Higher education institutions often face adaptive challenges—complex problems that need to be addressed through an evolutionary approach that uses investigation, learning, and assessment of a diversity of ideas rather than relying on administrative authority.
James Mabry, vice president of academic affairs at Mesa Community College, has employed the adaptive leadership model of Ronald Heifetz to address a common adaptive problem—student success. Because there are so many factors that go into student success and many ways to measure it, there needs to be input from stakeholders.
“You have to go in saying, ‘I may not know the answer, but I’m going to try to pull in the best people and tap that collective intelligence,’” Mabry says.
Rather than experimenting, Mabry seeks input from the college’s network of active scholars. “We’re trying to get away from piloting an idea and assessing it. In most cases it’s more a case of looking at the goal and what we’re doing well and figuring out what needs to change and then finding the best practices out there,” Mabry says. “We have a very robust professional development system, so we have people attending conferences, webinars, and programs in our Center for Teaching and Learning. We have experienced faculty leaders who have a good feel for some of these ideas and help us shape [the problem] in the beginning. The idea is to bring in those ideas from many different sources at the beginning and have the collective group work its way through them.”
When applying this type of decision making, it’s important to tap into existing governance and political structures within the institution. Two key groups at Mesa are the faculty senate and the department chair association. “Although the faculty senate is primarily looking at contractual issues, they are an important group to consult and keep informed, and they are well-connected,” Mabry says. “We rely on [the department chairs’] expertise, knowledge, and relationships with the broader faculty.”
Consulting widely and leveraging your existing networks and shared governance structures enables you to diagnose a problem, identify who needs to be involved, and determine the extent to which the institution can change in this area, Mabry says.
One of the challenges of adaptive leadership is getting faculty to look at problems in systemic and often institutionwide ways. Mabry recommends diagnosing a problem or sharing data in small venues to avoid airing controversial or challenging ideas in a public forum. “One of the things the adaptive leadership model talks about is that it’s not that people are afraid of change; it’s that they know change means having to leave something behind,” Mabry says.
The ways in which ideas are presented to the faculty can have a significant effect on how the faculty receive them. Mabry recommends meeting with faculty in small groups, presenting the problem and evidence, and asking them to define the problem in their own terms.
“Begin with this bottom-up approach. Ask faculty to ask their own questions [for example] about why students aren’t succeeding that well in our first-year composition course, and let them work on the problems themselves. Have them go through this diagnostic and analytical process on their own with perhaps a guide on how to do this and some support to provide them with the [data] they need to answer their questions. This gets back to the adaptive model, which states that learning has to take place throughout the organization. It can’t just take place among the leaders,” Mabry says.
Helping stakeholders better understand a problem and allowing for creative solutions that they come up with creates a sense of “ownership, more engagement, and broader acceptance of the solutions,” Mabry says.
In addition to stating the problem, it’s important to offer a process on how to address the problem as well as help with acquiring and interpreting data. To this end the college recently implemented its Informed Improvement process, which consists of the following six steps:
“We’ve found that [Informed Improvement] has worked well to take on adaptive challenges that are difficult and require learning,” Mabry says.
Informed Improvement operates on a yearly cycle, and throughout the year those working on these issues have several opportunities to share outcomes with colleagues. “It’s always going to be an iterative process—building on past successes rather than creating from scratch,” Mabry says.