As Temple University has transitioned to being fully online, the IT team has responded to the challenge with innovation, collaboration and grace. As the leader of the team, I have been awed and very proud. And it is not just the IT team that has risen to the occasion. The entire Temple community has come together.
Within days, our IT team significantly expanded our remote secure access services to our systems and specialized software. We gathered and distributed laptops to students, faculty, and staff who didn’t have their own equipment to move to the online world as we closed the physical campus. We partnered with colleagues across campus and our vendors to rapidly provide training to the campus. We shifted to a virtual help desk over a weekend without any interruption in service to the campus. We have done all of this while improving our satisfaction rate as measured by a post-service survey to over 97%.
Why were we able to make this transition in such a smooth way?
The answer is clear from the feedback that I have been given from the team and across campus. We had already moved our primary learning platforms to modern cloud solutions that made the transition much easier. And we have been practicing for this kind of emergency for years as we have formed a creative and collaborative culture in ITS.
Specifically, we already had flexible work guidelines that encouraged everyone to work with their managers, teams and customers to identify how they could provide seamless service when they worked remotely.
Our help desk had moved to a software call center last November to enhance our support and give that team the ability to participate more fully in the flexible work guidelines. This meant that our help desk had practiced and tested working completely virtual before they had to to comply with the shelter in place order.
Our teams had practiced being innovative and thinking out of the box in our weekly Wonderful Wednesday/Whenever time. Many of the ideas that we implemented in response to the pandemic crises came from the research and exploration individuals had already been doing.
Because our team had practiced, we were prepared and have been able to respond to requests quickly and creatively. Instead of scrambling to figure out how they would be able to do their job from home, the ITS team members were able to focus on helping the rest of campus move to the new paradigm.
As you reflect on the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has caused, what had you practiced that helped you and your teams make the transition? What can you start practicing now?
One of the foundational practices in DevOps and Agile is to support team members who have ideas for improvement. This is difficult to do because we have a lot of work to get done and trying out new ideas creates more work. When the idea crosses organizational lines and normal job duties, it is even more difficult to take action. We have implemented Wonderful Wednesdays as a way to give time to explore ideas and practice creating self-organizing teams. A recent example reaffirmed to me why this practice is so important, especially when you are trying to transform the way that your team works.
Like most organizations, we have a help desk with software that we use to track all of the requests for support. This software is managed by the help desk team. One of our new help desk team members, Dominic (Dom) Malfara, was looking for ways to be more efficient in updating the software. He wanted to be able to upgrade the software in the middle of the day and be able to quickly recover if any part of the system went down. He reached out to our infrastructure engineering team, who were investigating how to use Kubernetes containers to automate and modernize our server environment.
That team embraced Dom, recognizing that if they could containerize our Remedy environment, which consisted of many servers with a vendor that didn’t support containers, it would be an ideal environment to learn for the entire team. The team leader invited Dom to the team’s daily stand-ups, Trello board, and Teams channel. Throughout the project the entire team was inclusive and accommodating. Despite org chart lines, Dom felt like he was part of their team and it was exciting working towards a goal with them. The infrastructure team reprioritized their work and helped Dom identify all of the layers of systems and management tools needed to fully automate and containerize the Remedy servers.
This took several months and required full support from the leaders on the help desk and the infrastructure engineering team. Doing this required more time and more people than a traditional upgrade of the Remedy servers. It required making the time to experiment.
Dom was successful in containerizing the Remedy environment. It did not go perfectly. We had a bit of user interruption throughout the day as we made the transition. Through the problems, the help desk leadership team didn’t yell or blame anyone, but instead asked what they could do to help. Various team members posted screenshots or descriptions of things that were broken, allowing Dom space to focus on calmly fixing things so they would not happen again.
The results have been everything that we hoped for and worth the investment of time. We halved the needed hardware. Upgrades are now done by building parallel environments which mean we can fully test the new production environment and roll over and back between the old and new environments in seconds. All the hard work now occurs up front, and not during a maintenance window where people are prone to rush/make mistakes. Because the work is now automated and reproducible, bringing up a new test environment takes minutes instead of days. We can monitor the system load and scale instantly when needed.
A couple of weeks after the transition was done, Dom did a presentation during Wonderful Wednesday teaching others across ITS. I went to the presentation and was in awe of the amount of learning and technical knowledge that was required to make the transition. It was one of the highlights of my year.
