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Managing Projects Effectively: A Guide for Department Heads, Part 1

Leadership and Management

Managing Projects Effectively: A Guide for Department Heads, Part 1

How and under what conditions should department heads embark on new initiatives and create new projects? In this article, I offer important considerations for the earliest phase of project development.

Department heads have it tough. Betwixt and between, they are called to lead in a special sort of way. They have challenges and opportunities that leaders in business, top administrators at their own institutions, and their own faculty do not. Department heads are called to have a vision for their unit and yet to serve the students, the faculty, and the administrative structure above them. In large part, they lack many of the tools available to, say, business leaders, who might let go someone whose performance no longer meets the organization’s needs or whose attitude is incompatible with its future. Being a department head requires a special brand of cultivating allies and persuading multiple constituencies in order to carry tasks of all sizes—in particular, to manage larger projects.

Here are some things to consider before you embark a large project, such as creating a new program, establishing an outreach initiative, or shifting the delivery of your programs. While I speak to the regional state university context with which I am most familiar, I believe you will quickly see ways to adapt my suggestions to your own situation. Let’s start way at the beginning.

Assess the status quo. Ahead of creating something new or radically changing what you have, consider carefully what you and your faculty are already doing. What works well and why? Where are you coming up short or failing to address needs? It is important to identify what you and your faculty are already doing right so you can build on it and avoid “fixing” something that isn’t broken. It is important that you examine carefully your own views while also eliciting input from others, such as students, faculty, administrators, and those who hire your graduates.

Read the strategic plan. Review the stated values of your institution. Begin with the state-level document. In our state, it is the Strategic Agenda of the Council on Postsecondary Education. This plan describes priorities and specific goals for higher education in the state. You may discover that you are well positioned to help your institution meet the goals of the strategic plan. Next, read the institutional strategic plan. It describes values and desired outcomes. When you propose actions that support these, you will more convincingly make the case for your project.

Consider priorities of the leadership levels above you. How are the president, the provost, the dean, and anyone else above you talking about the institution’s future? What indicators in word and deed do you have of their priorities? Review recent press releases, updates from these leaders, and listen carefully to comments your dean makes in meetings. Do you have a sense of whether your project will serve these priorities—or how you could shift it so it does, if a match is not immediately apparent? You want your project idea to land on fertile ground.

Have conversations with stakeholders in other units. Consider who could be potential collaborators, allies, or simply advisors as you develop your project idea. Arrange one-on-one or small group conversations to introduce your project idea before you invest a lot of work in concrete curricular proposals. You might bring talking points or a description of your concept to these meetings. Your conversation partners can serve as a valuable sounding board and help you create more possibility than you had imagined. There can be something contagious about helping someone crystallize an idea or about developing an idea together. Wherever possible, identify win-win scenarios. How can your initiative result in opportunities for other units as well as your own? Who knows, those who helped you develop the project idea may become allies down the road rather than, as sometimes occurs, becoming opponents when presented with a concrete proposal that seems unfamiliar or out of the blue. When preparing for these meetings, try to anticipate who might oppose your idea. How can you be ready to address their concerns? In any case, show your willingness to listen when they express doubt. Take careful notes. Acknowledge even critique as valuable input and thank them for sharing their perspectives.

Build it not for now, but for the future. When you commit your and others’ time and energy to creating something new, you want to be sure it will last. So ask yourself: Is the project sustainable with the resources available to you? And will it provide a learning experience that is relevant 10, 20, even 30 years down the road?

Weigh the costs. The cost of building something takes multiple forms: time, money, and the opportunity cost of not investing those resources elsewhere. You must ask yourself whether you or the leaders you identify for a new project have the bandwidth to manage one more thing. Is there something you or they will need to give up to accommodate the commitment of time and effort to build this new thing? Will you need to hire someone new? If so, how will you quantify the return on investment when you make the case to the dean? And if you ask for a hire for this project, will you have used your one potential hire for what might be the next few years? Is this where you want to invest?

Prepare your messaging for your unit. This can be one of the hardest areas to manage. No wonder I have left it for last. If you have all the answers on this subject, you need to write for Academic Leader. You want your faculty, or at least most of them, to support the project. Here’s the dilemma: not all faculty members regard themselves as team members of a unit who are building something together. The nature of graduate education—and, some might argue, the reward system in higher education— can develop professors and instructors who see themselves as individuals who are not accountable to, as I like to say, the health of their department. They may have little interest in helping make changes that benefit the whole, provide a necessary update, or respond to developments and opportunities in the field or employment market. So you want to build your case carefully, identify your likely supporters, find ways to appeal to each of your potential naysayers, and cast your proposal so that everyone can appreciate its benefits. Ultimately, you as the leader are responsible for providing direction to the unit. Resistance to change is normal. It is also normal that some will resist more than others, and some will resist for reasons that have nothing to do with the merit of the proposal. When the going gets tough, remember that you are doing what you believe to be best for your unit. Besides, you didn’t take a leadership role just to leave everything as you found it, did you?

Note: I wish to give credit to Dr. Ke Peng, associate professor of Chinese and director of the Chinese Flagship at Western Kentucky University, from and with whom I learned a number of the approaches mentioned here.

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching. In February 2023, she was placed on the Fulbright Specialist Roster for a period of three years. As a Fulbright Specialist serving a university abroad on a short-term consulting assignment, she will share her expertise in the areas of world languages program development and higher education administration.


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