Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Bag of (Trick) Questions

Every summer I sit down for 30 minutes with the members of my team—roughly forty business analysts, systems operations analysts, product managers, and project managers. I inherited this tradition from my predecessor and the first time around I found it to be a valuable undertaking—challenging as may be to execute forty-odd sessions in the vacation-rich summer months!

When I was new to my position the approach was rather straight-forward – I simply asked what staff members thought was going well (or poorly) in the department and what they were looking for from me as a leader. In those early months, their suggestions, questions and concerns were huge. And although I had no doubt about the value of repeating the exercise, I was fearful that repeating last year’s “agenda” could be a recipe for long stretches of silence.

I crave staff input – I want to understand everything: motivators and de-motivators, career objectives, opportunities for improvement for the department and the institution. Furthermore, as months upon months of Sunday’s “The Corner Office” in The New York Times has taught me, it is equally important to understand individual likes and dislikes, favored weekend activities, favorite books, etc. And as a part-time cinephile and foodie, I wanted to ask about favorite movies and meals!

Too many questions, too many interviews, and too little time: I needed a system. Being an applications guy, I entertained the thought of building a systems solution myself… Or scouring the App Store. But then I realized (for once?) that technology was not the answer.

Hidden away in a filing cabinet outside my office was a laminator. I blew the dust from the lid, framed out my discussion prompts using an MS Word label template, pre-heated the laminator, ran my labels through, and located a long-abandoned paper-slicing guillotine stowed behind a copier on the second floor. Interestingly, nobody inquired why I was partaking in light arts and crafts on a Tuesday afternoon.

The next morning, I had my first of 40 interviews. The rules were simple: for the first 20 minutes, you draw questions from the bag; we’ll leave the last ten minutes to talk about anything else on your mind; in that time you’re free to turn the questions around or continue drawing prompts.

It worked. The conversations flowed nicely, a neat balance between quasi-interview and idle chit-chat. By the second week, rumors about “the bag” (a very snazzy Whole Foods fabric bag with ample room to shuffle the laminated cards) had circulated but since the average participant only saw about 30% of the questions most people were still surprised by the questions. (Although toward the end I fielded several prepared responses to the exceedingly difficult “vegetable” question).

On the corner of my desk is a legal pad filled with detailed notes from these discussions – I have started to pull out key themes, insightful quotes, and lists of the eclectic musical and movie tastes in the department. I feel closer to the team, more aware of their needs and personalities. I am proud of my “innovation” (quotes because it is unlikely I can claim IP over this technique) but already thinking – what shall I do next year?

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