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What Matters Most

| July 20, 2021

by Jaci Lindburg

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jaci Lindburg, PhD, Associate Vice President for Digital Education and IT Strategy, University of Nebraska. She is a recent MOR program alum.  Jaci may be reached at [email protected].]

At the University of Nebraska IT, one of our organization’s five strategic goals is alignment to what matters most in service to the campuses we support.  As I reflect on what has undoubtedly been a whirlwind fifteen months for most of us working in higher ed IT, I think about what a simple yet complex goal “alignment” actually is.

First, consideration needs to be given to the obvious priorities.  The mission of higher education is all about student success and faculty excellence in research and teaching.  Student-centric models of support that enhance usability and decrease friction should always be an area of focus.  Practices that enable student-faculty engagement and lead to a deeper sense of connection between an individual and their campus community should rise to the top.  Historic pain points should be approached in new ways and steep change curves for users should be dealt with thoughtfully and with a great deal of input.

There are the political currents and stakeholder-driven priorities.  Campus leaders change, and along with this typically comes updated strategic plans, refreshed growth goals, and the launch of new campus-wide initiatives.  Without a doubt, those with political and social capital accelerate projects in higher education.  Outside of higher ed, elected officials cycle through, and with that comes changes in hot topics and what is communicated as most important.  As our campus communities embody a microcosm of society at large, to ignore political forces is to not be an aware and informed leader.

Then there are the relentless operational needs to keep the trains running.  Help desks must be staffed, tickets must be resolved, and paperwork must get processed.  A better technical solution emerges on the market, or a system is end-of-life and must be replaced.  No matter how streamlined and modern, operational needs take time out of everyone’s work weeks.

And there’s the digital transformation possibilities seemingly at our fingertips…if we just had the time.  That innovative project you’ve always wanted to launch.  That “have we ever thought of” conversation you’ve had five times with an Associate Dean.  The “it would be so much easier if we” effort you’ve messaged your coworker about for years.  The one that lands on the list each week, but never gets crossed off because it’s big…too big for just you to accomplish on your own.

With this continual breadth and depth of priorities, how do we actually go about determining what matters most?  When one considers the number of things for higher ed IT organizations to align to, a long list of possibilities quickly emerges in a typical year, let alone an atypical academic year like we experienced in 2020-21.  I posit that it is only through the creation and nurturing of authentic, meaningful relationships with those we serve that we can truly understand what matters most, fully embrace why it matters, and shape how we should support the goal.  I believe that we must become what leadership author Warren Bennis calls “first class noticers”:  individuals who actively seek connection, listen to understand instead of to hear, and lean into important dialogues with our communities.

I also might suggest that alignment cannot and should not become being everything to everyone.  Burnout is real.  Workdays have been inevitably stretched.  All turf cannot be covered.  But when we know – truly know – what matters most, it allows us to establish benchmarks, identify the finish line, dig deep, and achieve results – no matter how big the task at hand.

I recently heard Georgia Tech Strength & Conditioning Coach Lew Caralla passionately ask players on his team, “are you willing to sprint when the distance is unknown?”  In February and March 2020, I believe we were presented with the exact same question in higher ed IT.  I look back at the initial weeks of COVID-19, the months of sustained remote operations that would follow, and the complex problems our university communities asked us as higher education IT leaders to solve in the past 15 months, and I also look at where we are today.  Through careful listening, authentic relationships, and meaningful connections, we identified what mattered most in the short-term, and were able to transform the long-term.  We aligned to what matters most, and it brought incredible possibilities to the campuses we serve.

What do we need to do in the weeks and months ahead to be “first class noticers” and evolve our IT organizations for what is to come next?