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Bold Takes Hold

April 2018

By Kathleen Scott and Rudy Sanchez

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Fresno State’s institutionwide program, Creativity and Innovation for Effectiveness, enables a culture of risk taking and innovative thinking across the campus.

Why can’t we get the faculty on board? How do we go from incremental improvement to really challenging the way we do things around here? The administration says it’s open to new ideas, but is it really?

How often have you heard such queries from your campus community? At California State University, Fresno (Fresno State), we believe that we have made some headway on these critical questions. 

In January 2018, we embarked on the third iteration of an institutionwide program designed to change the campus culture and boost innovation. In 2013, Fresno State had imagined the Creativity and Innovation for Effectiveness program as a way to support a culture of risk taking and stimulate innovative thinking across the campus community. Since then, 140 employees and students have participated in the CAIFE experience which involves collaborative project work among academic and administrative staff, faculty, and students from all areas of the campus, combined with focused professional development for participants. 

Up until now, the program has generated hundreds of ideas, and Fresno State has implemented dozens of innovations and improvements, including a mobile app for students, a new onboarding program for employees, and an annual leadership conference for area high school students. Most importantly, the campus culture is moving toward one that is more collaborative, innovative, and accepting of risk. Faculty and staff who may never have met before are working together to find ways to enhance campus sustainability initiatives, high-impact teaching practices, and more. 

Also, two critical elements differentiate CAIFE from prior or traditional campus improvement initiatives. First, it places an emphasis on building the innovative capacity of the participants and, as a result, the campus. Second, there is an intentional and growing focus on a partnership and collaboration between administration and academics. 

How and Why We Got Started

Fresno State has been successfully implementing lean projects (those that maximize customer value, while minimizing waste) across administrative and academic units for more than a decade. We adopted continuous improvement and lean practices in various units across campus, and trained more than a dozen lean facilitators in applying lean thinking to our work. The campus developed a number of projects, including:

With each improvement project came cost savings, added efficiencies, smoother processes, and improved services. Lean thinking was slowly catching on in specific units across the university. As is typical, most of these efforts were project-based and isolated in a single division or department. It is also important to note that rarely did these efforts include faculty participants or work in academic units. Additionally, projects generally focused on taking existing processes and fine-tuning them to gain efficiency, eliminate waste, and streamline processes. 

In 2013, Joseph I. Castro was appointed Fresno State’s eighth president. He brought new energy to the 100-year-old institution that serves nearly 25,000 predominantly low-income and first-generation students in California’s Central Valley. The president challenged the campus to act, think, and be bold. 

As we reflected on President Castro’s push for boldness in how we served students and operated the business of the university, we knew that we needed to do something dramatically different. We could point to numerous success stories of lean improvement initiatives, but we also recognized that sustainable change would require more. The question then became: Does the university have the culture it needs to deliver bold inventive solutions when it comes to teaching and running the university? If not, how do we move toward a more pioneering culture and equip university leaders with the tools, training, support, and experiences to drive and sustain change? With this revelation began our journey and commitment to move from individual improvement projects toward a sustainable culture of innovation and improvement.  

A team of campus administrators led by then Vice President Cynthia Teniente-Matson (2010–11 NACUBO board chair and now president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio) envisioned a program that would engage faculty, staff, and students in a process of institutional transformation. It would focus on capacity building for employees in order to drive sustainable change and support a culture where changes stick. In other words, the program would include professional development focused on building skills and competencies in specific areas such as navigating and managing change, and innovative thinking, to be used well beyond CAIFE.

Launching CAIFE

The vice president for administration and the offices of organizational excellence and human resources developed CAIFE over a period of one year. President Castro and the cabinet fully supported the initiative, and allocated $150,000 of strategic plan funding to support the pilot, which was launched in fall 2014. 

The pilot included three phases: 

1. Bold Idea Challenge. Our vision was to engage the entire campus community in an ideation process and inspire conversations on innovation and improvement. We began with an all-campus call from the president seeking ideas to improve services to students, teaching, and learning, or to simply fix an inefficient process. 

