What Makes Them Tick?

Ella Ingram


Change agents universally work with colleagues, administrators, internal and external partners, and others. Let’s take as a given that these individuals have priorities and interests about which they are highly motivated. One change strategy that we as change agents can use is describing opportunities to engage in a change project in ways that are motivationally attractive. But first, we have to know what makes them tick.

In his classic essay “Carrots and Sticks”, Jon Wergin described a simple model of faculty motivation in four parts: autonomy, community, recognition, and efficacy (ACRE). This model combines elements of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci 2000) and what psychologists know about extrinsic motivation (classic reward systems). Although the ACRE model specifically calls out faculty, it gives us direction and tools for creating and framing change activities in ways amenable to the broad community of academic professionals.

First some definitions. Autonomy is the freedom to experiment, to do things without fear of consequences, the power to grow, and to follow one’s own lead especially in ways that add to the common good. Not surprisingly, community is described by participating in the assembly of scholars, belonging to a place and system, playing an important and unique role, and giving and receiving nurturing from colleagues. Recognition comes in any form that causes the individual to feel valued both privately and publicly, to know that one’s work has worth to others, being paid attention to, or holding regard as a professional and scholar. Finally, efficacy means having an impact on the (academic) environment, contributing to the betterment of society, improving oneself to do good and add to quality of life, and escalating skills and abilities. Continue reading “What Makes Them Tick?”

Speaking Truth To Power

Steve Chenoweth

My department once had an idea that we should be able to see the transcripts of all our students, so as to understand how those in our classes, and those who came to ask our help, could be best counseled.

We foresaw this request going smoothly — it would extend our role as advisors in a useful way to more students.  And, as faculty, we were entrusted to give grades, so why were we not also able to see grades?  Other schools allowed this — the notion wasn’t a crazy one-off. The suggestion was so obviously a good thing, we didn’t waste time building a consensus for it before approaching management.

Our request ended, instead, with an impromptu meeting of the entire faculty at which a dean shot down the proposal, while students, administrators, and faculty testified to all sorts of abuses which could be inflicted by it.  Emotions ran high.  Faculty would prejudge students based on past grades, it was claimed.  Who knew what else instructors might do with such unchecked powers?  The word “willy-nilly” was used.  That was that.

The role of the change agent shouldn’t be so crazy hard.  If you know that  something that could be different, and you can say how to improve it, people, especially academic people, ought to listen and consider it using the analytic skills we teach to our students.    This is especially true in STEM educational environments where data and logic prevail.  If this rational approach works in your specific context, then great!  You are all set, and you are almost surely going to offer a change that will benefit students, staff, faculty, and many other stakeholders.

But as my own story illustrates, the change that seems logical and reasonable to you may not appear so to others.  Why doesn’t a good idea always go as planned?  Why doesn’t rationality prevail?  Even as you learn more roundabout ways to appeal to your management, peers, and students, you should understand some of the underlying mechanisms why your objective truth doesn’t “sell” as well as it probably should, or as well as we’ve been taught it should. Continue reading “Speaking Truth To Power”

Acting for Computer Scientists and Engineers

Julia Williams


Recently, I attended the National Science Foundation’s REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (NSF RED) Principal Investigators Meeting, sponsored by the NSF and organized by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).  At the meeting, engineering and computer science faculty, engineering education researchers, sociologists, organizational change experts, graduate students, and many others (roughly 120 individuals) shared their work on transformational change projects that target engineering and computer science students’ second year.  These projects vary widely—from curriculum changes, to co-curricular activities, to wholesale reorganizations of entire colleges—but one thing the projects hold in common is their focus on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion(DEI) in STEM.

There are many strategies the RED teams are employing to improve DEI at their institutions, and the sessions at the meeting were their opportunity to share this work with other attendees.  I selected “Theater of the Oppressed and Other Social Justice Stimuli for Organizational Transformations,” as one of the many excellent sessions I attended.  “Theater” was presented by Sarah Provencal, adjunct professor of theater at Winthrop University and Celine Latulipe, professor of software and information systems at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.  But this was no ordinary conference session, where academics stand on stage and lecture attendees on the benefits of active learning while they subject us to PowerPoints and minimal interaction.

Instead Provencal and Latulipe invited us to engage in their subject using acting exercises that they are introducing to their students.  These exercises are based on the work of Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal.  Theater of the Oppressed (TotO) has a long and influential history in theater circles.  Using the work of educator Paolo Friere as a base, Boal developed theatrical forms and techniques as a “means of promoting social and political change. In the Theater of the Oppressed, the audience becomes active, such that as spect-actors’ they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living” (Wikipedia),

For the RED meeting TotO session, our leaders offered this explanation of the work we would do: Continue reading “Acting for Computer Scientists and Engineers”

What could go wrong with my plan?

Steve Chenoweth

When you are asking an organization to deviate from “standard operating procedure” (SOP), plenty of prickly weeds await.  Anticipating these is crucial to success: hoping for the best while planning for the worst.

Picture1.pngThe stickiness surrounding SOP is a wonder to behold.  I used to work for “the phone company,” and we thought we were highly creative.  We researched new ideas in giant buildings that looked like what’s shown.  This one was designed by Eero Saarinen — wasn’t that a perfect setting?  Well, maybe. When asked why he made it so gray, Saarinen quipped, “Have you seen the people who work here?” We were part of a machine, and earth-shattering change would mess with that machine.

One creativity guru we hired brought along a large tub of hats, so we could role-play at will.  He observed that our organization was the only place he had been, where participants could go all day with nobody ever trying on a new hat!  You get the picture:  the sense that we were open to new ideas didn’t fit with our actual actions. If you stuck out your elbow, you would hit something important.

The people who work where you do will feel issues with your new idea which you never anticipated.  As much as you are in a mindset that your plan will work, they are in a mindset that what they do now works.  Their current process is how they solve problems.  You would like to open their eyes.  But perhaps it also helps if they open your eyes.  Here’s how:

  1. Invite people to meet with you who are happy as they are, asking them to brainstorm your possible plan for change.
  2. Open them up by playing “Edsel.” What’s that?  It’s a brainstorming game we play in MACH.  More about it, below.
  3. Enlist them in working on the most challenging problems they brought up. Surprisingly, people who can think of roadblocks often will help move them.

Continue reading “What could go wrong with my plan?”

What’s Wrong with the Status Quo?

An oft-heard claim is that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I disagree. With apologies to the physicists, in my opinion, the most powerful force in the universe is inertia. The tendency to stay on course, regardless of the direction or pace (even if zero), provides comfort and protection. Defenders of the status quo say “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” or “We’re already great!”. Those sentiments reinforce systems and their convoluted and capricious rules, conservative procedures, and complaisant improvement processes.

So, beyond that indictment, what’s wrong with the status quo?

The status quo has winners and losers that have been winners and losers for a long time. Often there’s no logical or defensible reason why certain people should be winners and others losers. It just is, and that situation is one that we shouldn’t accept. I contend that we should seek change that creates more winners and fewer losers. This change will almost necessary make former winners feel like losers even if they aren’t really losing, but that’s OK. Change-competent leaders find strategies to celebrate new winners and affirm previous winners.

Continue reading “What’s Wrong with the Status Quo?”