Monthly Archives: March 2015

Common good reads

As we end this month, with our blogs on a big, amorphous topic like the “common good,” I thought it might be helpful to do some further reading on the topic. I’ve found five books that focus specifically on higher education and the common good that I want to read, so I thought I’d share them with you, along with a brief description of each.

public good privatizationPrivatization and the Public Good: Public Universities in the Balance (2014)by Matthew Lambert

In his book, Lambert examines a range of developments related to the “privatization” of public higher education in the United States, including increasing institutional autonomy, higher tuition, diminishing appropriations, alternative revenue sources such as philanthropy and new business ventures, and modified governance relationships. These developments, in turn, have resulted in an uncertain future for public academic institutions across the country, posing unprecedented questions and challenges for them. Through a wide-ranging analysis of the current situation and detailed case studies that focus on prominent public universities, Lambert provides a panoramic account of the challenges faced by public institutions.

public good, filippakouHigher Education as a Public Good: Critical Perspectives on Theory, Policy and Practice (2014), edited by Ourania Filippakou and Gareth Williams

Higher education is likely to involve the majority of people at some time in their lives in the twenty-first century. The main drivers of expansion in the previous century were a belief that widening access promotes social equity and the advance of knowledge as the main factor underpinning economic success for individuals and societies. However, universal higher education in rapidly changing economies raises many questions. This volume focuses on the question of whether it is appropriate and inevitable that higher education systems are becoming so large and so diverse that the only realistic way they can be analyzed is as aggregates of market-like transactions. Most of the authors are not satisfied with this conclusion, but they recognize, from several disciplinary perspectives, that it is no longer possible to take it for granted that higher education is intrinsically a public good.

imagining the university public goodHigher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University (2011) by Jon Nixon

In his book, Jon Nixon argues the necessity of higher education as a public good, defining the institutional spaces necessary for sustaining these public goods and ensuring that they flourish. He addresses the effects of three decades of commercialisation, commodification, competition and classification in higher education. Lastly, Nixon articulates a vision of higher education as a public good — a site for the development of human capability, reason and purpose.

for the common goodFor the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2011) by Matthew Finkin and Robert Post

This book offers a concise explanation of the history and meaning of American academic freedom and it attempts to intervene into contemporary debates by clarifying the fundamental functions and purposes of academic freedom in America. Matthew Finkin and Robert Post trace how the American conception of academic freedom was first systematically articulated in 1915 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The authors discuss the four primary dimensions of academic freedom: research and publication, teaching, intramural speech, and extramural speech. They carefully distinguish academic freedom from the kind of individual free speech right that is created by the First Amendment. The authors strongly argue that academic freedom protects the capacity of a faculty to pursue the scholar’s profession according to the standards of that profession.

common good kezarHigher Education for the Public Good: Emerging Voices from a National Movement (2005), Edited by Kezar, Chambers, and Burkhardt

This book explores the various ways that higher education contributes to the realization of significant public ends and examines how leaders can promote and enhance their contribution to the social charter through new policies and best practices. It also shows how other sectors of society, government agencies, foundations, and individuals can partner with institutions of higher education to promote the public good. Higher Education for the Public Good includes contributions from leaders in the field many of whom participated in dialogues hosted by the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. These leaders are responsible for creating successful strategies, programs, and efforts that foster the public’s role in higher education.

What have you read on the common good that you would recommend? And what is currently on your list of books to read?

Anita Rios


Focusing our brains on the common good

One of the hardest parts of working collaboratively towards the common good is listening carefully to other people’s viewpoints, even when they don’t agree with mine. Without trying to understand, I can’t know what the common good might look like or create strategies to get there.

brainI recently re-read a blog post from Harvard Business Review that reminded me why this is so hard. As the author said, our brains are “hooked on being right.” In high-stress situations, such as those that occur during high-stakes collaboration around complex issues, we are hard-wired to avoid the discomfort of being wrong.

This can show up in several different ways:

  • Fight – keep arguing for our views no matter what others say
  • Flight – disappear into group consensus so our views don’t stand out
  • Freeze – disengage from the discussion
  • Appease – drop our opinions and agree with the other party

None of these reactions promote productive collaboration and information sharing. As a leader, one of my roles is to create an environment where it is safe to share opinions.  The article gives three key suggestions for doing this:

  • Agree on ground rules
  • Listen to learn about others’ perspectives
  • Plan communication so everyone has a voice

Todd has written about David Rock’s SCARF model describes five social needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.  Being perceived as wrong can generate threat responses to many of these needs. On the other hand, building productive collaborations can generate reward responses. We’ve all been part of teams where we felt like a valued member of the group and believed we were making a difference. When that happens it frees our mental energy to focus on others.

