Fast Strategy in Slow-Moving Higher Ed
This week we are lucky to welcome Amanda Costello to the Pickle Jar blog. Amanda has been working at the University of Minnesota since 2007 and has been their Lead Content Strategist for over three years now. In this post, Amanda uses her fantastic insights on working in higher education to explore ideas of how to get your strategy moving.
My content strategy peers from agencies or the private sector often ask how I tolerate the glacially slow pace of working in higher ed. It’s a fair question; what would take an outside agency a month or two may take my team a full year. All the usual steps of a project timeline are wearing an extra coat of “let’s not be hasty.”
When it comes to the high-stakes research our faculty do, taking your time and getting the facts and data right is imperative. Getting it wrong can be embarrassing at best and large-scale harmful at worst. The faculty I work with are primarily used to working on the long, multi-stage timeline of academic publishing. There is very little that could be described as “quick.” Thus, this same pace tends to pervade the whole institution, leaving web folks like myself feeling like we’re always being left behind on the latest ideas or newest things. My coworkers and I have coined a phrase for this pace: “higher ed dog years,” where everything takes 7 times as long. The slowness isn’t all bad news; it’s actually one of the reasons I enjoy working in higher ed. A slow pace means that I can successfully work more than one project, keeping plates spinning without feeling overwhelmed. If there’s a thorny issue around one that needs more time and care, that can be given, whereas occasional quick wins are just that – delighting stakeholders that expected a 3 month timeline with deliverables in mere weeks.
However, if you do move fast in higher ed, you can be met with suspicion and find yourself in an uphill battle for trust and buy-in. This is an industry unlike any other, an idea factory that will – by its nature – be forever short on resources. Time, money, space, people… they can never keep up with the infinite amount of ideas, theories, and questions faculty are asked to pry into. As such, any resource is precious, and not to be squandered.
Because of the long institutional memory – decades for some schools, centuries for many -, “new” ideas or pitches are often met with suspicion. Haven’t we done this before in some way? Did it work then? I certainly don’t remember it working. We’ll give it a go, but… slowly. Carefully.
If you find yourself up against this kind of resistance, take some of my tried-and-true methods for gaining faculty trust and getting unstuck
- Ask about their work. Faculty lives are often defined by a specialty in their chosen field. Even if they’re not actively researching, ask about the work they do, the classes they teach and how they teach them, and what brought them to pursue their career. Everyone enjoys talking about themselves, and faculty have the bonus of also being teachers, so ask plenty of follow-up questions!
- Who is a project for, and who is it NOT for? The faculty members I work with are often loathe to define audience, because they see their work having benefit for all kinds of people and don’t want someone to be left out. However, if a website tries to be for everyone it often serves no one very well. I’ll often ask faculty to list one group – however specific (e.g. parents of elementary school students) that goes on the “no” list, and the audience definition goes much more smoothly from there.
- Look to other schools to start out. Every college has it’s peers – and rivals. The faculty and admins you work with will know far quicker than you who they feel they’re in competition with, or who they’d like to be more like. While copying another site or strategy whole cloth is never a good idea, looking at peer schools or departments for ideas can be great. What do you like about what they’re doing? How do you think who you are as a school/department could fit in with that larger idea?
- Roll with the timeline – and delight with quick work. So, maybe a “timely” project schedule in higher ed is a meeting once per month. You can still move at quicker speeds and give updates in between meetings. When I know it won’t take me a month (or even a week) to write or edit web copy we’d agreed on, I send the project team updates as I go. They’re pleased to know I’m keeping up a good working clip, and our monthly meetings have more meat to them, plus it’s easier to focus on future steps without rehashing so much of what was already done.
The attitudes, habits, and folklore surrounding higher education make it extremely frustrating to work with, yet if you can crack the nut – either as a staff member or an outside partner – the rewards can be tremendous, with content, projects, and overall reach that can make tangible impacts on lives and how we improve ourselves – and the world.