Thanks to Dom raising his hand and the infrastructure team fully supporting him, we have a roadmap on how to make the rest of our infrastructure more efficient, modern, and scalable. As a leader, it reinforced to me how important it is to support those individuals and teams who raise their hand and give them the time and resources to learn and make your organization better.
Here are my questions for you this week.
How do you support individuals who raise their hands with an idea?
How do you treat others who come to you with an idea that requires you to change what you are doing?
Is there a project you are working on currently that someone could collaborate with you for mutual benefits if they only had some way of knowing about it?
Epilogue: As part of the process of writing these blogs, I always ask for feedback from the people who are mentioned in the blog. I wanted to include this email from Dominic to me about his view of the experience.
Thanks for sharing, I just wanted to share some quick notes on the overall experience because it was really special to me. Our self-formed team was definitely influenced by all of the changes made to the culture and how ITS members are reacting to that:
Wonderful Wednesday allowed me the freedom and time to invest in pursuing something innovative instead of doing things how we always have, WW got me quick buy-in from Jim and Paul because instead of battling with scheduling time to prove value in something and how it prioritized with our other work, I was able to use that reserved WW time to learn skills and proof of concept this project. I was excited to work on new technologies and make life better for us and that energy didn’t go to waste having to meet and debate and formalize things. Natural experimentation took its course and we got to follow an informal guideline of what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it
Slack/Teams promotes open communication across the organization so it is now commonplace to talk to others in ITS, I get to interact with members of IT that I might not even meet otherwise. Help or knowledge with something is a message away, and with group chats I get visibility into what people are working on, instead of knowledge being hidden in email chains that I wasn’t CCed on or meetings I wasn’t a part of (the all-staff meetings, summits, and What’s New newsletter all influence this as well). I heard that Infrastructure Engineering was already exploring Kubernetes and we got to learn that together.
Leaders like Jorj, who doesn’t have a reporting relationship with me, but acted as a strong mentor and helped break down any barriers I faced along the way anyway. People like him that are genuinely interested in the technology and making Temple a better place are really inspiring and I hope I can pay that forward and influence those around me
Thanks again to Jorj for all his help and mentorship, and to you for the culture you are creating in Temple ITS! This project wouldn’t have been possible without it. I have learned a lot of valuable career skills and the failures/mishaps along the way that gave me real world lessons and I honestly had fun doing it! 😄
I love to read and am always looking for an engaging book. One of the ways that I deal with my daily commute is to listen to audiobooks, which has augmented and somewhat replaced reading physical books, which is my first preference, or ebooks, which I do for convenience, especially when traveling. My friends and colleagues know about my insatiable appetite for good books and so regularly send me recommendations.
At work, I have been on a quest to create a high performing culture and have used books to help make that transition. Recently, Primed to Perform was recommended to me and it is my new favorite organizational change book. I have been recommending it to anyone who will listen and even gave it as a birthday gift last week.
The premise of the book is that you need to promote both tactical and adaptive performance to excel. Most organizations focus almost exclusively on tactical performance. What I love about this book is that it combines a whole bunch of research about personal and organizational change management, and puts it into an easy-to-understand and measurable model.
The model is called Total Motivation (ToMO) which assigns weights to the reasons why people do their work. Higher ToMo scores are directly correlated with the success of an organization. It is an elegant theory that incorporates many of the positive business principles and gives a way to measure how your organization is doing in creating a culture that is high-performing and fun. There is a great talk by the authors at Microsoft Research that you can view here.
We will be using this book this year as we continue our change in the Temple Information Technology Services team. We have already taken the group ToMo test as a baseline so that we can measure whether we are making progress in creating a more higher performing group.
Here is a list of some other books that have been very impactful as I have studied how to make deep change in organizations and myself.
It seems so normal to sit around the office complaining about others. While it might feel great to blow off steam and get others to sympathize, few of us consider the incredible cost to ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations of indulging in this behavior. This week, I have been acutely aware of the impact of complaining as I indulged in complaining myself and witnessed the impact of other’s complaints on my team.
The cost in terms of time is enormous. While many of us may justify a rant about another department or colleague as troubleshooting or clearing the air, the truth is that most of the time we repeat our complaint to whoever will listen and far past the time when the offense occurred.
In addition to sapping time, complaining also saps energy and potential.
The more we complain, the less hopeful we feel about being able to change a situation. How often do we just shrug and say, that is just the way that Sam or Sally or that department is and there is nothing we can do to change the situation. As a leader, the repercussions of complaining are amplified based on the position you hold. But, independent of position of authority, chronic complaining can destroy teams and make work miserable for you and everyone around you.
