What Would Radical Simplification Look Like in Higher Ed?

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. Robert Talbert, Author, Professor, and Presidential Fellow for the Advancement of Learning at Grand Valley State University, returns to the show to talk about the concept of radical simplification and the start/stop/continue exercises we should use at the institutional level.

And that's what radical simplification for me is all about, getting out of the root of what we do and just starting to shut down or minimize the stuff that doesn't really add value. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect e Theu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education, and we're here today with Dr Robert Talbot, author, professor and Presidential Fellow for the advancement of learning at Grand Valley State University. Robert, welcome back to the show as one of our only three peat guests so far. Hey, thanks, sir. It's a great pleasure to be here yet again. We're excited to have you back and to talk with you today about the concept of radical simplification and the start, stop continue exercise we might want to think about at an institutional level. But before we dig in, can you give the listeners a quick reminder on Grand Valley State and your role. They're sure. Grand Valley State University is a public university. Our main campus as an Allendale Michigan. We have another campus in grand rapids, Michigan and or at Twenty Fivezero students around that much these days, and we are teaching focused university, with some graduate programs but mainly focused on undergraduate education. And my role is I'm a professor in the math department and I also have a currently a one quarter time appointment in our president's office overseeing and coordinating campus wide initiatives to promote innovative teaching learning practices. Huge congrats on that new role. And Robert, to kick us off, can you give us a high level overview on the concept of radical simplification? Sure so. Higher Education has this habit of adding things without end but never subtracting anything off, and we create positions and programs to solve simple problems and also to solve problems that are way too complex for the positions and programs that are for which they are created. And it turns into sort of a rats nest of policies and procedures and expectations and it all trickles down to faculty and students. I noticed this when I was chair of the math department in nine thousand and Nineteen and two thousand and twenty, the onset of the pandemic and just before. I've never been a department share before and I was astounded by just the sheer number of things that department shares had to do, many of which didn't seem to me that they needed to be done at all, and so I started to wonder. I spent a year on Sabbatical and industry, it's steelcase, incorporated here in grand rapids, just as a researcher or scholar residents, and they have this this concept called the introduce me to this concept called the reverse rollout. So you know, when you're running a company or you're manufacturing something or designing something, the roll out is when you introduce a new feature or a new product to some or feature of...

...a new product and you roll it out and you get the feel of how people respond to it. You collect data and you see if it really makes a difference in people's lives, it's really an improvement. A reverse roll out is exactly the opposite. You take an existing feature or product and you remove it and see if anybody notices. And many times when you do our reverse roll out on something, not only do people not complain about it, they don't even notice that you did. And if that's the case, you don't ever roll it back out because it's totally unnecessary. And so when I was department share and I was having this experience, I started experimenting with my own reverse rollouts of certain policies that I was supposed to be following, but I just thought, well, what if I just didn't do this at all? So is those are there are certain things I just stop doing and nobody noticed, and so it got me really wondering, like how much could we just simply stop doing in higher education, or, if not stop doing then minimize it greatly. We tend to ask questions about things that we could add on to our existing structures and higher and we do it because we feel like it's going to add some amount of value. And maybe it does, but we're asking the wrong questions. We're asking does this create any amount of value at all, versus does the cost of implementing this outweigh the benefits that it produces? And so radical simplification as all about just being brave about going into what we currently do, our policies or procedures, the stuff in our syllabi, when we're teaching our own personal productivity habits and workflows, and ask and putting it all on the table and asking each and every one of those. Does it create more problems and it solves does the cost of doing this outweigh any benefit that it conveys to us? And that's what radical simplification for me is all about, getting out of the root of what we do and just starting to shut down or minimize the stuff that doesn't really add value Commensur with the cost that it tails. I love the concept and the thought exercises that it creates. Similarly, on my side, I stopped wearing dress pants about two years ago and no one has noticed yet. I think many of us can relate to that. You know what we poke? We Poke Fun when we say, you know what, higher right. What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Let's talk about the why. Let's talk about scope creep in higher ed over time. How has higher eds, scope mission grown over the last fifty years and is it simply too big today for us to be particularly great at all, or even any of it? Well, if you think fifty years ago. So go back to the S. I mean I wasn't in higher rate, obviously the s but if you think about it, my sisters were, and I remember when my sister is going to college. It was a pretty simple process, right. I mean you go and you have some pretty tightly defined organizations. There was not, you know, offices for this, that and the other, and it seemed like things got done pretty readily. In the time that I've been a professional higher over the last twenty five years, it seems like it's just grown and grown and growing...

