What are They Thinking?

The confluence of two recent activities has me reflecting on a question I’ve sometimes heard sometimes voiced myself … what are they thinking?

First, I’ve been preparing for the pre-conference workshop that Quality Matters (@QMProgram) asked me to facilitate at its upcoming annual conference (#QMconf2016).  The workshop’s overarching purpose is to help individuals who lead online learning and innovation units be successful in making their case to senior administrators for new proposals, initiatives, and resources. The target audience is individuals such as directors of distance education, department chairs, instructional designers and technologists, and other mid-level distance educators.

In preparation, I conducted an informal snap poll of higher ed online learning and innovation professionals, and asked about the barriers they encountered in garnering approval for their proposals. Of the 71 individuals who responded, roughly 90% indicated that an understanding of and access to senior leadership has been a barrier to the approval of their proposals. 94% of respondents indicated that their understanding the factors of interest to senior decision makers, and a lack of understanding of on the part of senior decision makers were barriers to achieving approval for their proposals. 80% indicated that their limited access to senior decision makers was also an obstacle. In short … what are senior leaders thinking?

Second, last week I served as a panelist for the Digital Learning Council Simulation of the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (#IELOL), co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (@OLCToday) and Penn State University’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning (@psucoil). The simulation provides IELOL participants with the opportunity to present a proposal to senior institutional leaders, and receive both a critical analysis of the proposal’s elements and constructive feedback from such leaders. The overarching suggestions from our panel of twelve can provide some insight into the question … what are senior leaders thinking?

As a senior leader, here’s my brain dump of my overarching questions when considering proposals:

  1. Purpose:  a) What’s the purpose, reason, and goal of the project? b) What problem are we trying to solve, what change are we trying to affect, what advancement are we trying to achieve? c) Why would we want to do this? What is the strategic, operational, and/or moral imperative?
  2. Impact:  a) What are the direct/tangible and indirect/intangible benefits? To student access, success, retention, timely degree completion, and gainful employment? To institutional effectiveness, efficiency, cost savings, revenue generation, reputation, brand? To the internal community of faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni, and to the broader external community and partnerships? How will the project and its intended outcomes impact the institution’s accreditations? b) What are the wider impacts beyond the intended goals? c) What are the possible unintended negative consequences, on the proposal’s target and other elements of the institution?
  3. Costs:  a) What are the direct/tangible and indirect/intangible costs? In dollars, human power, time and effort, technology and facilities usage? To perceptions, morale, reputation, awareness, and brand? b) Is there another way that the goal can be accomplished? Can the goal be achieved with less or shared resources, or in less time with less effort or human power? Can this be added to, or an extension of, another project, operation, or set of responsibilities?
  4. Execution:  a) Who will be involved in and impacted by the project, in its planning, execution, assessment, sustainability, and outcomes? b) What is the timeline for planning, launch, assessment/evaluation, and when we might first begin to see the impact of the project? c) What else can’t we do if this proposal is funded? From what other activities will dollars, people, time, and effort be diverted to support this proposal? d) Are the project’s activities sustainable under the proposed and likely future conditions and levels of funding? e) Does the project provide the opportunity to explore creative, instructive, relevant, adaptable, interoperable, or new models for other situations and problems?
  5. Assessment:  a) What data and research indicate that the project is needed, has validity, is feasible, and has a reasonable chance of success? b) What other institutions or groups have already tried this and what was their experience? c) What will be our measures and indicators of success? Consider quantitative and qualitative aspects, direct and indirect indicators, leading and lagging indicators, external benchmarks and internal targets. d) What’s the assessment and evaluation plan; who is accountable for the project? e) What’s the return on investment (ROI)? f) Are there interim milestones of success, and can they stand alone and be sustained in the absence of completion of the full project? g) How and when will we know if the project is unsuccessful? Are their opportunities for mid-course corrections and adjustments? How should we proceed if the project is not successful?
  6. Risks:  a) What are the risks associated with approving this proposal? Preventable and foreseeable, unpredictable and uncontrollable, internal and external risks? Strategic, operational, financial, compliance, and reputational risks? Appearances and perceptions, systemic and localized, organizational effectiveness, morale, and governance risks? b) What is the overall level of risk, determined by using a Risk Assessment Matrix – insignificant, low, moderate, high, or extreme? c) How will we handle specific potential problems and scenarios? 4) What are the potential risks and costs if we don’t approve and pursue the project? For students, other members of the university community, and the institution?

So now I ask you … as a current or aspiring senior leader, what are you thinking? 


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