The effect on the recipients of the complaining is even more deflating. When they inevitably hear about the complaints or feel the animosity from others, they lose energy, focus, and motivation. The tragedy is that many people don’t feel that their efforts are wanted or appreciated at work and so they invest their energy and passion where it will be appreciated. When we focus on the things we don’t like about someone, our animosity and frustration grow. We discount their strengths and talent and are not able to see their potential.
Earlier this year, I met the President and the CIO from Coppin State University at a national CIO conference. The few minutes that I talked with these two positive leaders was incredibly valuable, illuminating, and hopeful.
Maria Thompson became the president of Coppin State two years ago. She had the vision that Coppin State would be a learning organization and that their decisions would be data driven. Under her direction and in partnership with the CIO, every single employee now has access to the most current data on a campus dashboard that shows five years of student success data.
Her leadership team looks at the data in every meeting and makes decisions based on the latest information. The same dashboard that the leadership team looks at is available to every employee from professors to janitors. This allows distributed decision making that is based on the same set of of information.
Ahmed M. El-Haggan, the CIO, provides training across campus that is focused on what the data means so that people can use it to make good decisions. His team purposefully selected a very user-friendly tool so that the technology was not a barrier to using the data.
This democratization of data is helping individual students.
Professors can see whether their students are enrolled and reach out to individuals who may be at risk. This is happening dynamically because the information is easily available. Before the data was democratized, if a professor wanted to get this type of information, a formal request needed to be made with several security signoffs that took weeks.
This effort has helped shift the culture across the campus to one that promotes empowerment, shared leadership, and deep learning. The president said that her job is a lot more fun now that the data is democratized.
I loved this story because it is such a concrete example of the power of transparency, trust, and training in creating a positive culture. So this week, think about how you can democratize data to shift the conversation and culture in your organization.
There is no substitute for doing front-line work to understand what is going on in your organization. In lean manufacturing, this is called “Walking the Gemba” and it is powerful.
One of my favorite times each week is the hours I spend working on the front line of our computer help desk, which is the nerve center for our group. As the CIO of a large university, it is very difficult to understand what it is like for our students, staff, and faculty to use our systems. Working on the help desk has been invaluable in understanding, strengthening my relationship with the team, and improving the services we provide.
The beginning of each semester is crazy and I want to be able to help during these busy times. So I started spending two hours each week getting trained and working on the help desk a month ago to be ready when school starts in the fall. Because we need to cover large surges of demand, the Client Services team is launching the “Ambassador” program this summer and asking staff from across Computer Services to volunteer to help during busy times. I am the first Ambassador in the program. The training materials that have been gathered to train me will be used for the other ambassadors. The entire network engineering group has signed up! It has been wonderful to watch the willingness of people to pitch in and help.
I have seen first-hand the pain of some of our processes and convoluted systems. I ask a lot of questions about why we are doing things a certain way. As a result, we have been able to have conversations across campus that have improved processes and systems.
As an example, we currently ask prospective students to login to our portal to see their decision about whether they have been accepted to the university or not. Many of these prospective students don’t remember their credentials and can’t get into their account, which is frustrating and time consuming. It is especially frustrating if the student is not accepted to the university and may have to spend 30 minutes logging in only to be disappointed. When we brought this up with the Admissions office, they agreed to change the process to notify the students in email rather than requiring them to login. My experience on the front line reinforces how critical it is to listen to staff at all levels for suggestions.
Another thing about working on the help desk is that it is very rewarding. When you help to solve a technical problem, most people are grateful and happy. Whether it is assisting an employee print their tax documents on tax-day or helping a student get into their account and hearing the relief in their voice, it feels great knowing that you made someone’s day better.
The best part is the help desk team. They are amazing! They have been so welcoming and patient with me. When I wake up and see on my calendar that I have my help desk time, it makes me happy. I know I have become officially part of the team because I was invited to join the team squat session. I was quite impressed to find that there are several team members who do 100 squats each morning and afternoon. Ken Ward, the self-appointed squat leader, let me off easy my first time. We only did thirty. And I was sore for the rest of the week even though I exercise every day!
My challenge for you this week is to “Walk the Gemba” to get to know the people in your organization and understand how things really work.