...and grown and grown, and it's hard to put a metric on this, but one potential way of measuring this, the scope creep, is just to simply look at the proliferation of administrative positions and salaries. In some ways that's a trailing measure of complexity, because the more complex things get, you know, higher its tendency is to solve create programs to solve problems, which is a sort of a problem in and of itself, and so you have ministrators and up around these programs to solve the problems that you've created for yourself, and this causes more problems. So I found there's there's any number of data that shows the explosion of administrative of administrative growth over the last twenty years. I have nothing against administration. I work in the President's office at my school and that's a great experience and our senior leadership team is fabulous. But in this article, one article I found in Forbes magazine from two thousand and seventeen notes that in the University of California system, between the fiscal years two thousand and twelve and two thousand and thirteen and two thousand and fifteen twenty sixteen, so that's just a three year period, the office of the President's administrative spending increased twenty eight percent, by eighty million dollars in three years. On what? Mostly on creating positions and programs to solve existing problems. But it also notes that during the nineteen eighty nineteen eighty one school years, so about forty years ago, public and Private Institution spent twenty point seven billion dollars in nineteen eighty dollars on instruction and thirteen billion academic support. But in two thousand and fourteen, two thousand and fifteen school year, the instructional costs had gone to a hundred forty eight billion dollars, but the same grouping of administrative expenses went to a hundred and twenty two billion dollars. So it's rapidly outpacing instructional expenses. And again this is both a trailing measure of complexity and it's also an indicator that there is more complexity coming, because as we have greater amounts of sort of top heavy administration and programming, that creates its own set of policies and procedures because in many cases the administrators that are hired to solve these problems around these programs are not accountable for the complexity that they create. They it's it's for somebody else to deal with, and so there's no real break on the amount of complexity that can be added to an already overly complex system. So I mean, that's just one way of looking at it. This is our point. It's all good things, is that these people aren't doing good things. And I love how you reference to your own start, stop, continue exercise, the prioritize your own time. How do we do fewer good things? I had more great things. And so your stop exercise of like, let's see if anyone notices or even how do we think about this in terms of like, well know, if people notice, that's fine, we're going to we're going to explain and have to clarify why we're making the choices we are. I see this being a really helpful strategic planning at exercise, not at the individual level or at the department level or that kind of a unit level, but at the university level. Do we think this kind of strategic plan exercise could work at that level? I absolutely do think it can't. I can and needs to work at this level. I first came into contact the start stopping to in your exercise, which, for your listeners,...

