Strategies to Refocus Your Executive Team on Innovation

Laurence N. Smith
Leadership, Innovation and Change Expert

Recently, a university president came to us with the following questions.  “How do I refocus my executive team to work on the innovation and change we need? How can I do it without making everyone defensive and even more protective of their administrative areas?  Our meetings have lots of conversation and self-promoting behaviors but few decisions or commitments to action. I also wonder if it would help to add people outside of my direct reports. Where do I start?”

Here is what we told her.  Whether you are a president, provost or a member of someone’s leadership team, think about how you can apply these actions to energize your team.

Relaunch the team to ensure trust and familiarity.
Taking time to formally relaunch or “reboot” your team may seem unnecessary if people know each other and everybody is ready to get to work; but there are implications to a new vision and mission that require conversation.  This will be especially true if you decide to add members or change the makeup of the team. Even a president’s cabinet may change over time. We know one president who formed a staff council and then added the president of that council to the cabinet. That act changed the chemistry of cabinet meetings. Diversity of representation from other groups, including faculty, students and staff,  will enrich the work of the team.

Establish clear short and long-term goals.
The purpose of any team is to achieve a common goal. In this case the purpose is to prepare the institution to adapt and thrive in a changing world. Make sure you have made a compelling vision and case for the goal this team is working toward.  Why is it essential to focus on the future of this institution? Why does it matter to each of us on the team? How will success be measured? What are the milestones we will use to assess progress as we go along? If the five-year goal is to reimagine who we teach, what we teach and how we teach, what is the goal for this year?  The more people can see progress and tie it to the work of the team, the stronger will be their motivation.  Providing metrics as close to real time as possible will keep people focused on making a difference every day.

Match skills with roles and responsibilities.
People come to work with capabilities we are not always aware of and people grow and change over time.  Take time to figure out the full portfolio of skills and broader kinds of knowledge each member brings to your team.  Match personality types to tasks. For instance, don’t ask a big picture thinker to manage the details. As with relaunching, it is tempting to skip over the process of actually mapping skills and matching them to responsibilities, especially if people have worked together before. Make sure every team member knows how each teammate contributes.  This process helps to make sure the assignment of roles and responsibilities is understood by everyone and the lines of accountability are clear.  There is a lot of talent resident within the institution. You may decide to add someone to the team that has skills that you need.

Streamline the team’s operational process.
Managing everyone’s time is essential to keeping the team energized and on track. On some campuses it takes more time to schedule meetings than to hold them.  One solution is to appoint “core” members of the team who must attend, “consulting” members who will be asked to attend when needed and “informed” members who can attend when available. Face-to-face meeting time is precious. Use it for discussion and decision making.  Briefings, reports, and updates should be distributed online.  Use technology for virtual meetings where you can. You may want to schedule several full team meetings at critical junctures.  Research shows, for instance, that a “check point” meeting at the halfway mark in a project is vital because people are becoming aware of impending deadlines. At other times, you may not need the full team to meet as long as there is good communication to keep everyone informed.  Don’t forget to have a purpose and an agenda for every meeting.

Promote knowledge transfer and team learning.
Make sure your team is able to document its work and that there is a culture of information sharing.  This implies accepting that some things that we try won’t work out as planned. Documenting what doesn’t work can be as important as what does. It is likely that individual team members will be off doing tasks in support of team goals.  It is very important to make time and space for individuals to share what they are learning with the team and to use that knowledge to plan future actions. Make sure that the first item on every meeting agenda is about outcomes achieved not activities planned. We use these four questions to help with that process: 1) What did we say we would do?, 2) What did we actually do?, 3) What have we learned?, and 4) How can we apply that knowledge to what needs to happen next?.

Celebrate victories and recognize contributors.
Make a big deal about small victories. Celebrate milestones as they are achieved. It is energizing and inspiring to be on a winning team. You should not only celebrate the victories achieved as a team; but also the contributions of individual team members.  As a leader, a public “thank you” or “well done” can mean a lot to someone who wants to be seen as a valued member of the team.  Having a “high five moment” with your team strengthens the bond between you and sends everyone back to work with new energy and enthusiasm. Don’t underestimate the value of morale, even among seasoned professionals.

Renew the team periodically.
All good things don’t need to come to an end but, very few teams should be perpetual.  Whether you have a sunset provision or simply renew the charter of the group periodically, it is a good idea to have an end date in mind when there is analysis of how or whether this team needs to continue.    It is also a good idea to let people rotate on and off the team from time to time, especially if this work is in addition to other duties.

The Lesson for Leaders
Our work with clients is primarily about helping leaders lead in a way that others will choose to support. Leadership is ultimately about helping the people of an organization prepare for change and then putting them in a position where they can achieve it.   It is about helping people get clear about the “why” and the “what” of the change so they can take charge of the “how”.

Here are a few “What if?” questions to consider with your executive team:

  • What if you decided to launch the coming academic year with an event that would excite your administrators, faculty, students, and staff and engage them in identifying high-value opportunities for innovation and change?
  • What if you could position your executive team to lead the renewed focus on innovation and change and feel confident in doing it?
  • What if you could hold an event designed to address the most important issues facing your school and generate new ideas for dealing with them?
  • What if people came away with a sense of urgency, enthusiasm, and commitment to new solutions and confidence that others felt the same?
  • What if you could make this event the beginning of an ongoing innovation and change strategies that will actually help your institution creatively adapt to our changing world in real time?

New Campus Dynamics creates experiential workshops that drive innovation and change at campuses across the nation. Events are customized to suit the individual needs of each school.  Click here for a sample of what a two-day experience might look like.

If you would like to know more, contact us for a complimentary initial consultation.