We launched the first challenge in September 2014. The response was overwhelming; we received more than 150 ideas. A number of themes emerged, including 1) a resounding focus on the student experience; 2) a deep commitment to sustainability and the need to create connections between faculty and existing campus sustainability efforts, along with ideas related to campus facilities and grounds; and 3) improvements to academic policy.   

 The president and his cabinet reviewed all submissions and selected 12 ideas for further exploration and implementation. Many ideas were department specific and sent directly to unit leads for quick wins, immediate implementation, or further review. Each winner received a $1,500 cash bonus or a $1,500 professional development award. Winners came from various ranks across the university, including a custodian, a dean, several faculty members, and administrative support staff. 

2. CAIFE Teams. This phase involved project development coupled with professional development. We created 12 collaborative work groups known as CAIFE teams, which were assigned ideas to explore and implement. Each team included diverse representation from staff, faculty, and administration. Some teams also had student representatives. Each participant received a small stipend for taking on the additional work. 

Each team was assigned a facilitator (someone who had participated in earlier lean projects) and an executive sponsor from the president’s cabinet. The team facilitator was responsible for guiding meeting discussions and serving as the liaison with other project teams, the executive sponsor, and administration. The executive sponsor served as a champion for the team and was typically passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter. The sponsor also ensured that the team had the right members and was involved in critical decisions, including advocating for funding if needed. 

We gave the teams four months to explore and, if possible, implement the ideas they were assigned. The emphasis on project development versus implementation was intentional. The premise was that if teams are held accountable for project completion on artificial deadlines, the project will get done. What will likely be missing is effective decision making, sufficient deliberation, capacity building, and a “scaling back” to what is possible given the deadline versus what is best. 

 In addition to implementing their assigned ideas, the 77 individuals who made up the 12 teams participated in a series of professional development workshops that focused on three skills: innovation, continuous improvement, and change management. This was a critical component of the program as our primary goal was to change the culture, and key to that was building individual and organizational capacity. 

The trainings included tools and applied exercises emphasizing that all employees could and should contribute ideas to improve processes and student and faculty/staff experiences. The idea of “capacity building” was emphasized throughout the program. We wanted the teams to know that regardless of the implementation of a bold idea, it was important to the cabinet and program facilitators that participants gain skills that would help them become more effective in their roles now and in the future. We were slowly building a team of internal change agents. 

3. President’s Showcase of Excellence. In spring 2015, we hosted the inaugural President’s Showcase of Excellence—a poster exhibit and celebration of innovation and improvements across campus. It featured the 12 CAIFE teams along with 61 other examples of innovation across the university. The inaugural event marked the beginning of a new era of recognition and celebration at Fresno State.

What We Learned 

We considered the CAIFE pilot to be a tremendous success. This was the first time that dozens of individuals from across campus were actively engaged in collaboration, capacity building, learning, and transforming the seed of an idea into a reality. 

We implemented 10 of the 12 ideas, which included:

Most importantly, we engaged the entire campus in a process of ideation; took action on the ideas; and strengthened organizational and individual capacities.  

We sought feedback from participants in person and online, information that was overwhelmingly positive and provided insight into opportunities for improvement. Some of the things we learned from the pilot included:

During this time, Fresno State adopted a new strategic plan, and faculty and staff development and engagement became critical elements of that plan.

The Next Version

In January 2016, we embarked on the next iteration of CAIFE, incorporating the lessons learned and modeling our commitment to continuous improvement. CAIFE 2.0 included the same fundamental components described previously, beginning with an ideas challenge, appointing collaborative teams, infusing professional development throughout, and culminating with the annual President’s Showcase of Excellence. 