...in case that's not completely clear, it's you look at whatever it is you're doing and whatever context and you ask yourself, what some things that I am currently doing that I should stop doing, order some things that I am not doing that I need to start doing, and what are some things that I am currently doing that I need to continue doing? And this is an exercise I do with my students. Wants a semester around this time at the semester in a week six, week seven. Were pretty well into the class and I just want to kind of get their feedback on what's going well, and that's sort of thing. But it actually works real well on a much larger level too, and I think that it's very quick, it's very simple and it generates a lot of good energy, I think, among people to think differently about the the the context at they're in. Yeah, so let's think about that. We talked about scope creep over the last fifty years. We're talking about this stop doing exercise. What are some places you think where we might land in that stop doing category if Higher Ed were to take on the strategic planning exercise? Well, I just would look at my own experience as really almost and you can start finding on any number of things. One thing that I think that we would probably stop doing is having extremely large committees for things. I think committees themselves are neither good nor bad sometimes if you have to get people together to work as a team on certain things. But you know, for example, I was recently on a task force that had thirty five other people on it. Now, I mean honestly, there is no way you're going to accomplish much with thirty five people. You can't even schedule thirty five people for a meeting and I'm not sure. It's no. No offense to the people who were running this particular task force if they happen to be listening, but it I mean that's that's way too many people on a committee. If you have something it's that complicated, then the problem is not the size of the committee. The problem is the size of the problem that you're trying to solve. Your probably need to break into the smaller pieces and let smaller groups run it. I know there's a project management, there's a like the the two pizza rule, like you should never have more people on a committee that it consume two large pizzas in a single setting. I was wondered, like how hungry are these people? How how large are these people? Are we talking about? I can eat a pizza exactly in my house. That's that's to see, and I Robert that that's us. I know is my son can eat like both pieces. But that being said, you know, all in all seriousness, I mean look at the size of the committees that we're having. Do you really need eight people on a committee where you could really get the same amount, were more, done with three? That's that's something that definitely we can stop doing. It freeze up time for other people to do other things. Many times committees themselves or, in necessary, what you really need to do is find a single person who has energy for the problem that you're trying to solve and just give them some authority. It's sometimes there's a sense that if one person is good to solving a problem, than three people ought to be three times as good at solving the same problem, and that's just not the case. I mean if you've looked your own experience, as you know, it's not the case. So sometimes committees themselves can be gone, and I think something that resonates with just about everybody anywhere, higher education or otherwise. As meetings, I mean meetings of vanishingly few meetings that happen anywhere, especially in the university level, are focused and productive. Many of them don't have a clearly defined purpose or structure and a...

...lot of them don't even have an agenda when you meet, and so, personally, you know I have this. I say this I've never actually done this before, but I would say like if you, if you invite me to a meeting and there's no agenda, I'm not coming, and to stop wasting time on meetings that don't have an agenda, and maybe that's a little extreme, but I do think that we would probably if we started holding ourselves to that level of standard, we would meet only when it's really and truly necessary. And oftentimes meetings are not necessary. We're just doing them to be doing them or because we think that we like social interaction. But you know, we can socially interact over a beer and then get that out of the way. I think at our work done, and even when we do meet, we definitely do not need to meet in person. Most of the Times that we meet in person. I mean, we could have simple meetings that are ten minutes long over zoom or Skype, like you're and I are doing right now, and get much more done, or at least empower each other to get more done, without all the accouterments of a meeting. There's a ton of unnecessary paperwork that is done as part of standing procedures that somebody added fifteen years ago for some some reason, like this, one pathological reason, and today, in two thousand and twenty two, it's just not necessary. I noticed this a lot when I was a unit head. There is one particular instance where we're it was up. It was a personnel action, a promotion Tende. Reactions are very important and there's a lot of policies and procedures for promotion attendure that are extremely important that don't need to be gotten rid of. But it was I think it was like at one point a committee was supposed to decide something and then I was supposed to summarize what the committee said and I was on the committee, so there wasn't some sort of, you know, conflict of interest. So it just thought, why am I doing this? Why don't we just take minutes? Is that all we're trying to do here, is just take minutes and turn in the minutes, because let's just do that. Why do two things and so when we can get away with doing one thing but still a lot of unnecessary overhead that somebody, so one person maybe back many years ago, decided it was going to be just a great idea. Maybe it was for that one person at that one point in time, but now not so much. So just reevaluate. If it's still worthwhile, then you can keep it. If it's not, then let's be honest it. Just get rid of it or minimize it or do something else with it. I think a lot of the focus on when thinking about this conversation is the stopping. What do we do to stop? And with the enrollment declines we've seen in higher Ed, firstly due to demographics, secondly due to the pandemic, I think that's stopped doing. Exercise is happening a lot right now of what should we stop doing. But I love that this exercise is start, stop, continue, because what new things might that exercise make room for? Things that, if we are not in twenty seven committees every week, that we could now do things that seemed too big for us to mount a serious effort after to date, that if we only stopped doing these things, we could make room for these new things to start. What do you imagine that exercise might flush out of some potential ideas? Well? It's good that you mentioned values a second ago, because I think that if you cut away a lot of the in essentials, that you're left with the...

