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Overcoming Siloes: Promoting More Collegial Collaboration Within Postsecondary Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Siloes: Promoting More Collegial Collaboration Within Postsecondary Institutions
With so many people working on common objectives in higher education, it’s sometimes surprising to consider how siloes stand in the way of more collaboration.
Why can’t we all just get along? One of my favorite things about working at a university is being surrounded by smart, dedicated colleagues who share the same goals of providing a quality education and experience to our students. We play different roles in achieving that goal: each department, college, and administrative unit is working hard towards its own purpose. Somehow, the sum of those efforts often falls short in getting us to the common goal. Our interests seem to splinter, and it can end up feeling like we’re all playing on different teams with guarded resources, competing agendas, and little shared understanding. Meaningful collaboration can feel like mission impossible, yet without it transformation cannot happen.

A decade ago, I read a book by Peter Block called Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008) which has stuck with me and guided my efforts to create partnerships in any organizational setting. Block argues that community is key to transformation, collaboration, and problem solving. To get anything of significance done, belonging and interdependence are necessary and must be nurtured. It is the sense of belonging which generates investment and ownership. Interdependence is the foundation of partnership.

What I like about Block’s thesis is that it challenges us to pay attention to the little things in order to achieve the big ones. There’s an inherent warmth and humanity in this approach to organizational development, which we would do well to employ in all sectors. Partnerships and productivity are ultimately about building community:

The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? (Block, 2008, p 10)

Like many of my colleagues, I like to move fast and get things done. I’m all about strategy and scalable solutions that effect rapid and significant change. But a recurring lesson for me is to also pay attention to the small things that help people feel included and valued so that we can succeed together. How often do we get caught up in what needs to be done at the expense of how we do it with others? So much happens at the interpersonal level that sets the stage for productive partnerships. We need to pay attention to all the ways we listen, speak and communicate with each other. Community is a conversation.

In reflecting on my experiences with partnerships and the conversation of community, I came up with some applied principles that I think Peter Block would approve, and that I hope are helpful to others:

Listen and observe: If community is a conversation, the best way to map out an approach to partnership is to listen. What are your potential partner’s needs, pain points, aspirations, values, assumptions, and approaches? By paying attention, you signal to your potential partners that you care. It becomes easier to have meaningful conversations grounded in shared understanding. It also becomes easier to identify ways to work together and avoid pitfalls.

Pound the pavement: There’s no substitute for getting out of your office and meeting people where they are. Individual meetings with potential partners signal your commitment to investing in their perspective and allows the opportunity to address concerns and get buy-in prior to larger group meetings. Be a systems thinker: As much as possible, reverse engineer the project from the desired outcome to the action steps, thinking through required resources and potential impacts on other processes and units. Bring partners into the fold early to minimize unintended impacts and increase feelings of investment.

Invite people to join: Change is manifested far more effectively through invitation than mandate. Welcome potential partners to the table with a personal, sincere invitation to be part of something important. Convey why they are important and why you hope they will join you. Focus the conversation on possibility: Possibility inspires, while the narratives of the past are limiting. In Block’s words, adopt a “bias toward the future” and don’t devote time to rehashing past issues. Figure out how you can have a conversation you haven’t had before, and shift from problems to possibility.

Break it down: While I was at the University of Arizona (UA) we worked hard to improve student success. In a single year, we needed to increase the freshman retention rate by three percentage points to meet our state performance metric. One of the most effective tactics I observed in engaging new partners in retention was when a vice president reframed the challenge by saying, “If each academic advisor retains three additional students, we will meet our goal.” By breaking the abstract goal down into a specific quantity per advisor, this VP changed the conversation and helped advisors see the possibility and their role in it. Breaking larger goals down to a proportional unit level helps people engage and increases a sense of accountability.

Find common ground: I try to look for the mutual benefit, or the “win-win” scenario in any partnership. What does a potential partner stand to gain from joining the effort? Can some of their needs be met in the process? Are there ways that I can facilitate that?

Be a giver: I once worked for a vice president at UA who would lend me out as a resource to other campus leaders needing help with surveys. I wasn’t the only resource she was generous with, but being a “loaner” was a great experience. It helped me to build a network of positive, direct relationships with key leaders across campus that I would not otherwise have had. Over time, I watched the generosity of this VP pay dividends as others were willing to partner when she was trying to get something accomplished. While it’s not to be exploited, reciprocity is a powerful social norm and utterly foundational to building a community. When I see an opportunity to help a colleague, I’ll always try to offer assistance within my means.

Make meetings matter: Respecting people’s time is essential. Don’t meet unless it’s necessary, and then be sure everyone knows why they are there and what they are supposed to accomplish. Have an agenda that leads to decision and action items, and provide concise supporting materials. Set completion dates and have partners report back. It is important for all voices to be heard, so keep meetings small. While expert opinions on optimal meeting size matters, most sources recommend five to eight participants. Pressure to contribute wanes with increasing group size and it is difficult to read body language when there are 20 people in the room (Lebowitz, 2017). Think carefully about who should attend: some meetings require executive leadership for resource and strategy decisions, while others need deputies responsible for implementation.

Allow for dissent: Not all ideas or opinions need to be acted upon, but people need to know that their voice is wanted, heard, and respected … that they belong. Diversity of thinking is critical for the best ideas to surface.

Communicate: How frustrating is it to do your part for a project and then never hear about the results? An ongoing conversation helps keep partners feeling important and engaged, and fosters trust. Provide periodic updates on progress and accomplishments so partners see a return on investment and can respond if additional needs arise.

Show gratitude: Our greatest accomplishments are usually in partnership with others, so be sure to recognize and express gratitude for everyone’s contributions. Community building happens “in an infinite number of small steps … It calls for us to treat as important many things that we thought were incidental” (Block, 2008, p. 9).

I’m grateful for the mentors and colleagues who have shown me how to build effective partnerships and made me a partner in some great achievements along the way. In the moments where I could have done better, I was moving too fast toward an objective and not paying attention to the small things. Many of you share my sense of urgency in our critical higher education mission, and scale and speed matter a great deal in transforming our institutions. But we can’t move so fast that we forget that it’s the interpersonal which builds partnerships and community.

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Block, Peter. 2008. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koelher Publishers, Inc.

Lebowitz, Shana. 2017. “9 expert tips to hold meetings that don’t waste people’s time.”

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