Appendix B
Episode 036 -

Become the Taskmaster

Appendix B Episode 36, text is present that reads, "Become the Taskmaster."

After hearing a recent Harvard Business Review podcast episode featuring concepts from Frances X. Frei’s “Move Fast and Fix Things,” Kristin thought, “Yeah, maybe speed ISN’T detrimental to productivity.”

In this 10-ish minute convo, Kristin and Joel chat about how if institutions remove roadblocks for staff, and give them more trust, they’ll feel empowered to work faster and more efficiently than ever before.

They close by discussing the need for a permissive work culture that allows folks to make quicker decisions at all organizational levels.

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Harvard Business Review podcast episode Kristin mentioned


Kristin Van Dorn:

OK. So Joel, I not only record podcasts with you, but I also listen to a fair amount of podcasts, like a lot of podcasts. So yesterday, I was listening to the Harvard Business Reviews IdeaCast, and they had as a guest that, I’m sorry. This was like a few weeks ago. Like I listened to it yesterday, but the episodes from a few weeks ago.

They had Frances Frei on, and she wrote the book, Move Fast and Fix Things. And it’s sort of like a play on the move fast and break things, but it is about how speed in our lives has gotten a bad rap. And kind of, she famously said that in all the interviews that she conducted for this work, that she never heard one person say, I wish I did less and took longer to get things done.

Joel Goodman:

Right. I feel that way about a lot of the projects that Higher Ed does. I think especially thinking about website redesign projects, it always bugged me that it would take a year plus for one of these things to happen, because if you’re moving quickly and if you’re moving with intention and what happens like in projects that Bravery has done in the past, like you can actually get a university website redesigned and built in six to eight months. But it takes everything going really well and everyone being on the same page to think and make decisions really fast. And that’s not what our industry looks like.


No, unfortunately it’s not. We’re kind of historically known for taking a long methodical time in order to make decisions, in order to make change, and I think that it hurts us in a lot of different ways. One thing that was really clear in the episode is that we always think that staff are going to be frustrated by fast and immediate change, and in fact as long as you’re doing it, they’re usually really happy that a problem is getting addressed.

And if they’re brought into the process for finding the right solution, they’re going to be over the moon excited about addressing the problems that are affecting their work lives and affecting the hours and the time that they’re putting into their projects.


So do you think the issue is really how much, the number and types of assumptions we have more than the willingness of actual people to get the work done? Because when it comes down to it, sure, things might take longer than we want them to, but in general, I think this is probably why my wife likes to make checklists. Get something done, check it off, and it feels like, oh, that didn’t take very long, so now we’re on to the next one.

And even when I try to boost my own productivity with that sort of checklist, to-do list methodology, I do feel like I can run through things pretty quickly. So I wonder if really, yeah, I wonder if really, it’s just that our assumptions are that everyone wants to be very methodical and slow because it is higher ed, because of decades of poor assumptions about this sort of thing, where really we just need to experiment with, you know?

Can we get something fixed and get it fixed quickly and how happy will everyone be to participate in it?


Well, so I don’t think Frances Frei directly talks about this in the podcast episode, and I don’t know if she addresses this in the book. So this is just me speaking off the cuff. But I think a lot of it has to do with our emotional regulation. Like they say that procrastination is really about emotional regulation. So like the time that we take to get something done or to make a decision is usually about regulating our own bandwidth for what we have time and energy to commit to.

And I think when it comes to managing teams or working with groups of people, a lot of it’s about facilitating the momentum. So how do you keep that momentum going and keep people moving forward on the action steps that they need to take? A lot of times we leave meetings with things being left ambiguous about what the next steps are or who’s going to take those actions or when those actions are going to be completed.

And in a world where everyone’s so busy all the time and there’s so many emails coming in and there’s so many projects that people are juggling against the big website project or against the big digital strategy project, it can be really easy to back burner it until you get this other thing done. And by the time you’ve gotten all those other little things done, a week has gone by and you’ve forgotten what your key thing that you’re responsible for is.


Totally. Yeah, and then a second week has gone by, and then a third week, and then two months, and then six months, and eventually you just keep piling on. It’s kind of that debt collects on what needed to be done. So it sounds like some of the practical things that could be done with this is coming out of meetings. I mean, there are very effective teams that do this already, but coming out of meetings, coming out of strategy sessions with actionable things that are assigned to people and given due dates.

And then I wonder like, how do we, do you have any thoughts on how we create better cultures within our organizations for tackling those things? Because I think even when you do have those action lists, there still needs to be some sort of support system to allow you to take the time to accomplish those, right? Instead of getting bombarded with those emails or the boss coming in and changing the whole thing and saying like, well, you gotta do this now.


Well, I think that there’s a couple of things. I think one is that in higher ed, we love to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And I think when it’s something like a website or a digital strategy that is never, ever done, it’s not done even when you feel like you’ve made it done, immediately it’s out of date tomorrow. What works today does not work the same way tomorrow. It’s slowly succumbing to entropy, that we have all of these little like checks and levers that are supposed to indicate well even if it’s not done in the traditional sense, we’ve decided that this meets the criteria for a high standard.

And I think removing some of those criteria for high standards that have nothing to do with your brand, have nothing to do with the user experience, and have nothing to do with something that’s adding to the student journey for selecting a program or for figuring out their financial aid or moving forward with the application. I think getting those things out of the way can help let some of those tasks, like stop from piling up and creating that sludge that keeps people from moving as quickly as they’d like to.

The other thing that I think of is that you know, we’ve talked in previous episodes about how higher education has been targeting unicorns and those people that can do everything all at once. And if you’ve really hired talented people, I think they more than anything want to be able to sprint at their job. So figuring out how to remove roadblocks so that they’re able to take a project, spend a deliberate amount of time on making that project good in their way and be able to run with it. That can be a really joyous and fun experience for them. And I think we’ve got to find better ways of making that possible.


Yeah, that’s super interesting. I think the problem is that when those things do build up, it makes it even more, it makes it easier to get into that procrastination mode because it just feels a lot more overwhelming. And yeah, to your point, like when you’ve got, I think most people perform better, or feel better about the work they’re doing when they’re not having to focus on 150 different things that sometimes feel at odds and are in different, you know, different practices in different places when you can focus on the thing that you are an expert at or the thing that you are meant to be responsible for primarily and sprint with it, you’re going to get that done quickly. You’re going to get it done.

We’ve talked about this too, like with really high quality because you know what you’re doing and you were able to just make the decision and do it. And you’re gonna see those immediate results because the longer you wait around, don’t take action. The fewer results that you’re seeing immediately.


Yeah, I think the final thing that I would say is that in higher education, we work with deans and associate deans and presidents and associate vice provosts and a layer of bureaucracy about decision making. And sometimes the permissions that we need to move forward with our strategy get hung up by people in power that don’t have a lot of time to give us. And those people can end up halting progress in very drawn out ways unintentionally because they have a lot on their plates as well.

And I think figuring out the ways to create a permissive culture so that people feel empowered to enact their strategies at the level that they’re at without having to run things up several levels of bureaucracy in order to move forward is really going to institutionally create that speed at which you want to be able to work and execute.