What strategies have you seen that create environments where people feel safe enough to engage in difficult conversations and solve complex issues in order to promote the common good?

Dee Anne Bonebright

A culture of collaboration

collaboration_TalentCove“Shared space — whether physical, virtual or digital — is where collaborators agree to jointly create, manipulate, iterate, capture and critique…. Shared space is the essential means, medium, and mechanism that makes collaboration possible. No shared space? No real collaboration.” – Michael Schrage

Schrage is the author of Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. Written in 1990, it is an early work on the value of collaborations. The quote is from a recent blog he posted on Harvard Business Review highlighting his work the past 25 years on collaboration. The big change since he published his book focuses on the importance of creating a culture that supports collaboration for groups, not just collaborations between two individuals. Or as he states, creating “a value and behavioral norm” that makes “collaboration simpler, more accessible, more effective, and more satisfying” for large numbers of people working in organizations.

The System Incentives and Rewards (SIR) team at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is taking on the challenge of building a culture of collaboration. One of their ideas is to work with our campuses to create “innovation labs” that will have space for collaborative work or “shared space” as Schrage described.

The SIR team’s overall goal is to find ways to redesign our financial and administrative models to reward collaboration. They have identified four important concepts that will make collaboration the core of how we provide higher education that drives student success.

  1. Redesign our financial model to reward collaboration
  2. Encourage entrepreneurial opportunities
  3. Support and encourage multi-institutional coordination
  4. Design a human resources model that incents and rewards collaboration

(For more information on the work of the System Incentive and Reward team visit their page at Charting the Future.)

While it can take a long time to build systems and spaces that incent and reward collaboration in a large organization, the SIR’s team has made a strong start. I am excited to be working in an organization that is taking this type of action. As Charles Darwin said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Todd Thorsgaard

Limits of collaboration

teamwork1 free to use“Hackman’s paradox: Groups have natural advantages: they have more resources than individuals; greater diversity of resources; more flexibility in deploying the resources; many opportunities for collective learning; and, the potential for synergy. Yet studies show that their actual performance often is subpar relative to “nominal” groups (i.e. individuals given the same task but their results are pooled.) The two most common reasons: groups are assigned work that is better done by individuals or are structured in ways that cap their full potential.”
~ Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and team expert

Wait a minute! Most of the business and leadership literature published in the last couple decades extolls the virtues of collaboration in our workplaces. And it seems that collaboration is the new mantra among leaders in higher education, with leaders admonishing staff and faculty to “move out of their silos” or “create cross-disciplinary or cross-campus partnerships.”  Yet, as Richard Hackman observed, collaboration does have its limitations.

The benefits of collaboration are great, and can include:

  • Diversity of Perspectives: bringing people from varying disciplines and backgrounds together to work on a project can generate greater creativity and problem-solving by looking at things from different angles
  • Increased Synergy: forming collaborative teams with members who have varied expertise and clear roles and responsibilities can bring new solutions to the table
  • Balanced Decision Making: including stakeholders in decisions can reduce the occurrence biased or partisan decisions as they look at the effect of their decisions on all stakeholder groups

However, collaboration does have its limits, and if overused in an organization, can result in:

  • Group Think:  groups that work together over time can sometimes be lulled into “going along” with a persuasive member
  • Mediocre Results: involving more people in a collaboration can water down the results due to the number of compromises in the project that are made to satisfy all stakeholders
  • Slow Progress: depending on the scope of the collaboration and the size of the group, including numerous stakeholders in multiple decisions can slow down the effort

Like other paradoxes or polarities that we manage in our workplaces, like change and continuity, collaboration is best seen as one part of a polarity between competition and collaboration. Both have its own benefits and limitations. As leaders, our role is often to determine where is it most advantageous to employ collaborative efforts and where might we employ competitive efforts.

How have you managed the collaboration vs. competition paradox in your work?

Anita Rios

Finding common ground

“I’m struck time and again by how often our political talk is about people who aren’t in the room. We almost always talk about them—“those people” in Washington, D.C., or in our state capitols—the people we hold responsible for all our political pathologies. Rarely to do we talk about us, the people who are in the room, about our nation’s problems and how we can help solve them.” – Parker Palmer, renowned author, speaker, and activist

I think Parker Palmer has hit the nail on the head. What often holds us back from working toward the common good is our inability to work collaboratively together. Whether its in politics, the communities where we live, or the organizations where we work, I’ve observed that it’s easy to fall into a trap of blaming. We talk about us vs. them, rather than working together with those whom we disagree or those who have competing interests with ours. It is so much easier and quicker to vent or complain about other people, departments, etc., rather than to take necessary leadership to reach out to others with whom you disagree and work toward collaborative solutions. I have to admit that I’m   human too and have fallen into this particular trap.

