Shake It Up

Author: Scott Beaulier, Dean of NDSU’s College of Business

Silos—something North Dakota readers know well from their agricultural roots—are a common feature of businesses and universities. They place boundaries on various units and streamline activity around a common goal, such as a major in academia or a product in a business unit. They tell us where “the buck stops” in terms of accountability within an organization and protect against every issue ending up on the CEO’s desk.

The pluses and minuses of siloed corporations fill academic journals, and the siloed university is the stuff of good literature, such as Richard Russo’s Straight Man or David Lodge’s Changing Places.

Before joining NDSU, I was fortunate to work at Arizona State University, which was just named the “Most Innovative University” in America for the third straight year. Though they service 80,000 students, ASU is one massive anti-silo in higher education. Their flatness and innovative culture starts at the top, thanks to President Michael Crow, who has overseen the dismantling of around 80 academic units and the creation of 40 new ones in his 10+ years at ASU.

While some on the ground at ASU find Dr. Crow’s willingness to shake things up dizzying, and while others see it as change for change’s sake, I found it somewhat refreshing. The university was laser-focused on continuous improvement, and Dr. Crow’s frequent shake-ups encouraged communication, collaboration, and discovery. The result for ASU—besides the flashy and much-deserved rankings—is a culture open to innovation and change.

My ASU days are in the past, but I draw on them often. While I’m (thankfully!) not expected to shake up an entire university in my role as Dean of Business at NDSU, there are plenty of changes—both big and small—in our college. For example, we added a new unit and 9 new faculty members in Transportation and Logistics to our college; we are overhauling our MBA program, which would take many schools five years but has only required 18 months; and we are streamlining our majors to accelerate completion times and enhance the student-focused experience.

These big shake-ups, while critical to our success, are happening while we simultaneously introduce dozens of small changes, which, in total, should produce long-term cultural change and positive results. Among the small shake-ups, here are a few examples:

  • My direct reports and I seldom schedule meetings. We are comfortable walking in to each others’ offices to discuss things whenever we’re around and free. If I’m not around or traveling, they know they can text or call any time. The counterintuitive result of maximum openness is fewer problems building up, better communication, and texts or calls almost never happening.
  • When we do meet, we try to avoid routinized times and days. For several years, our college leadership team meetings were always late in the afternoon on Fridays. For the sake of change, I moved our meeting time earlier, and next year we might shift it to the morning just because. There’s no good rationale for us choosing one time versus another, but my fear with entrenched meeting schedules (i.e., “We always meet at 4 pm on Fridays.”) is that they lead to entrenched thinking.
  • We’re moving around and reconfiguring our office spaces, changing walls, adding décor, and constantly thinking about the role space plays in encouraging collaboration. The old Dean’s Suite door leading to my office, for example, has gone from being a wooden door to a glass door, which better reflects the open, transparent business school we aspire to be.
  • We’re trying to party and celebrate more. Our college turned 30 in 2017, so we celebrated. My faculty and staff are great people, so my family and I had them and their families over for an indoor/outdoor party (on a rainy day, which meant 60+ people were all crammed into our house!).
  • We’re trying to lighten up when we can. Fridays are more casual and, of course, often feature Bison gear. But, on days when calendars are light—even the dean can be seen in jeans.

While I’m not meeting while walking on a treadmill (yet!), the examples above illustrate the attempts we’re making to modify, think differently, and break out of the box to improve communication and maintain a culture of constant change.

Constant change in an organization is like exercise for one’s heart: it keeps an organization healthy. Evading change, much like avoiding exercise, just means a bigger problem later on and as, former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, put it, by not changing sooner, you’re just in a spot where “you have to change.”

As I’ve outlined throughout, shaking things up breaks silos before they break you. While somewhat disruptive to an entire organization, shaking things up now is the best insulation against the far riskier possibility of being irrelevant later.