see if there are ways to improve our processes so that the new provost can concentrate on the academic program and not one putting out administrative fires.

The Provost hires the academic deans and department heads and makes the final recommendations to the Board for the hiring, promotion, and granting of tenure for all faculty. S/he ensures that the faculty follows the core educational and ethical values as well as following all the relevant local, state, and federal laws and regulations concerning the academic programs and colleges. The Provost takes a lead role in dealing with the accrediting agencies and makes sure that everyone does their role in the accreditation process.

Setting priorities to maintain and improve academic excellence, student success, and readiness for a career or the next education step are of high importance. Other areas include creating a collaborative environment that encourages innovation in systems, curriculum, and entrepreneurship. Diversity in all its aspects is import because no one has a monopoly on the truth or is omniscient. The provost encourages the intellectual growth and diversity in the academic environment. A spirit of inclusiveness enlivens the College and the surrounding community. The provost has the prime leadership role in creating this kind of excellence and encouraging the others in the College to be a member of team and at the same time not afraid to take another path for the common good. The provost is the spokesman for academic priorities with the rest of the executive team that includes the vice-presidents.

Q: What are the qualities that a provost should have?

A: Some of the qualities of a provost are the same as any senior campus leader. That includes superior communications abilities, open and collaborative demeanor, ability to form teams, encourage collaboration, have excellent record of scholarship, commitment to shared governance, ability to see the big picture, and in the words of my mother have “sechel” (Translates as “common sense,” but the connotations of the original expression are much stronger than the English translation.)

We don’t have any hard and fast rules for academic preparation because the provost can come from several tracks. One track is the academic that is a person who has superior teaching skills, research and academic skills and who has previously served in an administrative capacity. The other track is a professional administrator who has the skills to manage people and processes. Unfortunately the later is frowned upon by senior faculty because the provost will be making decisions on granting tenure. Faculty member do not like someone with that power to have history of receiving tenure. Personally I would like someone with a least a few courses in higher education administration even if they don’t hold that degree. I don’t want a politician type person, because s/he will never understand the needs of the curriculum and not be able to act as a mentor to faculty. The dream person will have both academic and administrative credentials and be able to talk to the full range of people we have on campus.

Q: Thank you very much.

*Part nineteen of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New President Interview -- Part 18 The Set Table Theory

The Set Table Theory*

Q: I recently read Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.[fn 1] Meyer is the owner of eleven restaurants including the iconic Union Square Café in New York City. Some of his idea about the “set table” theory seem similar to what we discussed in the last interview. He talks about the skills needed to run and manage a restaurant and how to address mistakes and correct them. They are: be aware that mistakes happen, acknowledge what happened, apologize, act in way to correct the mistake, and offer additional generosity.

The tables are set for the patrons and they have the tools to accomplish the goal of having a fine meal with excellent company.

How does this work for a college or another business?

The “set table” is a metaphor for the way administrators and support staff should behave to support the instruction. Danny Meyer in an article in St. Louis Magazine [fn 2] tells of a time when he was a teenager and went to a St. Louis restaurant with his grandmother. Danny was playing with ketchup packet. He squeezed too hard and the red ketchup flew to his grandmother’s hair. The staff immediately helped clean her up and greatly impressed the teenager.

Imagine the teenager and his grandmother were teachers in the College and the restaurant staff is the College non-instructional support staff. The support staff is not interested in placing blame or pushing the problem to someone else. They need to solve the problem without making excuses; apologies and explanations, but no excuses. In a colleague’s college my friend told me about an assessment committee meeting. They were reviewing comments by faculty concerning improving instruction. Some of the comments were predictable such as better lectures, better communications with students, etc. One person said, “We have to stop standing on a shaky foundation. We need the facilities, business, and technology people need to understand their role in the educational process. Teachers should not have to waste time with people saying no to requests. All the support people need to find the way to say, ‘yes.’”

Finding a way to say “yes” has always been part of my management practice. Of course I need to manage resources; I can’t schedule two groups for the same space at the same time. I can’t give everyone everything that they want. I can offer alternatives. If we have a conflict of wants, I attempt to negotiate what is the real need for the students or the good of the College. If room A is not available, we can offer room B. The need is not the room, but a proper space to meet, In the restaurant metaphor, the customer has a need for table and utensils. The customer may want a special place and special utensils, but those are their preferences and wants not requirements for eating the meal.

Q: How does the “set table” theory affect the budget?

The people who control the money in a college are the same people who create the budget and spend the money. The president, the deans and other managers create the budget and spend the money. The business and accounting staff should be finding ways to create controls to prevent overspending or fraud, and not impeding the spending of budgeted funds. My people spend a long time preparing the budget. Once approved, we should be allowed to spend it to support our programs. There is long history of a culture that told the business people that not spending the budget is favorable to spending every penny. This causes many institutions over buy at the beginning of a fiscal year because they are not sure if there will be money at the end. They want to supplies on the shelf in case there is no money the month before the fiscal year ends. This way of thinking is hard to reform and I have been only partly successful.

Q: What have you done to change the culture?

I have created a strict budget and a contingency fund. For example if a department has a budget for copier toner and they run out before the end of the budget year, they are not stuck with no photo copying for the period. Two things happen—first they have to figure out what they ran out and second they may have to use funds from other lines or contingency funds. It could be that they did not plan from several big jobs or the costs out ran the estimates. If fraud or misuse is involved, the offending parties need to be confronted and dealt with. The contingency funds are not “lost” at the end of the fiscal year. They remain the department’s account.

We have devoted many internal training hours to help supervisors creates budgets that are reasonable, flexible, and supportive of our core mission (serving the education needs of our students.) We want the students to be our supporters when they leave. Even if they are not contributing money, they will be voters, relatives of voters, and friends of voters. As a public institution, the voters are the controllers of the revenue. Since our College and our graduates benefit the community, we need every one of the graduates, their friends and family to be our ambassadors. A well run institution along with high quality education goes a long way to creating a better future for the College and our graduates. I do not want anyone telling stories about the silliness or stupidity of our rules, practices, or professional practices. I want students to be proud of their education and remember the example we set as a well-run institution.

Q: What is the role of leadership in changing the way people perform?

Leadership sets the goals and the mission for reform. Donald Moynihan [fn 3] (and co-authors) in a 2011 article, “Setting the table …” talk about performance in the public sector. Leadership is making the high level strategy and mission for the organization so that everyone can be inspired and work toward the same goals. Management focuses on the technical and procedural aspects of getting the job done. Moynihan (et al) concluded that leadership can influence changes in the culture that enable management processes to succeed. They agree with me in saying that leaders “set the table” for success by creating and making sure the conditions exist to enable the system and the daily processes to work smoothly. Leaders not only support reforms, development of systems, and inspire commitment, but they also make sure the tools exist for these processes. Setting the table or rather creating a system for continuous improvement is the legacy that a leader leaves when they are no longer present.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m going to remember to make sure my people have the tools they need.


*Part eighteen of an imaginary interview with the president of the College. Note this is just for your information and edification. Any connection to a real college president is strictly coincidental.

Footnotes: 1. Full citation" Setting the table: the transforming power of hospitality in business / Danny Meyer. New York, Harper, 2008.

2. “St. Louis Innovators: The Restaurateur, Danny Meyer” November 2011 (found at:

3. Moynihan, Donald P. “Setting the Table: How Transformational Leadership Fosters Performance Information” in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Advance Access May 9, 2011 (retrieved from: on May 12, 2013)