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Author: David A. Taylor-Fishwick

In higher education, new initiatives are constantly being trialed. New modalities in student education, efforts to recruit and retain learners, and techniques to engage faculty in growth and development are examples of such initiatives. Numerous initiatives do not gain traction. Often these rapidly fade away with limited lessons about why they failed, frequently being accompanied by deferred responsibility and the retorts of an uninterested audience.

Using an example of a startup, I hope this relatable analogy will stimulate reflection or pro-action to guide better, more sustainable initiatives in many areas of higher education.

Starting a cupcake business

Lilly is a new baker who is convinced that she has the best cupcake concept that everyone will love. Her confidence that customers will embrace her cupcake business is driven, in part, by her conviction and additionally bolstered by examples of proven success for others, albeit in different environments. Lilly is enthusiastic for her pending success and future profitability.

Three months after opening her cupcake business, Lilly reports sales that are significantly lower than expected. Devastated, she calls in a business advisor, Clara. Lilly expounds to Clara her frustration with her perceived customers for not embracing her concept and making the enterprise a thriving success.

Clara listens carefully to Lilly and observes many parallels to other situations where initiatives, while made in good faith, obtain less buy-in from the audience than expected. Equivalently, in these scenarios, the architects of the initiative blame the audience: “They’re not engaged,” “They are just not interested,” “We put in all this effort, and no one turns up,” and so on.

Clara counsels Lilly that the success of her enterprise depends on customer engagement. Rather than blame the customer, Lilly must identify the potential barriers to this customer engagement and create solutions. Clara, while advising Lilly of the adage “the customer is always right,” identifies common themes in failed initiatives. Collectively, Clara and Lilly review potential barriers to customer engagement in her cupcake business. As you will see, barriers identified are fundamental and parallel those of many initiatives, including efforts in higher education. The table below summarizes these discussions’ outcomes, including how the analogy applies to higher education.

Clara’s Question to LillyLilly’s Cupcake responseClara’s Feedback to LillyLessons for New Initiatives in Higher Education
Why did you initiate the cupcake bakery?I have conviction that a cupcake bakery will work, and it has proven successful in other settings.Does the product meet your local need and resource? No matter how great your personal conviction and peripheral supportive data, the product must fill a local need and resource.Initiatives that have proven successful at one institution may not translate to your institutional environment. Be cognizant of relative resources, staff levels, available time, workload, stage of development, etc. Apply a realistic approach appose to mere personal conviction on what you feel is a good idea. Meaningful initiatives are not just plug and play.
How did you determine the need?My cupcakes are awesome. I know people will love them.Know your community. Do people have easy access and time or see value in your cupcake? Establish what the need is rather than merely following your conviction that people desire your cupcakes.While personal conviction for an initiative is admirable, its success depends on engagement and reciprocal enthusiasm. Numerous factors affect this relationship. It is important to establish an appreciable need for your initiative. Ploughing on due to personal conviction alone will lead to suboptimal engagement. Subsequently applying blame to the target group for lack of engagement/attendance is a no-no.
How did you engage the customer?I sent out general flyers.Promote the product by all means available—free samples, outreach, targeted invitations, etc. If the product is to provide value, people must first experience it.Engagement is vital in higher education, where so many competing demands exist for time. Build a reciprocal relationship to establish genuine interest in your initiative. Are you addressing actual needs? Engagement includes practical administration to ensure initiatives minimize barriers to engagement. This may require online access or repeated sessions to capture convenient times, outreach, etc.
How did you ensure supply met demand?I anticipated an enthusiastic response and product buy-in. I did not have any formulated plan.It is important to know your target customer. What are their needs and desires for cupcakes? Are there competing interest? Is the location of your bakery convenient to them? How can you facilitate access to the cupcakes? Be informed and realistic about demand for your initiative, and match resources accordingly.Focus on initiatives that meet established needs. Determine requirements through environmental scans and assessments. Communicate how the initiative is responsive to the established needs. Listen and use delivery formats people request; don’t force a format because you personally prefer it. Be responsive to the community to maximize engagement. If administration recognizes the need for the initiative and supports it, take steps to ensure wide exposure to the initiative. This often means not relying on voluntary attendance. Have a clear goal for outcome that will define success.
What methods did you establish to measure success and your achievement?I monitored cupcake sales and customer visits. I had no preestablished goals to measure success.It is important to have measurable outcomes. Essentially, it is the difference between “wandering” and being driven. If you establish realistic goals, you would be better able to identify when things are not working and therefore quicker to intervene to get back on track.To be meaningful, and worth the effort, a new initiative should focus on tangible outcomes. Simply “making it through the initiative” is not sufficient. Be clear on the reason for enacting an initiative that commits others’ time. Have a measure to ensure that such a compact results in mutual benefit. Be realistic: If a tangible outcome of measured success is not attainable, does the initiative have value? Seek meaningful feedback. Take ownership of an initiative that does not meet the predetermined measure of success (i.e., that fails). Do not blame participants. Learn from the deficiencies, refocus, and apply gained knowledge to subsequent initiatives.
How did you build longer-term commitment?I did not track or reward repeat customers. I expected the cupcakes to sell themselves.Don’t treat each cupcake sale as an isolated transaction. Each interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship with your business and products. Fostering this relationship grows enthusiasm.A new initiative can encounter skepticism. Think beyond this event and communicate how it applies to a broader growth picture. Structure a reward process (e.g., a certificate of completion, a component toward institutional credit). A sense of reward and growth in one initiative will foster engagement and enthusiasm for subsequent initiatives. By contrast, uncoordinated initiatives come across as Brownian motion—a sense of randomness that is not progressive or building. Such outcomes generate feelings of wasted time that rapidly lead to loss of enthusiasm and engagement.

For Lilly, pursuing a for-profit business, the goal is a financial return from fee-paying customers. In higher education, predominantly a nonprofit enterprise, the term customer, at first pass, may seem to refer to fee-paying students, but it also applies to staff and faculty. The analogy of initiative is independent of profit status and has general applicability to all strategies with focus on meaningful return—be that in the realm of student recruitment and retention, student education, faculty and staff development, paradigms that foster growth, financial return, or something else.

In Lilly’s story, it may seem obvious where she made mistakes. But parallels to these errors are easy to identify in higher education. When evaluating the implementation, engagement, and feedback of an initiative in higher education, recognize parameters exemplified from the experience in Lilly’s Cupcakes. Commit to the advice of Clara: own the issue by implementing steps to improve and never blame the customer.

Don’t be a Lilly.


David A. Taylor-Fishwick, PhD, is the vice-chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology at Eastern Virginia Medical School.