What do these things have in common? Your thigh does not provide vision. The quarterback does not play offensive lineman. Your oven does not wash your clothes. Give up? Their commonalities are actually found in their differences. Each item listed provides a specific function, from your thigh, to a quarterback, to your oven, etc. You are probably saying, “That’s obvious. I didn’t need you to tell me that.” You would be absolutely correct in that statement. Yet, how often do we practice this exact philosophy in student affairs?
I just finished reading, “The One Thing CEOs Need to Learn from Apple,” by Greg McKeown on the Harvard Business Review Blogs and found it to be highly comparative to how we organize our work. In his post, McKeown quotes an interview passage from Steve Jobs in which Jobs defines strategy as the following: “People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” This simple statement if rife with power and provide an opportunity for those of us in student affairs to learn and reflect, if we take the time.
How often do we find ourselves in our own departments adding more and more initiatives, projects, and ways to engage students to our already lengthy list? More importantly, how often do we take something off of this list prior to adding a new one to it? My guess is that your answer is probably few or never. We tend to have a belief that we need to be all things to all people, and, not just as an institution. Rather, there seems to be this underlying belief that each of our departments need to be all things to all people. Financial Aid focuses on financial aid. Yet, offices in student affairs often over-extend themselves. Residence Life attempts to be student activities, leadership developers, identity developers, community engagement advocates, behavioral enforcers, etc. Greek life attempts to be programmers, leadership developers, alcohol/drug educators, etc. Judicial Affairs attempts to address behavioral concerns, develop leaders, program, support community engagement, etc. The list could go one and on. The result is often several good programs, but many more watered-down initiatives to which we just can’t give proper attention. But, to do a watered-down version is more than not doing it at all. So, we mark it down as a successful implementation of a new idea, add it to the list, and look for a new idea to implement next time (on top of everything else).
With departments acting the same way, imagine the possibilities if we could follow Jobs’ definition, if we could pick what we are each individually good at and implement those. We would acknowledge those ideas that are good and worthwhile, but not do them in order to do what we do really, really well. If each of our departments across the institutions would follow this path, we would have individual units that excel in working on its mission and towards its vision. Each unit would have highly skilled and trained staff members capable of collaborating across the divisional and institution. This model allows the institution to serve the needs of its students, but provides opportunities to ensure that each unit performs their unique role well.
Certainly, there are pros and cons to enacting this method or continuing down the same path. However, from time to time, it is good to ground ourselves in the primary reason for our department’s existence. Using Jobs’ focus can help re-center our organizations and help us to eliminate initiatives that no longer fit with our mission. We may not need to swing the pendulum to the other side completely to match Jobs’ description of strategy. However, it can’t hurt swing it a little, though, in order to help us recognize our strengths and discard that which we simply don’t do well or which others can do better.