Archive for February, 2011

A reality of institutional politics is that we generally hear what we want to hear.   Most of us hold preconceived ideas about many issues, and what we hear from others just reinforces what we already believe. 

Communication researchers call this reality “selective perception.” 

Democrats become better Democrats when they hear Republicans speak. And Republicans become better Republicans when they hear Democrats speak. This type of polarization also occurs with many of our issues in the institutional workplace.  An example of polarization is the use of the  word “marketing.”

For many, the word means “commercialization,” and whenever it is heard in the context of the academy, the perception is that the consequence will be to turn the institution into a retail sales organization. The word “brand” is another example of this kind of selective perception. 

In Lesson 48, and elsewhere, I argue that it’s a waste of time to focus on converting detractors. It is also true that some people who have preconceived ideas are not totally committed detractors, and that over time they might change their minds. In other words, they are “on the fence” with respect to their opinion.

We are open to changing our minds when new information appears and begins to confuse us. We then seek more information to resolve this confusion. This state of uncertainty is often called “cognitive dissonance,” and we all seem to have an inner drive to resolve it.

The political strategy in this situation is to raise key questions, describe the complexity of the moment, and then articulate the best alternative solutions… those, of course, that support our objectives. Open forums, staff meetings, invited meetings, and other opportunities for dialogue, can be created for this purpose.

To summarize, committed detractors should mostly be ignored. It is a waste of time to try to convert them. But many people are only “on the fence,” and it is possible over time, through thoughtful, patient and persistent dialogue, to change their minds.

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Today, I met with senior advancement officers at the combined CASE District III & IV annual conference in New Orleans to discuss my new book, Learning to Love the Politics.

Most of us in the advancement professions of marketing, communication, fund-raising, and alumni relations, would prefer to avoid internal politics, but all agree that dealing with institutional roadblocks to our work inevitably takes half or more of our time.

The first step in developing internal political savvy is understanding the larger context of each difficult situation. This involves analyzing how universities are fundamentally different from other organizations, identifying the various types of people who find themselves in academic leadership positions, and then listing the barriers and political situations advancement professionals typically encounter. It’s one thing to know these things, but it’s entirely another to carefully analyze them by making notes and developing action plans.

Identifying supporters, detractors and neutrals is the first step toward action.   Next you gather your supporters and ask for their help in educating neutrals. With that complete, you simply ignore the detractors. The biggest mistake you can make is to try to convert opponents. You won’t be successful. You will waste precious time. And you will make yourself frustrated. Believe me, you can get the institutional train moving down the track without them.

With “grass-roots” tactics in place to build overall support, you will now be able to develop initiatives to address the issues you are encountering with specific administrative leaders, trustees, and others. This will include one-on-one and group education, using “third-party” advocates, and making win-win deals.

It’s difficult to imagine that with all the conferences and professional development programs we have in advancement, we have never really made this topic a subject matter to explore.  The participants in my session today agreed that we need to continue our explorations and my book is just a beginning.

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In his 1990 classic The Fifth Discipline:The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge argues that the only way to remain a leader in one’s industry is to learn faster than the competition.  I am amazed at just how much Senge’s work has influenced my thinking over the years.

My interpretation of Senge suggests that inspired leadership involves identifying  organizational deficiencies, learning about latest industry trends and practices,  clarifying identity and competitive advantage, and then implementing an education and training scheme that challenges managers and opinion leaders to “out think” and “out learn” the competition. 

While I was determining how I would approach writing my most recent book, Learning to Love the Politics, I once again came upon the work of Dr. Senge. This book is about how to gain support for a more sophisticated and integrated approach to advancing academic institutions, and once again I encountered the idea that finding a way to “teach” the organization about what this means is critical. 

First, I realised that as a foundation to understanding internal “politics” I would have to describe how universities are different from other organizations. Then, I found I would have to analyze the different types and styles of leaders that emerge in academic institutions, and the specific challenges involved in influencing their thinking.  That led me to outlining some “grassroots” tactics. But in the end there was no way to avoid the fact that advancement professionals would have to find a way to “teach” key people in the organization the basics of what they do.

In the book I use the example of how marketing and communication professionals could go about doing this. But those in other areas of advancement– fund-raising, alumni relations, student recruiting, and government affairs– should also do the same thing. 

Peter Senge made the case to me a long time ago that organizational leaders must systematize internal learning about their own industry’s trends, issues, and latest thinking. Indeed, I have come to believe that it’s the only way all organizations can remain successful.

In Learning to Love the Politics, I make the case once again.

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After hearing about proposed deep budget cuts in Austin last week, I went to Washington to get briefed on the deficit-cutting consequences ahead of us there! It seems everyone is reform-minded, and everyone has an extreme idea. This all sounds depressing to an integrated marketing professional. 

Most of these reformer’s ideas are based on pure ideology, and not practical problem-solving. Many propose cutting the size of government, favor giving control back to local communities and institutions, but then go on to propose a one-size fits all solution based on a set of imposed national standards. 

All this can sound very contradictory. They want less regulation in some areas (i.e. big business, banking, Wall street, etc.), but then call for more regulation of something else (i.e public schools, higher education, etc.).

The Department of Education is a good example. For K through 12, and higher education, their idea is to set uniform national standards on matters of curriculum, contact hours with teachers, accreditation, information disclosure, and much more. What is missed here, however, is that diversity of systems and institutions is the strength and competitive advantage of American education, and that imposing these standards from Washington will unleash forces that will make every institution alike.

Here is where professionals in integrated marketing and strategic communication have a contribution to make.  Public schools and universities must analyze their specific circumstances and the exact needs of their marketplace, and then use task forces and action teams to find and mobilize the best administrative, teaching, and community talent to find solutions. These people are the only ones positioned to design creative and effective curriculum, teaching methodologies, quality standards, and communication strategies that will meet the needs of their specific students and families.

The best role for a national authority in education is to provide financing for creative experimentation and leadership development. It can also require local strategic action planning, results evaluation, and that all of this be totally transparent to the public. But, above all, it must also encourage institutional diversity in curriculum and methodology.

The fact is that each student has both special talents and performance limitations. One national standard of performance will never meet that need.  Developing individual potential is what education is all about, and yes, integrated marketing analysis can help find much-needed practical solutions.

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