...essentials and you have to sort if forces you to come to grips with what are your values as a university, as a department, as a college. And I don't want it to make it sound like we talked about stop to stopping doing things and it equates to cutting programs. I think that's we see a lot of cutting programs these days, and it doesn't have to be that way. I think that if many of the people cut programs because they seem to be unprofitable, why are they unprofitable? Well, because students tend to leave these programs. They don't tend to sign up. Well, why aren't they signing up? Why are they leaving? Well, maybe it's because they're like advising isn't as good as it could be. Okay, so if that, if you really start asking why questions to get down to the real problem, like, okay, are advising really needs an upgrade, where are you going to find time to really put in the work to do good advising that could help student satisfaction, which could help your program stay alive? You're going to find the time by cutting out unnecessary stuff, so it gives you time to build this defensible core of truly value aligned actions that you can now spend as much time on as you want, because you're not writing some report that nobody cares about. It nobody's going to read and it's death by a thousand paper cuts, almost literally paper cuts. And Higher Education do you have reports, you have, you know, a committee that you don't need to be on, a meeting that you are supposed to attend that you have absolutely no chance of contributing anything to because you're not you're not really it's not really releant into at all. We're not asking ourselves what's relevant, what is at the absolute core of our mission that we must attend to in order to be relevant and save ourselves in the future. We're just asking what else can we do? And we just keep adding and adding and adding. But I think you know, if you start subtracting things out, then you're going to find time to do more, with more time or energy, you know, more everything, to do more with the things that really aligned with your values, and I think that students are absolutely attracted to programs that have a good sense of their values and their cultural aligns with their values. I think that's the number one thing. Is like you can finally get clear of what you value and just do that and forget the other stuff because you're not hung up on a committee. I think to again back to my time in my sabbatical with steelcase, there was this one time at steelcase where we had staff meetings every Monday and the designers would come on along with all the other folks, me and the salespeople, and it was kind of a diverse meeting. Designers came in one week with this idea for that they got from a customer for a new product, and we talked about it. We decided that aligned with the values of the unit. A week later it was in the computer system and two weeks later it was coming off the factory line. Three weeks later it was for sale. So it was like three weeks from IDA phase to actual product being sold. On the other hand, you know, we and my department recently approved a redesign of one of our courses and it took literally almost ten years to get this redesign done. I mean ten in years. I think...

