Monday, February 24, 2014

Good Planning and Strong Relationships: MVCC’s Priorities for the Future

My college golf coach had a way of simplifying the game to help us play better. Rather than keep track of 20+ different elements of the swing, he had us focus on the most important two or three elements that, if done right, pull together the rest of the swing. Rather than thinking about all 18 holes, his mantra was two shots at a time - hitting this shot well to set up the next one. We competed in some challenging circumstances including one round that had sunshine, rain, and snow in equal doses; and his focus on strategy helped us succeed where other teams failed.

When we are at our best, an MVCC education can transform lives. But when we are not laser-focused on student completion, we leave that impact more to chance. Just like a golf swing, when we try to focus on too many things at once, we reduce the chance of hitting accurately.

In this blog, I share my thoughts on how this ties in to the many other activities of the College – and how we can tee off on the shot right in front of us to position ourselves for the next one. I will share my focus with you, and outline how you, too may be able to understand the process of change.

In short, our most important area of focus is redesigning MVCC’s strategic plan to promote completion. Focusing on strategies for completion will organize and make sense of all the other activities and forces affecting us right now. The shot in front of us is to build our relationships with each other. That’s how we’ll be ready for the next shot, which will require intensive teamwork.

A recent visit from Jim Simpson to our January Institute provided tremendous examples of how this plays out, thanks to Jim’s single-minded focus on increasing the number of students who graduate.

Many key faculty, staff, and administrators attended Jim’s various workshops over two days. The buzz, ideation, and energy for many of us were palpable – a natural response to Jim’s research.

That energy reminded me of the College’s sea change that was set in motion in 2008. Back then, the institution put together design teams who made many bold recommendations. There were many months of accelerated change implementation. This created communication gaps and growing frustration among departments, because the changes weren’t initially prioritized and coordinated. For faculty and staff in many areas the impact was overwhelming and uncertain, but eventually the changes became better aligned. Today their positive impact is evident throughout our institution.

Fast-forward to 2014. Education is anything but a game—but if it were, its rules, courses, weather, and even our clubs would be changing fast. Will we play it safe? Will we hit it into the rough? Or will we focus on what we need to, and hit our next shot straight and far? How will we set up the next shots to lift graduation rates?

Performance-based funding, enrollment pressures, and far-reaching SUNY initiatives are likely to cloud our budgets and program delivery. New and future programs, like Title III and Achieving the Dream, have the potential to unleash massive changes to our learning environment. Community visioning and strategic planning process changes are beginning to take on a spin of their own. The college completion agenda and the launch of a strategic enrollment plan are starting to stretch our organizational muscles in new ways. Nanotech, local business booms, and drone plans look like they are becoming reality, bringing promises and challenges. I could name many more potentially disruptive changes inside and outside MVCC, and I know that all areas of the College are facing new demands and challenges of their own.

Change will happen to us whether we are ready or not. If we don’t focus on organizing it, we won’t manage it well. If we can find a meaningful priority around which to organize change, we will have a great swing and be able to keep MVCC and our students on line to greater success. This is what we should do to make our students’ outcomes better and our college a better place to work.

Recent changes in our external have accelerated past our existing strategic plan in some ways, leaving a sense we lack that organizing priority. So my vision is that the next update of our strategic plan will become that priority. When we are wondering what to focus on, it should be the plan, as that is the axis around which all other initiatives, challenges, and opportunities will be organized. The planning process will take a hodge-podge of ideas and initiatives and collect them into a steady, focused, and prioritized course of action.

The output of the strategic planning process will help decide budget and staffing. We’ll have clear goals and rationales for how dollars and people will affect student outcomes. Given time and focused planning, our environment will feel less chaotic and more prepared to harness the excitement and energy of doing what MVCC does best.

To explore this point, consider Jim Simpson’s presentations alongside our College’s conversations about Achieving the Dream. Taken separately these could be seen as potentially unfocused sources of change. Viewed together and rolled up under a new strategic plan, they become significant organizational priorities within a larger, coherent plan.

For example, Jim affirmed that excellent teaching that employs active learning is the most powerful influence to increase student completion, but it takes a long time and leaves too much to chance if not supported by well-designed programs, information-rich systems, and intrusive advising. Based on the research he presented, we know that:
  • for every course of dual credit or advanced placement on a high school transcript, a student has a 5.9% greater chance of graduating college;
  • single points of failure like a graduation fee reduce graduation rates;
  • for every credit over 60 in an associate degree program, graduation rates are reduced 2.9%;
  • students have a 33% greater chance of completing an associate degree if they complete an embedded certificate along the way;
  • and the sophisticated tracking and reporting tools we will develop are only possible if we spend the critical time up-front ensuring accuracy.
Jim Simpson’s message has impact, but is it just a shot into the rough? Or is it setting up our students to win? If we want to give it focus, we must think clearly about how we can roll up his input into our next strategic plan.

Jim’s visit coincided with the College’s application to participate in the national Achieving the Dream (ATD) initiative, which will create a more data-rich support system for student completion at MVCC. I view Jim as a coach for ATD, and his message about graduation rates shows us what we need to focus on most closely. Information like Simpson’s data and ATD’s potential will be fed into the strategic planning process, which will result in clear, focused goals for MVCC. Cabinet and budget managers will use these goals to drive budgets and organizational initiatives.

If we approach it this way, instead of being disconnected and divergent, the energies of Jim's visit and ATD will become focused with clear priorities. With some well-placed and well-informed efforts, we will make significant (even amazing) progress on student completion.

In reflecting on the timing, I think it would have been nice to have Jim join us for the Summer Institute when more of us could have attended. That said, it was necessary to have him join us now – at the start of ATD – to help us aim for the appropriate focus.

Appropriately for a learning institution in a changing environment, many people are asking what we should do next, while strategic planning comes up to speed. My expectation is that we will not hit shots willy-nilly and then get frustrated because the interdepartmental relationships and lines of communication aren’t strong enough. We must not do everything all at once without clear lines of responsibility and accountability.

What we should do next is pay attention now to strengthening our relationships. They will be the key to implementing all the things we will want to do after. For my part I will be focusing on our solid, existing network of committees, councils, and workgroups. I will encourage them to communicate with each other to make focused decisions about how to infuse things like Simpson’s teachings and ATD into our strategic plan. As other priorities emerge, I will be aiming for clarity on who will be responsible for what, and how initiatives will roll up under our strategic plan.

It is my hope that if we proceed this way, there will be less confusion. To reach our potential and maximize the benefits of a shared focus on completion, we’re going to need to rely on each other more. Changing the lives of our students will require us to change too, and this will feel much better if we organize it around something that we all share - a strategy to be at our best for students.

If you have any comments or questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.