240: What Would Radical Simplification Look Like in Higher Ed?

powered by Sounder

Higher education has this well-intentioned habit of adding “good” things but never subtracting anything to make room for doing it well. Perhaps it’s time to get back to the root of our mission? But how?

Dr. Robert Talbert, Author, Professor, and Presidential Fellow for the Advancement of Learning at Grand Valley State University, returns to the show to talk about the concept of radical simplification and the start/stop/continue exercises we should use at the institutional level.

What is radical simplification?

Radical simplification is all about getting down to the root of what we do. It’s about minimizing or shutting down the things that don’t add value commensurate with the cost they entail. 

In higher ed, we create positions and programs to solve simple problems or sometimes to solve problems that are way too complex for the positions and programs we have already created. It all turns into a rat’s nest of policies and procedures and expectations, and it all trickles down to faculty and students.

Maybe it’s time for a reverse rollout.

That’s a concept in manufacturing — the reverse rollout.

We know about rolling out a new product or service, but a reverse rollout happens when a company removes an existing product or feature to see if anybody notices. Often, people not only don’t complain about it, they don’t even notice that the company did it.

Could higher ed do a reverse rollout? What would that look like?

Doing fewer good things and more great things?

Higher ed’s complexity has grown radically over the past two decades. In 2017, Forbes stated that at the University of California system the office of the president’s administrative spending increased 28%  —  $80 million — in three years.

What did all that money get spent on?

Mostly on creating positions and programs to solve existing problems. 

This is both a trailing measure of complexity and an indicator that there is more complexity coming. In many cases, the administrators hired to solve problems and run programs are not accountable for the complexity they create.

Would anyone notice if they went away?

Taking on a stop-doing exercise

Robert says we could start by not having extremely large committees.

Sometimes you do have to get people together to work as a team on certain things, of course, but not often. For example, Robert recently served on a task force that had 35 other people on it.

You can’t even schedule 35 people for a meeting. You certainly can’t accomplish anything with a team that big.

If you have a situation that’s complicated, then the problem is not the size of the committee. The problem is the size of the situation that you’re trying to solve. You probably need to break it into smaller pieces and let smaller groups run it.

The two-pizza rule

In project management, there’s the two-pizza rule. You should never have more people on a committee that could consume two large pizzas in a single setting.

How many pizzas could your academic committee eat? Do you really need eight people on a committee, where you could really get the same amount or more done with three?

Many times, committees themselves are unnecessary. What you really need to do is find a single person who has the energy for the problem that you’re trying to solve, and give them some authority.

Managing the politics of simplification

But, we asked Robert, won’t people get their feelings hurt if we don’t invite them to the committee?

“I seriously doubt it at this point,” he told us. “I think that we are a little too sensitive about other people’s feelings. I think other people are just fine with their own feelings.”

There is a possibility of truly getting left out of the loop, of course, and you don’t want to do that. But the problem is not feelings or people, the problem is our approach to projects. In academia, we don’t treat our projects like real projects. 

In a real project, you start with a RACI chart — a simple form that asks all stakeholders how much they want to be kept in the loop. Do you want to get daily updates? Do you want to be invited to meetings? Do you want to get emails? Do you just want a monthly check-in? 

But we never do this because we’re so busy with other stuff that doesn’t matter for the supposed project that we don’t do the project right.

Steps to radically simplify higher education

To simplify your approach, do these three things:

  1. Ask the right questions. The right question is not, “Does this thing provide any value to me or the university?” The right question is, “Does the benefit outweigh the cost?” Ask that question about everything you do.
  2. Keep it simple. Don’t just look for a positive impact. Instead, only do the things that align with your values and really push the needle.
  3. Keep it time-constrained. Try simplification as a one-year challenge. Cut or minimize as many inessential things as possible.

Don’t do any of this by committee.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Robert Talbert of Grand Valley State University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.