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| August 22, 2023

by Bill Wrobleski

Most of my career, I had no principles.

In 2018, I got some, and it changed everything.

Let me explain.

Becoming principled

In February 2018, I started my new job at Penn State. Like any leader joining a new organization, I spent my first few weeks interviewing people around the institution to get an accurate lay of the land.

One thing stood out to me from these conversations. Despite the university having an impressive group of information technology professionals, there were several diverging ideas about where Penn State should be going technically. This divergence created tension and frustration, proving to be a stumbling block in several areas. It was even leading to teams developing competing services with each other.

So, we tried a simple exercise. We developed principles.

According to one technical architectural model, principles are:

general rules and guidelines, intended to be enduring and seldom amended, that inform and support the way in which an organization sets about fulfilling its mission.

In other words, principles are clear statements about what matters to your organization. Ideally, they are concise, clear, and unambiguous. A quick review of an organization’s principles should give one a good understanding of its aspirations and priorities.

A representative group of IT leaders generated the early drafts of the PSU technical principles, and we quickly reached out to get input from a broad set of people in all parts of the institution. After a couple of months of work, Penn State Technical Principles (April 2018) included some of the following:

  • We will relentlessly pursue automation
    • Automation allows us to do more at better service-levels
  • We will avoid the proliferation of functionally-redundant technology
    • Redundant technologies waste the university’s valuable resources
  • We are “cloud first” for the selection of applications and infrastructure
    • When selecting a delivery platform, we’ll consider a broad set of factors including: total cost of ownership, opportunity costs, strategic alignment and operational sustainability
  • We will buy solutions rather than develop them ourselves
    • We prefer Software-as-a-Service cloud-based solutions over traditional software licensing models
  • We will become integration experts
    • Our mix of applications and business practices will be unique from other institutions, so we’ll need to have the skills and knowledge to integrate our systems where out-of-the-box integration is inadequate
  • The network is the digital foundation for learning and discovery
    • Penn State’s ability to lead in teaching, learning and research requires a world-class network

And it worked. We socialized the principles across the organization, and there was strong support. Many people expressed thanks for the clarification of direction that the principles brought to the team. Of course, not everyone agreed with the principles, and some even left the organization over them. Looking back, I think even those people that left would agree that it was better to surface our disagreements and make clear decisions than try to co-exist while pulling in different directions.

Expanding our principles

Our technical principles were so successful we used the approach several more times. Each time, having to write down our principles in succinct statements helped us think through what we believed and aspired to.

One of the more unusual uses of principles we had at PSU involved staff layoffs. In the summer of 2020, it was becoming evident to me and my colleagues that layoffs would be necessary in our organization. Months before any layoff decision was made, I met with my leadership team and asked, “What principles should guide us if we are eventually asked to lay off some of our staff?”

With no input from me, the leadership team came up with these principles:

  • Leverage non-salary cuts as much as possible
    • But don’t cut non-salary expenses so much that we undermine our ability to successfully support Penn State
  • Try to maintain or grow staffing levels in areas of strategic importance
  • Try to make sure teams have enough personnel to do the important work that Penn State requires 
    • Many teams are understaffed already due to previous reductions and the recent job freeze
  • Try to keep the ratio of managers to staff as optimally balanced as possible
  • Consider re-organizing work where it could lead to gains in efficiency

Later in 2020, when the decision was made to lay off staff, I was able to make the cut decisions independently using these principles. One of the benefits of this approach was that it meant that I, not my leadership team, was held accountable for the layoff decisions, but the cuts were consistent with our leadership team’s vision and priorities. It also meant that I could easily explain my choices clearly and understandably. Frankly, the cuts were still painful, especially to those staff members that lost their positions, but our use of principles helped the members of our organization understand how and why the decisions were made. 

Hints on developing principles

Are you unprincipled? Maybe you and your organization could benefit from defining your principles too. Below are a few ideas for putting them together.

  • Get a lot of people’s fingerprints on them. When complete, you want as many people to feel ownership as possible. 
  • Present draft principles in settings where people have a real opportunity to make suggestions and challenge assumptions. Don’t presume that silence is assent. Try to get real, meaningful feedback. 
  • Avoid jargon and ambiguity. For example, our principle “cloud first” is too vague and confusing. The term “cloud first” means different things to different people.
  • Keep the principles as succinct and clear as possible. Most of ours were less than 15 words. If necessary, include accompanying text or sub-bullets to clarify the principle.
  • Remember that principles shouldn’t change much over time. They are intended to be so foundational that change is rarely necessary. That said, you should review them every year or two to keep them in everyone’s mind and to make adjustments when appropriate.
  • When you are making important decisions, make a point of referring back to the principles. This will not only help with your decision-making, but will help reinforce the principles and build alignment across the organization.

Last week we asked about moving or not in your current career journey.

  • 29% said they’re happy with their current position and not seeking.
  • 14% said while they’re not happy where they are, they’re staying put for now.
  • 25% said while they’re happy where they are, they are open to new career possibilities.
  • 19% said they’re looking for a next step while staying at their current institution.
  • 13% said they’re looking for a next step, likely somewhere new.

There was lots of engagement in last week’s survey – over twice as much as usual. This shows the interest in this topic to so many readers. 54% said they’re happy where they are, although roughly half of this happy group are open to new career possibilities. While 54% are happy, that also means 46% are in some state of unhappiness, including almost 1 in 3 who are actively looking. There are two ways we can look at these results. From an individual perspective, know you are not alone regardless of which category best describes where you are (and especially if you’re looking to move, with so many others looking to move, this can create favorable conditions for you). From an organizational perspective, consider your team and how they may be feeling. How can you best help them thrive either as a member of your team or elsewhere?