Setting the standard

At first glance, setting the standard may seem like a charter to separate a unit from the rest of the organization and enter into a form of inter-organizational competition. To a limited extent, this is true, but in the larger context, it is not. By thinking about setting the standard, it encourages team members to do their best by comparing their work with others and striving to achieve more than what they perceive, and in the process, recognizing differences between what is being accomplished versus what others have accomplished.

In the late 1990s, I drafted this piece and published it on the web (well before the arrival of “blogging”). I decided to republish here in this blog it in its original form.

Why focus on the differences rather than the instances? By focusing on the differences, team members begin to recognize what makes them special rather than fixating on what could make them the same as some other group. The recognition of differences is critical to a healthy organization as it is within these differences that adaptation and innovation can occur. By trying to be the same as another organization, innovation dwindles as the group ceases to adapt once parity or marginal success is achieved. Alternatively, if the group is unable to achieve success in being similar, the entire operation begins to crumble as the staff loses confidence in their own ability. Thus starts a downward spiral that can ultimately unravel the organization.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to fall into the comparison trap. In my own organization, for example, we were fixated on comparing ourselves to a nearby university. This constant unhealthy comparison plagued us for years, and hung like a shadow over all of the staff. How could we ever be like them? They are doing all of these cool technological things and we’re not. We must be doing something wrong. Once the we collectively decided that we were not like our northern neighbor, we resigned ourselves to being almost second-class, and unable to achieve any kind of significant success.

The crux of the problem laid in the notion that we were doing something wrong. We saw the other school as a private ranked research university just like us and therefore, we should be like them. What we failed to realize was that they were different than us. They possess a different institutional mission, different value structure, different students, and different faculty. In reality, we are polar opposites in numerous areas, one of which happens to be in various aspects of information technology. By being the same kind of institution on paper, we believed that we should be like them and let technology drive teaching and research decisions on our campus when in fact, we’re just the opposite; teaching and research drives technology decisions at our institution. In the end, it took a new CIO to wake us up. He came to us from technology-rooted university and of course, we assumed that technology was going to be at the core of everything on campus. Everyone scrambled about to learn about all sorts of foreign technologies. Fear ran high throughout the academic side of the IT organization as on top of his institutional credentials, he was the former director of academic computing. To be blunt, we were terrified. At our first staff meeting with him, he triggered a massive paradigm shift. Simply put, he proclaimed that a place like where he came from is about technology, where our institution is not. You could have heard a pin drop.

When the CIO asked me to lead instructional technology in 1998, one of my first tasks was to rebuild the confidence that had been lost over years of restructuring, reorganization, and shallow comparison. Turning the organization around would take years, and it meant quickly stopping the comparison, focusing on what makes our organization unique, and learning from the actions of others. We started by latching onto specific projects that, if implemented well, would demonstrate a significant positive change to our campus community. We actively looked for things that would make us stand out, and make others wonder how we stacked up to the “competition.” We focused our attention on doing what was appropriate for our community, and in the process, we stopped fixating on our cross-town neighbors, and instead looked to them and others for inspiration. We realized that they were different than us and what they excelled in was not necessarily what we excelled in. By shifting our attention away from trying to be “like them” to “being us,” we rebuilt the organization on individual strength and team confidence.

A few years later, we noticed the first signs of change. We discovered that others started looking to us for ideas, inspiration, and leadership. Rather than simply accepting the attention, our staff drew strength from it. As I had hoped, attention focused on areas in which we excelled, shallow comparisons ended, and nothing was taken away from our crosstown neighbor. People now see us as two very different institutions. We are both stops on the regional university tour, and we constantly refer people to the other university for different ideas and perspectives on similar problems and issues.

We are confident in our abilities and learn from others through balanced and thoughtful reflection. In the end, attention has been gained through being as successful as we can in our areas of strength, not by trying to dominate or compete against other institutions, and most certainly not by trying to be like anyone else. We let fierce competition occur in places like college sports and student recruiting, and have left it out of academic services and support.