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Colin Johnson’s blog

Accentuate the Positive

A few years ago I went to a talk about software project management. The first half of the talk was a description of a way of assessing progress on software projects, which resulted in a grade on a three-point scale (red-amber-green) being allocated to each part of the project. So far, so good—the ideas were decent. Then, the speaker turned to the audience, and said:

“So, now we have assigned a grade to each of these aspects of the project, where should management prioritise its attention?”

So here, I thought, is going to be the nub of the talk. The speaker is going to assume that we with think that the attention is to be given to the red zone—the danger zone—and then dramatically reveal that actually it is the green zone that we should be paying attention to.

Of course, disappointment hit with the next sentence. After some vague mumblings from the crowd, the speaker said something along the lines of “…of course, the red zone, because this grading has allowed us to identify those aspects of the project that are struggling and need support.”

Of course, I don’t deny this. Part of the point of doing an exercise like this is to identify areas where there are problems. But, I would argue for at least equal attention to the green zone. As managers, we need to understand why things go well when they do. Going well isn’t a default thing that “just happens” and so we need only to attend to when things are going badly.

I see this in many aspects of higher education management and leadership. Focus on survey results such as the NSS almost inevitably turns to those aspects of provision that are lowest graded. Staff evaluations focus on identifying people who have problems.

What does this look like in practice? One practice I have put in place is for regular committee meetings to have a section where we talk about good practices in a particular area—what do we do well in e.g. student recruitment, research grant applications, mental health, etc? Or for each school (etc.) that is represented at such a meeting to present what they think goes particularly well in their area of work. Sometimes this is successful, but sometimes people have difficulty understanding what is good practice in their area—the smooth, well-thought-out processes are just that—smooth, well-thought out, and as a result are just invisible. As a results I’ve turned to just asking people to articulate what they do. This can easily end up throwing up surprises, as one unit is amazed at how easily something that they struggle with is done elsewhere.

Similarly, when looking at surveys and the like, there is a lot to be gained from asking why a particular well-rated aspect is well rated. Can we learn from that to promote excellence elsewhere? Can we partner a unit that is successful in one area with a unit that is struggling in that area, so that the struggling one can learn? Can we develop a repository of good practices that work well in an area, so that people coming new to doing or managing that area can start from a high baseline.

This seems to me to be where management transitions into leadership. It is important for short-term success to understand problems and manage them up to competence or success. But, for longer term success, we need a wider understanding of the successes in our organisation.

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