4 Steps to Combat "Initiative Fatigue" in Support of Student Success

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Four steps will help you combat "initiative fatigue" to better support student success initiatives on your campus.

4 Steps to Combat 'Initiative Fatigue' in Support of Student Success
Credit: durantelallera / Shutterstock © 2018

Student success has become the buzzword on campuses not only for the academic or support services side but also for IT. It has made the top 10 IT issues list for the second year in a row—this year reaching second place—and is intertwined with many of the other issues on the list. If you are working on student success initiatives on your campus, you know they can proliferate and grow rapidly with many projects and initiatives popping up at the same time. Moving forward on so many projects simultaneously is a complex undertaking that can dilute efforts and discourage staff involved.

In our experience supporting student success initiatives of varying complexity in higher education, we have repeatedly witnessed this phenomenon. A new initiative starts, a project and a team are built around it, the latest technology is deployed to help support it, then a few months later another project begins, yet another tool is identified, and people (often the same from the last initiative) are called on to participate. We all know how this story goes: this succession of projects and change initiatives end up burning out staff and faculty, even those most committed and inclined toward institutional transformation. We refer to this phenomenon as “initiative fatigue.” So how do you combat initiative fatigue for your student success efforts?

The essential four steps are outlined below.

Title: Integrating your initiatives: Address initiative fatigue! Numbers one through 4 with a dotted line between them. #1: Set the Vision; Insititution leadership should set the vision with a clear view of what the end result will look like. This vision should tie to the institution's strategic plan. #2: Set the Path; It is important to describe 'how' we are getting there. Weaving the initiatives and projects together in a phased approach will be key for buy-in and clear direction. #3: Set Goals & Measures; What are we trying to achieve and how we are going to measure how we are making progress is key to being able to assess and refine. #4: Communicate & Celebrate; Throughout this journey communicating at all levels and consistently is key. Sharing the outcomes and celebrating the small and large wins will keep the 'urgency' of the work alive. Always begin by communicating the vision then sharing the result and what comes next.
  1. Set the vision. Institutional leaders must begin change initiatives by first providing a clear idea of what the college or university is striving for and what the end picture looks like. Start with answering the question WHY. A common mistake we see is that in addressing the WHAT and HOW, people miss asking the critical WHY. WHY will impart the meaning to the overarching student success end result you are trying to achieve and will help you tie together your projects.
  2. Set the path. How will your institution achieve the vision that has been established? This step calls on leadership to weave initiatives together strategically so that they are all part of the bigger vision that has been established. Here you should address the WHAT and WHO to move things forward. Remember that the path is never fixed. As you transform the work you are doing and refine based on results, the path may need to be adjusted.
  3. Set goals and measures. As part of determining whether you are on track to reach your vision or whether you need to change course, you will need to establish a clear, specific set of metrics and consistently collect data to stay informed. These metrics need to be tied to the different initiatives under way, ensuring that each clearly contributes to the overarching vision. Your metrics should include leading indicators (to measure your progress) and lagging indicators (to measure results achieved). Measuring results from the outset gives you information to know whether things are working and adjust your efforts accordingly. Refine often and continue to track and measure results. This should become a best practice and a new way for all to embrace. Planning for Rollout and Adoption: A Guide for iPASS Institutions includes a section on evaluation that can help you get started with setting goals and measures.
  4. Communicate and celebrate. It's essential to communicate across all levels of your institution with regular messages that restate the vision, path, and outcomes you are achieving. Periodic updates, tailored to the specific audience (e.g., students, faculty, or staff), should celebrate the successes your institution achieves along the way. In higher education, we tend to think that a project needs to be finished in order to rejoice, but student success efforts are ongoing, so we need to celebrate often. Capitalize on your early wins to fuel momentum and urgency for this important work. Remember that good communication addresses both the head and the heart! While numbers, measures, and data speak to the head, your vision (the WHY) must embrace the heart side of this work. Keep in mind that communicating well is sharing both the good and the bad—with the next steps, of course. One of our mantras is "bad news is better than no news at all."

And don't forget the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words." Use an image to illustrate how everything ties together and to help everyone understand their individual contribution and role in the larger whole. You can leverage this image every time you communicate and celebrate the work you are doing. It helps connect the dots. Some depictions of student success efforts include a jigsaw puzzle, a solar system, and an “ecosystem”—whatever creative idea you come up with, it is worth your time and effort to paint a picture.

Using these tips to combat initiative fatigue will help fortify you for the demanding and rewarding work of supporting student success initiatives on your campus.

This blog is based on "Combating Initiative Fatigue: Unifying and Integrating Student Success Initiatives" by Ana Borray and Nancy Millichap, EdSurge, May 13, 2017.

© 2018 Ana Borray and Nancy Millichap. This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.