Houston we have a problem. Leading through failure. EDUCAUSE 2009, Denver

Presentation: Houston, We Have a Problem: Leading Through Failure.

Presenters: James A. Jorstad, Ann Kovalchick, William A. Mayer, Hae K. Okimoto, Sherri Yerk-Zwickl

Link: EDUCAUSE 2009 page for this presentation

Here are my notes on this talk:

The presentation opens with a video about Honda, “Failure: The Secret To Success.” It’s from the Dream the Impossible documentary series.

Jorstad – A Space Design initiative

Know your landscape before taking off.
Know and understand how the pieces fit together.
Don’t got at it alone. Know your allies.
Understand your point of view and that of others.
Be aware of the view from more than 10,000 feet. Try to view your situation from the chancellor’s perspective.

Okimoto – Enterprise application adoption

Context: University of Hawaii system. 10 campuses. Goal was to set up a centralized student information system. They selected a vendor. But vendor then left. To recover from this, it was important to have a goal, a plan and a navigation system. She compared to the value of having a GPS when driving through heavy fog.

Mayer – Project Launch

Challenge he faced: library was going to soon run out of space in the stacks. He couldn’t just go to his tenured librarians for a solution. Couldn’t just go to students for a solution. They hired movers to move the books. Take away points: with small failures, find the ways to recover gracefully and establish comfort. With spectacular failures, lean into discomfort, don’t be afraid to learn, and remember the Mars Polar Surveyor.

Kovalchick – Portal Implementation

Challenge: Blackboard portal implementation. 8 months lead time. New account provisioning process. New Provost. Value added.

Failure: they found all new faculty could not access Blackboard. And HR staff were being blamed at first.

Assumptions about authority: positional. persuasive.

The “Do Over” – relational authority. Personal authority.

Yerk-Zwickl – graduate admissions application

The challenge: create a new graduate admissions application form. Improve the look and functionality. One college decided to go forward with a plan to create a new form but didn’t check with IT first. But IT used a third party tool to validate the form info to make sure it’s kosher before the data moves into the university’s system. Inadequate testing. Tempers flare. This process of poor collaboration or non-collaboration goes on for two years: and still no application form.

How did we get into this mess? An approach of “do first, ask later” combined with “ego issues.” It all circles back around to a communication failure on all sides.

What did we learn? Never underestimate the value of planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail. How we responded to those clients when they asked for help so late in the game, was really an issue for us. We should have stepped back to assess the situatino more carefully and proceed more carefully. All of the warning signs showed us that the communication piece is where the failure happened. Body language in meetings made it evident that things were “not pretty.”

Q & A time.

A question about failure and blame.

Kovalchick answers  “It’s okay to take the blame sometimes.”

Yerk-Zwickl says to get right past the finger pointing, and get on with fixing things.

Mayer says he has started projects by saying if this works, you get the credit. If it fails, it’s on me. That can put people at ease and make them warm up to the idea/iniative.

Okimoto – make sure you don’t go into a meeting unprepared. Be ready to say I’m sorry, I screwed up.

Question about projects that are going south that you inherit.

Mayer says not to get caught up on past failures of the project that’s going south. If you do that, you’ll get stuck and never move ahead.

Another question about failure and communication.

Kovalchick – I communicated seven time the same message in different formats. What I didn’t do is draw it out, put it in front of people responsible, and say, is this what’s going to happen on a certain date? Need to do the verification and triangulation of different modalities. We have to be more empathetic …

Okimoto – communication is key, but it is often about who communicates. Might need president or faculty senate chair to communicate the message (to lend more credibility to the message).

Jorstad – Many times it’s about the timing of when you communicate. I’m a visual communicator. Visual communications can have emotional impact. Key points: timing and visual learning/communication.


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