However, at various times during my career, I’ve also had the responsibility to help others work toward collaborative solutions, especially when they are polarized and stuck. One approach* that I’ve found helpful in working with leaders in higher education, is to find common ground, by identifying a group’s shared interests. This can be as simple as asking:

  1. What do we all want?
  2. What do we all fear?

While individuals may have differing beliefs and values that often hold them firmly in their position or viewpoint, establishing common ground can point the parties to a shared goal.

While it may seem overwhelming to begin solving the problem of highly polarized political parties in our nation, I challenge you to look around in your workplace or your local community. Where do you have influence to change the us vs. them dynamics and find common ground?

Anita Rios

*Approach adapted from The Center for Integrative Leadership, University of Minnesota and Polarity Management Associates.

I wasn’t expecting that to happen

I am confident that if I asked all the readers of this blog, “do you focus on the common good of your organization?” the overwhelming response would be, “Yes!” The reality is that most of us believe our actions contribute to the common good, and we are trying to look at our organization as a system. Yet over time many well-intentioned actions can actually end up in conflict with the mission of our organizations. How can that be?

Peter Senge, named “strategist of the century,” answers this question in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Many of you may remember (or have nightmares about) the loops and diagrams used to illustrate systems thinking. loopsSenge encourages leaders to use archetypes, or common patterns of behavior, to diagnose why we get unexpected results that don’t support the common good.


You can find detailed descriptions of archetypes on pages 121-161 in the fieldbook. I want to highlight the three that best describe the organizational challenges leaders face and potential actions to take.

  1. “Fixes That Backfire” – this archetype can explain why issues continually resurface or get solved in one area only to pop up somewhere else. It describes the unintended consequences of decisions made on either long-term outcomes or other parts of the organization. Key leadership actions are:
    • understand both the short and long-term consequences of actions
    • explore the potential outcomes outside your sphere of influence
    • challenge the need to take immediate action
    • dig deeper to expose the root issue
  2. “Shifting the Burden” – this occurs when leaders are driven to solve a problem they face, and the relief causes the organization to get distracted from addressing a greater underlying issue. Key leadership actions include:
    • recognize the limitations of fire-fighting responses
    • take time to explore alternative solutions
    • seek input from other areas of the organization
    • clarify organizational goals and long-term expectations
    • build capacity for growth
  3. “Accidental Adversaries” – this describes a situation where groups that would benefit from collaborating end up competing or even fighting. It happens naturally when one group makes a choices that improves their own results and it has an unintended negative consequence for the other group. Instead of changing a “successful” choice each group tries to explain or convince the other to see it their way. The unintended consequences continue and communication deteriorates. Leaders can help break this archetype if they:
    • bring groups together to understand the local pressures each face to succeed
    • include multiple stakeholders when making decisions
    • ask questions about how a decision in one area will affect another area
    • establish on-going dialogue across groups to identify unintended consequences early

The Fifth DisciplineI still have a love/hate relationship with the loops and diagrams but the ideas and actions Senge shares provide insight time and again when addressing system issues.

Todd Thorsgaard

Systems thinking and the common good

gearsFocusing on the common good is much more complicated than simply focusing on my needs and my immediate workplace.  As leaders, the choices we make in our workplaces will likely impact people in different parts of the organization. Effective leadership for the common good requires systems thinking.

According to this systems thinking web page, traditional thinking is about analysis, which literally means “to break into constituent parts.”  As leaders we are taught to look at our goals and the steps we need to take to get there. On the other hand, systems thinking looks at interactions among parts, focusing on how the parts fit together with the interrelationships that are influencing outcomes.

levels of ODSystems thinking requires attention to different levels of interaction. Contributions to the common good are made by individuals, teams, and organizations, and within and across sectors of society. Here are some leadership questions to consider at each level.


  • How can I understand more about the common good?
  • What responsibility do I need to take?
  • How can I be accountable for my own action steps?


  • Where do our interests align with team and organization goals?
  • How can we promote the common good, even when it may not be in our best short-term interest?
  • How will our actions affect other groups?
  • How can we promote communication and collaboration?


  • How do our mission and values align with the common good?
  • How have our past actions led us to where we are now?
  • How do our interrelated teams work together?
  • Where are there relationships among teams that we may not have identified yet?
  • Do organizational decision-making processes allow for cross-unit collaboration?


  • What role does our organization play within higher ed in our region? Our state? Nationally? Internationally?
  • How does the educational sector interact with business and community interests?
  • What long-term contribution does higher ed make to the common good?  How do we play that out day-to-day?