...we could have probably done it in three weeks honestly, but it was because we were so hung up not only in that process but on the hundred other processes. And you know, to be fair, I mean our faculty or pretty heavily worked, you know, with classes and advising research, but how much of that could have been stripped away to really focus on something that really and truly mattered for us, namely the redesign of that course and maybe we could have gotten done in like a year instead of ten years. I just wonder sometimes, you know, if we're being dragged kicking and screaming away from our own values because of the paperwork and the unnecessary cruft that we create for ourselves. But Rob where people might get their feelings start if we don't invite them to the committee? I seriously doubt it us. Like I keep it. I keep getting told this, you know, because I'm by you know, I'm in the sort of this because I'm not in any position of authority. I just work in the president's office, which has a lot of authority around, and so people keep telling me, all you got to really check in with this other person and make sure they're assigned off on this this one thing, on this one part of this one project, otherwise they're going to feel like they're being left out. And, honestly, every time I do this or like, why did you? You didn't have to do this, they I really don't think that people. I think that other people are a little too sensitive about other people's feelings. I think other people are just fine with their own feelings, honestly, and there is a possibility of truly getting left out of the loop, and you don't want to do that, I mean, but this is this is another thing that we don't do very often. As we have projects in academia, we don't treat them like real projects, I mean real objects. What I would do, first of all with a real project is create this thing called a racy chart, which is a just a simple form that I handle out all the stakeholders of the project and ask them how much in the loop do you want to be kept? Do you want to get like daily updates? Do you want to be invited meetings? Do you want to get emails? Do you just want, you know, a monthly check in? And just ask people how much they want to be kept in the lip? But we never do this because it were also like we're so busy with other stuff that doesn't matter for the supposed project that we don't actually do the project right. Higher it is extraordinarily collaborative and there are huge pros and the huge guns with that reality have yeah, everything, the the the big the bit. The great thing about hire it is that everything is done by consensus, and the most terrible thing about hire it is that everything is done by consensus. Yeah, both are true. Both are true. Robert Love. The thoughts finally leave us with some next steps for institutions listening looking to engage in radical simplification and some of these exercises. Where should they start? I would start by just making sure you're asking the right questions about the things that you do. The right question is not does this thing provide any value to me or the university. The right question is does the benefit outweigh the cost? I guess I asked this myself. Ever, someone often about things like social media, like facebook. facebook absolutely provide some value to me and my life because I do get to keep track of, you know, a few people, all of some some folks that I don't normally see. But does it is it worth the investment in time? Well, to me the answer is no, it really isn't. So I try...

...to stay off facebook because it's it's a net negative for me. We're asking ourselves, does is there any positive contribution that can be made by doing x? And if the answer is yes, we do x. We do x square. Okay, we don't ask ourselves. Okay, let's look at the positives and also look at the negatives and if there's a net negative, don't do it or cut it out or minimize it. So you ask them I questions and then be brave about it and ask that question about everything that you do, whether it's a policy, a procedure, a topic in your syllabus, something in your own personal productivity workflow, something that maybe you don't have a personal pro activity workflow, and maybe that's a problem too it. Maybe it's just something that you continually do. Ask yourself not does it make does it provide any sort of positive impact at all? Because it probably does. And but we can't do everything, and that's that's an important thing to realize. Only do the things that align with your values and really push the needle on accomplishing the goals in align with your values. That's the frame of mind you got to get into and I would also I would say, you know, if you're an institution, I would love to see an institution just take this on as a one year challenge to cut or minimize as many unessential things as possible, to really identify what's the essentials and to get rid or minimize as much of the UNESSENTIALS as possible. And one thing I would not encourage people to do is don't form a committee to do this, because that's the whole problem, is that we form committees and programs to take care of problems. Okay, this is everybody's problems, everybody's responsibility. So maybe give like a big cash or award to the person with the best idea. That creates the most amount of free overhead that you can now spend on students or something that's really worthwhile. So yeah, so ask the right questions, keep it simple and keep it time constrained. I think constraining things on time, like, okay, we're going to take this semester to like cut as many stuff out of our promotion, to tendure processes as possible or something like that, and put the boundary around that create some energy where there wasn't anything before. If I heard right, I just heard Robert offer up a new xprize, million dollars from his own money. So thank you, Robert. We will eagerly be applying. I yeah, million dollars from my own money. Sure, that's as soon as I get that, I'll give it away. Robert, super grateful for your time as always. What's the best place for listeners to connect with you? They have any follow up questions? Sure, I am occasionally on twitter. I'm not on twitter as much anymore because of this whole thing about does it add more than subtracts, but I do check my messages there. So I'm at Robert Talbert on twitter. I also you can read, but I'm up to at my website or Talbert Dot Org. Awesome, Robert. Thanks against so much for joining us today. All right, thank you for attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. He looks educations. Data driven, enterprize wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content...

...on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges, downloaded today for free at Helix educationcoms playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show on Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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