We incorporated several improvements this time:

Based on the pilot feedback, we engaged Howard Teibel from Teibel Education Consulting to work with us on CAIFE 2.0. (Read also “Encouraging Culture Change.”) Teibel, who has worked with campuses on similar initiatives, provided strategic input on the program’s structure, and delivered training and support for the team facilitators and participants. He also facilitated workshops on navigating change, decision making, team dynamics, and designing for the finish line. Internal resources from the campus, including faculty, led the majority of the remaining skill-building workshops. The culminating activity for each CAIFE team was to make a short “pitch” to the cabinet, addressing why and how its idea should be implemented or pursued. The president and the cabinet carved out hours of dedicated time to listen to each team and its recommendations. 

We selected nine ideas for CAIFE 2.0 and chose 70 participants from across campus to form teams. The professional development focus in CAIFE 2.0 included greater emphasis on creativity and innovation, and covered topics such as design thinking and team process development. Additionally, the program placed further emphasis on idea development versus implementation. In fact, in several cases, the ultimate recommendation from the team looked very different from the initial idea that was submitted. This was the result of the teams taking the time to unpack the real issues and work collaboratively on innovative solutions rather than tweaking existing processes. 

For instance, a team submitted an idea to change the university’s course substitution policy to give greater control to faculty and advisers responsible for overseeing compliance with curriculum. Initially, the team thought its solution could be a simple streamlined and automated approval procedure. But by digging deeper into the problem, it discovered that the real issues were related to non-articulated courses. Team members were ultimately able to deliver a sustainable solution that will increase transfer of credit, streamline student degree progress, and facilitate more timely graduations. 

Additional project outcomes from CAIFE 2.0 include the creation of a resource center for faculty, administrators, and students interested in high-impact practices such as project-based learning, undergraduate research, and service learning; a new employee onboarding process; a central resource for accessible technology; and a process to ensure that all aspects of campus life are universally accessible.  

We strongly encouraged teams to connect with stakeholders across campus to make sure that their solutions were in line with existing systems and to avoid unintended consequences of any project. The executive sponsors also helped ensure that solutions were not positively impacting one, while passing on adverse consequences or workload to others. Students were intentionally assigned to projects that impacted the student experience.

Fundamental to increasing faculty engagement in CAIFE 2.0 was formalizing a partnership with academic affairs. This helped to improve the overall quality of professional development programming and access to existing campus subject matter experts. CAIFE is now a universitywide initiative, co-sponsored and coordinated by organizational excellence (part of administrative services) and faculty affairs (part of academic affairs). The president, provost, and the entire cabinet are active participants, each assuming a role as executive sponsor for one or more of the teams. 

Looking Forward 

We launched a new bold ideas campaign in early 2018. CAIFE alumni will review the ideas and identify a new round of projects. We’ll name dozens of new participants to serve on CAIFE 3.0 teams during the 2018–19 academic year.

As we reflect on the journey and prepare for the next chapter, we have much to celebrate and more work to do. 

In many ways, the CAIFE program is itself a bold idea. Over the past three years, we have fundamentally transformed the purpose and process of change on the campus. In doing so, we have confirmed what we already knew. Culture change is hard and takes patience, persistence, and years to accomplish. It requires a balance of visible support from the top, coupled with a commitment to engaging all employees in the process. Measuring the impact of this work is difficult and necessary. 

The academic and administrative partnership model that we established for CAIFE has been extended to additional development programs on campus, including a faculty/staff mentor program, a new leadership academy for emerging leaders, a faculty/staff workplace quality survey, and a subsequent employee engagement process. Together, these efforts are focused on driving a culture of innovation at Fresno State. 

KATHLEEN SCOTT is director of administrative operations and organizational excellence, and RUDY SANCHEZ is associate vice president for faculty affairs, California State University, Fresno.

Related Topics

This was the first time that dozens of individuals from across campus were actively engaged in collaboration, capacity building, learning, and transforming the seed of an idea into a reality.

Early during the pilot year, it was clear that in order to accomplish anything impactful and lasting, it was important to gain the support of faculty.