Working across levels and paying attention to how our actions influence others is complicated, but it’s worth the effort. Understanding how related systems work together and influence each other can help us take a more intentional role in promoting the common good.

Dee Anne Bonebright



Agreeing and disagreeing

talkingAs we’ve been discussing, mutual agreement is a key for focusing on the common good. Oddly enough, so is disagreement. Like many other leadership challenges, balancing the benefits of each is critical for success within higher education. Effective collaboration does not mean working without dissent – it means communicating openly and honestly about your own and others’ viewpoints, even (or especially) when they aren’t the same.

A series of books including Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations provide tips for talking safely about areas of disagreement. In a recent blog post, the authors talked about “one simple skill to overcome peer pressure.” That skill is the polite and respectful expression of your concerns.

The blog described a study that replicated famous research, but with a twist. They asked participants to solve a problem with a clear right answer. When others in the group (who were in on the study) all gave the wrong answer, 2/3 of the subjects went along with the crowd, even though they knew it was wrong. However, when they changed the process and one of the others expressed doubt, almost all participants gave the right answer. Hearing someone else’s concerns gave them more freedom to say what they really thought.

As Anita described last year, the idea of dissent is essential for group accountability and commitment. Focusing on the common good means working across many kinds of boundaries with people who have many opinions and viewpoints. Creating safe space for disagreement, and listening respectfully to what others have to say, will allow collaborative work to move forward.

Dee Anne Bonebright



Sparks before collaboration

Perceived slights, divergent goals, misunderstandings, arguments, different roles, unique experiences and background. A recipe for collaboration? Or for sparks and conflict? sparksSounds like a description of many of our work sites. And also perhaps a group even more familiar.

I grew up with two brothers. Yes, three boys (and a dad!) growing up and now adults. There were a lot of sparks and very little collaboration. Yet we kept talking through our conflicts and now can count on each other to work together and focus on the common good. As leaders we also need to keep talking if we want to build a collaborative work environment, despite all the sparks!

Last week at our Luoma Leadership Academy Annual Professional Development Gathering we partnered with the Conflict Resolution Center  to explore why Conflict is a Beautiful Thing. In one of our breakout sessions we learned about the Four Agreements we need to make with ourselves to keep talking even when there is conflict. (Adapted from Glenn E. Singleton & Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2006. pp.58-65. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.)

  1. Stay engaged – don’t give up even when it feels hopeless.
  2. Speak your truth – say what needs to be said, respectfully!
  3. Experience discomfort – be prepared for and embrace the natural divisiveness and sparks that will arise from dialogue.
  4. Expect and accept non-closure – starting the conversation is only the beginning and you need to demonstrate persistence and comfort with the uncertainty.

Pushing through the sparks of conflict can forge stronger relationships. In fact the sparks usually are a clear indicator of the passion and energy available for working on the common good. That’s why it is worth the discomfort.

Yes, who can I count on to help me get my dock out just before the lake freezes? My brothers!  IMG_2522

Todd Thorsgaard

Fostering collaboration

“Collaboration is defined as the synergistic relationship formed when two or more entities working together produce something much greater than the sum of their individual abilities and contributions.” – Dan Sanker

As Dee Anne mentioned in her last post, leaders need the ability to work across disciplines, sectors, and geographical boundaries to solve our grand challenges.  In other words, they need the ability to work collaboratively.

For the last several years, collaboration has become a mantra of sorts within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). It’s the kind of behavior we say we want to model, encouraging all faculty, staff, and administrators to think beyond their self-interests or the boundaries of their own units, colleges, or universities, to the greater good. We aspire to work collaboratively to address our some of our own grand challenges within MnSCU, like keeping tuition affordable in the face of declining federal and state funding or ensuring that our students have access to education that prepares them to lead in every sector of Minnesota’s economy.

collaborateAs a leader, you might ask, what can you do to create a culture that fosters collaboration? In his book, Collaborate! The Art of We, Dan Sanker says that while there is no one recipe for success, there are certain practices found among organizations that create and maintain collaborative cultures. Here are a few:

  • Establish trust
  • Give people enough time to collaborate
  • Provide access to people and information
  • Encourage communication
  • Help people hold productive meetings
  • Provide tools that facilitate collaboration
  • Recognize and reward collaborative efforts

Some of the most satisfying work that I have been a part of in higher education has been the result of collaboration across disciplines and boundaries and working towards a common, larger goal.  The best of those collaborations were built on trust, open communication, with resources allocated towards the efforts and clear sponsorship from top leaders.

What has worked to foster collaboration and work toward the common good in your experience?

Anita Rios