I love to make things better. When I walk into a store and get stuck in line for a long time, I think about ways to reduce the wait. The self-checkout, express lines for 15 items or less, and the customer service desk for returns are concepts retail experts devised to reduce time in lines. They came about because someone tried to understand the problem. They examined the specific activity and identified ways of moving certain anomalies through the line differently.
When the problem is visible, it is easier to see the problem, determine the underlying cause, and formulate a solution. But how do we do this in higher education where the issues are not so visible?
I am listening to MasterClass sessions on business motivation with Rosalind Brewer. She was the CEO of several Fortune 500 companies like Starbucks, Walmart, Walgreens. In this series, she presents the methods she used to innovate. She tells a story about showing up at a Wal Mart store and seeing them struggle to unload boxes. As she began helping unload the boxes, she listened, watched, and asked questions. Brewer wanted to understand the problem first before attempting to fix it.
Ask questions and listen
Brewer, and other CEOs noted for turning struggling companies around, value the importance of understanding the problem and the business. They learn the challenges of each company by asking questions and listening to those closest to the products and customers. That way, they continuously improve the company and the consumer experience.
Higher education is different. We don’t always have the chance to be customers at our own institutions. How can we make the changes vital to turn struggling institutions around?
Let’s do an exercise I use in my business and innovation capstone called “a day in the life of… “.
The goal of this exercise is to empathize or truly understand the problem. Consider the issue of recycling and waste reduction on campus. First, we need to understand the entire timeline after a package arrives at the campus mailroom. A student picks up the package, brings it back to the dorm, and opens it. Then, the student discards the packaging, the cleaning service picks up the trash, and brings it to the recycling center or landfill. Now, we can look at each decision point and decide how best to provide easy ways to reduce, reuse, or recycle.
What if institutional leaders could be students for a month? What would we see that would help us provide a better experience and even save money? Taking a month out of our normal jobs is not an option, but what if we brought the students into our day? We could meet with graduating seniors, freshmen living away from home for the first time, or parents to learn what a day in their lives looks like.
Understand the problem and empathize
There are a few ground rules to this exercise. We must truly listen, ask questions, and most importantly, never defend our current methods. The reason you do something a certain way is not important. What is important is learning from the students’ perspective and being open and intentional about wanting to understand and address their needs.
Once you truly understand “a day in the life of…” you are in a much better position to solve not only the students’ needs, but the institution’s needs as well. What if we took this one step further and brought faculty and administration together in this exercise?
Who do you want to spend “a day in the life of… “?