Great idea, the answer is no!

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. ~ Steve Jobs

Last week I was having a discussion on campus with a young director. We were talking about the normal madness we all face on our campuses and somehow got around to programs and I mentioned some past programs I’d created. He got a little wide-eyed and said, “you know how to create programs.” It turns out he has an idea for a program to assist students with getting bus passes via their student IDs. He works with our international students and they are particularly dependent upon mass transit to get back and forth to campus. We talked a lot about his idea and the standard obstacles you normally face when trying to start a new program on a campus, whether it’s a service or academic program. We set a time to talk in the future and the last thing I told him was to remember, the first answer is almost always going to be, no.

That conversation was the inspiration for this post, mostly because it brought back the memory of the first project I ever worked on. When I was an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh I worked as a resident assistant. Part of our requirements for that job was to do either two activities within the dorm, or one larger campus-wide activity. I was in a fraternity and part of a couple of organizations and I noticed that we always had a hard time recruiting new members. So it struck me that it might help all of the organizations on campus if during the first week of school we held and organization fair.

So I approached the person in student life, her name was Melanie, with the idea and she said, “we’ve tried that before, it doesn’t work.” I looked at her incredulously and asked if she would stop me from doing it. She kind of laughed at me and said, “no, but it won’t work, don’t blame me if it fails.” This is often the first thing you hear when you bring a new idea forward on a campus. To be fair, there are few truly unique ideas in education anymore, almost anything you come up with is likely to resemble, or be built upon something that’s been done before. That doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results, times change, student needs and patterns change, you may be taking a different approach, and finally it’s you, not someone else doing it. That doesn’t mean you should ignore past failures, it’s important to find out as best you can exactly what was done before and if possible why it likely failed. No sense testing that old definition of insanity, “doing the same thing, in the same way, over and over while expecting different results.”

So I organized and put on an organization fair at SUNY Plattsburgh in 1986. It was a huge success, for a college with about 3000 students, we had a 1000 attend the event. Organizations made huge numbers of contacts and everyone was really happy. Even our brand new president who went up and congratulated Melanie on the great work. To her credit she pointed out it wasn’t her, it was me. That actually was the beginning of an amazing relationship I would develop with our college president, Charles Warren.

There are a lot of ways in which colleges set the initial barrier to change, which is why if you want to be an effective program developer you need to understand the basics of change management. I wrote a white paper on change management about ten years ago, I guess it’s time to break it back out, update it and share out through this site. One of the other favorite ways that new ideas get suppressed is by asking, “is it in your ____ plan?” Every college has an integrated planning cycle and annual reports where you bring forward new resource requests and ideas. So whatever that plan is called, it’s easy to ask if you’ve included your idea in last year’s plan, if you haven’t, well then we just can’t act on it yet. Which is why whenever possible you need to include, through your unit, ideas in those plans. It doesn’t guarantee your idea moves forward, but it does remove one of the early stumbling blocks to success. Of course, often the idea you have, you just got. Either from a conversation or presentation at a conference, a discussion with a colleague or an article you read on an education blog, you know, like this one. And that of course means the idea couldn’t have possibly been in last year’s plan. So this is where experience pays off in how to get ideas moving forward when they are not in your plans, and what I’ll talk about in the change agent piece. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you don’t miss that piece there’s a lot of really good tips in that paper.

The general base concept for getting ideas established is really as follows. First things first, planning, planning and more planning. A big part of the planning beyond the obvious determination of areas of responsibility, demand, student need and resources is one people often leave out. That is planning for the obvious obstacles you will face and very often those obstacles are people. There are always many gatekeepers on campus. Some have fiefdoms that they are protecting, some are political animals, some are uninformed and some are boulders.

The nice thing about the fiefdom holders is they often are concerned with two things. First, that you don’t take away any of their power or resources, and second that they get some credit. This is why you have detail plans that alleviate their fears and show how their support will get them credit for success but insulate them if it fails. The political animals often want very much the same thing and may want to be the one who discusses or presents the idea in certain arenas so people associate the idea with them. They will also be the first to blame you if it fails. Those who are uninformed are the best gatekeepers, they are people who once you’ve thoroughly explained things, often become supporters and allies in the process. Finally, the boulders. Forget about them, a river does not try and go through a boulder, it goes around. That’s how you treat those people who are just always going to be a no for whatever reason. But be cognizant about how you do that, be careful not to get yourself into a political mess, go around them, but gently and this usually means approaching them, getting the no, and asking if they would have a problem approaching the process in another way.

What is likely very obvious at this point, is if you’re giving so many others opportunity to get credit, what’s left for you. In the beginning, nothing. That’s right, if you are trying to build programs for credit or simply as a resume builder you’ll likely fail. The primary focus needs to building something that provides a benefit for our students. If you do that, people will know who made it happen. I’ve made a thirty-five year, highly successful career out of not chasing credit, but focusing on getting things done for students. Don’t worry about the credit, you can still include what you did on your resume even if people on campus think others had roles they didn’t. Over time, being someone who is focused on serving students and gets things accomplished will serve you far better than chasing feathers in your cap.

Program development is always a slower process than you would like. There are always more hoops to jump than you planned on and the ever famous, unknown – unknowns. But the upside is that when you successfully create a program that truly benefits students, there is no better feeling.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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