Field Notes: The value of shared control

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org. 

By Adrian Raul Cornelius, University Registrar, University of Maryland

There are many things in life that I would like to accomplish, including things in my professional life. For example, I would really like to do a 15-day Mediterranean cruise. I would also like for students to read instructions, for faculty to hand in their grades on time, for administrators to not want reports “yesterday,” for legislators to define exactly what student success means, and so on.

The reality of life, however, is that inasmuch as we desire for something to happen, even when we believe strongly in our ability to make it happen, things won’t happen just because we will them to happen. It is necessary to take the practical steps to plan for accomplishments; and, even then, sometimes we fall short of our intended goals, whether because they were unattainable to begin with, or the timing wasn’t right, or because we didn’t have all the necessary or right resources, or because we didn’t strategize appropriately. The reasons for failure are infinite.

The sixth step: linking intention with outcome

It’s been said that the most important part of the planning process is choosing the right strategy for the right situation--this is known in leadership decision-making as the "contingency approach." The strategy I often use to help me accomplish major tasks is the traditional six-step method to project management:

1. initiation (in which project scope is defined),

2. planning and design (when time, costs, and resources are outlined),

3. executing (here the actual work gets done through people and resource coordination),

4. monitoring and controlling (where measurement, feedback, and corrective action takes place), 

5. closing (when open items are resolved), and

6. project control.

Project control is the step I'd like to emphasize, as it is critical in connecting the first five steps--in other words, linking intentions with destination.

Defining and distributing control

Project control begins early in the planning process and ends late in the project with implementation review. It’s the element that keeps the venture on-track, on-time, and within budget. It’s a guiding force that sets the tone for communications and averts interference. However, control levels need be constantly assessed, since too much control is time consuming and risks creating tensions among stakeholders, and too little control can lead to chaos.

One of the most important aspects about control is the value of sharing it with leadership partners. I will call this concept “shared control,” which I’m borrowing from the field of engineering (where the term is used to define humans and machines interacting to achieve a common goal). In the project management process, however, I’m proposing this concept as an approach for leaders and managers to build and nurture collegial operational environments, precisely the type of setting in which I enjoy working.

An illustration in collaboration

The notion of sharing control is identified as a vital element in contemporary concepts of democratic and distributed leadership, and I’d like to share a recent experience I had using it.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been working with a particular area on campus to improve our mutual engagements. After the completion of a detailed assessment of this specific process, and an opportunity for both my office and the other area to evaluate the results, stakeholders in both operations met to discuss the issues. Albeit with the best intentions toward favorable resolutions, our meeting ended with my colleague in the other area not being too happy. I spent the rest of the day thinking of how I could help make the follow-up meeting go better.

Later that afternoon, my colleague and I spoke on the phone, and ended up having a great conversation, as we “cleared the air” and made plans together for how to approach the next meeting. In reflecting on our conversation, I found that it was only in the measure in which we had decided together on setting parameters for subsequent discussions between our staffs--in other words, engaging shared control, were we able to agree on a strategy that would work well for both areas moving forward.

Tenets of successful sharing

Often times, bridging the best-intentions to favorable-outcomes gap can be challenging. In these moments, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that adequate control (and shared control in our engagements with colleagues) is extremely valuable in guiding us successfully through an engagement process toward that thing that we want to see happen, particularly when failure is not an option.

I have found some of the most valuable tenets of shared control to be:

  • Removal of egos from the management process

  • Setting up a win/win culture for all stakeholders

  • Promoting listening, communications, and stakeholder involvement

  • Awareness of what other areas do

  • Empathizing with the challenges and pain-points of partner operations

  • Break down of silos during project engagement

  • Avoidance of potential and unnecessary conflicts

  • Generating balance and harmony throughout the process

  • An understanding that cooperation, not confrontation and blame, will lead to successful outcomes

As I think of the things I’d like to accomplish personally and professionally, I know there are many that won’t come to fruition, but for those that do, the successful partnerships I’ve fostered in the process of moving my thoughts into practice would have proven to be truly invaluable and worth celebrating. Cheers!