Last week, we launched “A Wiser Way” leadership training program and almost 90 people started on the journey to create a learning culture that will fuel excellence and innovation. The objective of the leadership training is to develop self-managed leaders and teams who cultivate a sense of curiosity, foster a culture of positivity, build a collaborative environment, consistently execute, hold themselves and others accountable, and lead with integrity.
More than one person has talked to me about how the training was startling because it demonstrates so thoroughly how different my leadership style and expectations are than the previous leader. I don’t think I understood until I heard these comments how disorienting it has been for people to adjust to my very different expectations in how we will do our work and interact with each other.
The training is designed to help with that adjustment and give individuals skills and practice in becoming more autonomous. As we designed the program, we made small but important decisions to reinforce the objectives of the training,
The training is not required. Requiring the training would be top down and authoritarian, which is counter to the principle of self-management. So instead of mandating the training, I invited people to participate. I talked about how excited I was about the training and thanked everyone who signed up.
The training was offered to every team member, not just managers or “high potential” employees. This sends the message that leadership is not tied to position. We expect leaders at all levels and everyone contributes to building our culture and instilling excellence. It also clearly demonstrates that every person is worth the investment and we believe everyone is capable of learning and growing.
We paired participants with peer coaches. As we assigned pairs, we deliberately chose individuals from different groups and at different levels in the organization. This reinforces the message of collaboration and gives a safe place to practice accountability with a peer. And again, it reinforces the belief that leadership is independent of organizational position and hierarchy.
We asked the group to set their own rules for the coaching cohorts. We introduced the GROW coaching model, which teaches the coach how to ask open-ended questions that allows the person they are coaching to set Goals, understand their current Reality, explore Options, and determine what they Will do. This model teaches self-management and the role of a manager or peer in encouraging self-management in others.
We chose to train a large group of people to create a common language and set of expectations. We will offer the training enough times to give every person who wants to take the training the opportunity to participate.
The feedback from the first session was incredibly positive. As we have designed and started to deliver the training, it has challenged me to be very intentional about small decisions and word choices. Something to think about this week is whether your small decisions and actions are supporting a culture of learning and excellence.
When I joined the U-M Medical School Information Services (MSIS), I was excited about the opportunity to create an effective and service-oriented IT organization knowing that we would contribute to healing patients, training the next generation of physicians and enabling life-changing research. I believe the most important part of my job has been to create a culture of collaboration, innovation and learning.
We branded our culture as “One MSIS” and tried to create an environment where:
Every person is empowered and engaged;
We work in teams;
We learn from mistakes;
We celebrate success;
We embrace change;
Believe we can make a difference;
We are supportive of each other; and
Progressively evolve through “relentless incrementalism”
We have launched a number of initiatives over the last four years to create this culture in MSIS. We invested in training, knocked down (literally and figuratively) walls to bring teams together in open office workspaces, supported employee ideas through events like “Hack Days”, made our work visible across the University (and beyond), and brought in professional coaching.
The most transformational experiment for me was the Fear to Freedom coaching program Kim Knapp, our executive coach, and I developed to help our leaders learn how to hold others accountable in a supportive way. Through the program, I was mentored by Kim and she helped me see how many of my own actions were inconsistent with the culture that I was promoting. It wasn’t just transformational for me. Several participants have told me how valuable it was for them and it has changed the way we interact as a team across MSIS.
Over the course of several months, I met several amazing thought leaders that continued to challenge my thinking. Steffani Webb shared the “Jayhawk Way” program that she created that has fundamentally changed the culture at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC). Kim Cameron described his research on the benefits of being a virtuous organization, Jane Dutton talked about how to infuse positivity to accelerate change and create high quality connections. Jim Loehr spoke about the need to manage energy and change our stories in order to excel and Billy Taylor demonstrated the power of storytelling.
After these interactions, I took a long hard look at the “One MSIS” vision and created a word map of the “One MSIS” vision statement. It helped confirm in my mind that the vision itself was flawed because it was self-focused. If we want to accelerate our culture change, we need to infuse positivity and virtuous behaviors throughout the organization, and focus on others rather than on ourselves.
In the last year, I have learned and grown more as a person and leader than I thought was possible. I am fully committed to becoming a virtuous leader who practices what she preaches. It has not been comfortable or easy, but it has been rewarding and energy infusing. I have learned that the most difficult work I have to do is on myself and that it helps to surround myself with others who are also on the journey to being virtuous leaders.
I invite you to start your own journey to becoming a virtuous leader and join me as a fellow traveler.