The Mindset to Create New Opportunities

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

I read a great short piece by Gary Schoeniger of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative that really made me think, and it inspired me to do this podcast because I do receive quite a few questions about seizing opportunities and never wasting a crisis. People know that we do a lot of new things here at ICC, and that in some sense we seem to have a fairly healthy appetite for risk, and I really don’t want to be thought of of course as reckless.

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And so I thought I might talk a little bit about how the mindset here at ICC lends itself to seeing and seizing opportunities. I think that if you’re on Linkedin, actually, I guess if you’re not on Linkedin, you probably can still go read things on that site. I’m not really sure how that works, but Gary, on December 10th, 2018, he published a short piece called “How to recognize opportunities that others overlook.” I really did want to just sort of talk a little bit about that because some of the things that we do here at ICC are not really about seizing risk. It’s more like seizing opportunities. And I thought his article is a good jumping off place for that. Gary asks: so what exactly is a mindset? And he says that a mindset is the “underlying beliefs, tacit assumptions and thought processes that influence our behavior.”

Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who studies how people make decisions in complex and demanding world real world situations. He describes a mindset as “a belief that orients the way we handle situations, a way we sort out what’s going on, what we should do.” And Gary points out that he says our mindsets help us spot opportunities, but they can “trap us in self-defeating cycles”. Now what I really like about what Gary Schoeniger is talking about is that he travels extensively in his work and in interviews a lot of entrepreneurs. And he says in his article, “So what are the underlying assumptions that enable entrepreneurs to recognize opportunities that others overlook? Having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs across the globe, there seems to be one universal assumption that drives their behavior, which is an assumption that by solving problems for others, they can empower themselves.” I’m going to repeat that: By solving problems for others, they can empower themselves. But Gary knows that just solving problems for others is really just part of the equation. You’ve got to be in a position where you can see what those solutions might be and that’s pretty tough. Gary points to a really terrific book: “Seeing what others don’t: The remarkable ways we gain insights.” This is a terrific book by Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist. Klein describes the challenge that many organizations face: the more they rely on rules, the more we codify the workplace, the more we define what it is that we do, the less likely we are to have insights about what we COULD do. Those people who can get over that constraint, that psychological constraints, are going to be much more easily able to see what they could do for others and thus empower themselves.

I think one of the reasons why we’re successful here at ICC, why we’re the best community college in Kansas, despite being the smallest community college in Kansas, is because a critical mass of employees have this entrepreneurial mindset. And that doesn’t mean that they have formal training in that. Some of them do through participating in the Ice House class that Gary Schoeniger offers, but many of them don’t. That is, they developed that mindset through the course of their lives and it really shows in the way that ICC capitalizes, not just on the good things that come it’s way, but on the bad things. I’m going to give you just a few very specific examples of this. I’ll begin with the example that if you’re a regular listener of the podcast, you’re aware of our Fab Lab.

If you’ll recall, when I came to Independence Community College in 2011, we had intro engineering programs on the books. We had an engineering professor, but we had no completers; you know, students who are actually completing the programs. The facility itself, when I visited it, I was amazed. It was this very large, very nice space. It was actually the newest building on our campus, and it was nearly totally unused. The building itself had been built and donated by an aerospace company, and so as a result the lab space was an engineer’s dream; of a sort of a blank canvas for a lab. It had everything, from high voltage, high ceilings, compressed air, all sorts of great stuff. But the space really wasn’t being used for anything. So by coincidence, we also had an entrepreneurship program that had no physical home. So the program was successful, it resulted in successful businesses and independence, and I really felt that the person who was directing that entrepreneurship program was the right guy to use that space in an entrepreneurial way.

So I met with the director of that program, Jim Correll, who’s been on this podcast before, and I made him a proposal: turn over the building to him and create a Fab Lab. Fab Lab ICC is a creative space that provides community and student access to advancing manufacturing and digital fabrication tools for learning both academic and vocational skills. People tend to think of it as something that’s strictly vocational, but it doesn’t need to be that way at all. For example, a Fab Lab can dramatically increase the quality of the art program that you have at the college by providing whole new ways in which students can create both 2D and 3D work. The Fab Lab ICC is one of about 500 MIT-chartered labs in more than 27 countries. And we were the first Fab Lab at a Kansas community college.

We do lots of activities, classes, seminars, not just on how to use the stuff there, but also training and creativity and design. Access is available to pretty much everybody, students, businesses, community members, and it’s heavily used. It’s now four years after we created that lab and it’s totally flourished. You know, I think it’s actually quite amazing in the both the depth and the breadth of what the Fab Lab has offered, not just the community, but the state of Kansas. You know, we created, as I mentioned in another podcast, we created a quarterly program to build prosthetic hands for disabled children, summer camps for middle school girls to use to learn stem subjects. We’ve helped entrepreneurs bring projects to market. We provide a working space for multiple local organizations to create and to dream. We have an outreach program that brings some of the equipment of the Fab lab out to our service area. Instead of making people come to us, we embrace solar power, became the first Fab Lab in the world to operate substantially on solar. We’ve enlarged the curricular offerings at our school by creating courses that are intended primarily for other majors. We’ve grown in physical size – a federal grant from the Economic Development Authority allowed us to build an entire new building next to the original facility and it goes on and on. I won’t bore you, but it’s a totally transformational thing. Just to give you some idea, when we did an environmental scan for our strategic planning at the college, we found that 100% of the people who were interviewed, which was 64 local people selected, randomly, all mentioned the Fab lab positively. I challenge you to think of something at your own school that 100% of randomly selected survey respondents would identify as something they appreciate.

Now, of course, the Fab Lab is staffed and operated by people who are formally trained in the entrepreneurial mindset. But I think that there’s lots of other examples of how people at the college can see and seize new opportunities simply because they have the mindset, despite, for example, not having the formal training. I’ll give you a few examples of those and and I think they’re fascinating.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the turf practice field that we have on campus. This field was part of a long-range institutional plan, which sounds pretty boring but involved badly-needed new facilities that are expensive. You’ve absolutely got to plan for them. Now the long range plan was part of a campus-wide collaborative process that was driven by a need to improve facilities over time in a responsible way. And so those needs were supported by data that identified the need from both a continuous improvement standpoint and a student safety standpoint. And we were very careful to consider what funding sources would be. It was assumed that the multi-use turf field would be built sometime between 2019 and 2021, likely as part of a capital campaign.

But then in the spring of 2018, something came out of left field that we didn’t expect. We were renting a different turf field for football practice because we didn’t have one, and the landlord of that turf field, citing concerns about the wear and tear on their field, exercised their option to cancel our lease. They offered a new lease that allowed use of the field only for competition, which left the college with no turf practice facility, and in fact no full-size practice facility at all because it’s secondary practice facility was a small grass field on campus, which was both smaller than regulation size and because it wasn’t really our primary practice area, it was in fairly poor shape prior to the cancellation of the lease.

We’d already established that students’ safety would be negatively affected if no turf was available, due to the high rate of injury on a grass field. But because we’d done some planning work, it allowed us to have the groundwork in place to address the problem. One thing that I left out is that the cancellation of this lease occurred about six weeks before the start of the fall 2018 practice season. And we start practicing of course, in the summer for fall football. So this was really urgent because the cancellation of the contract meant that we wouldn’t have any place to practice except this undersized grass field that we knew was somewhat dangerous. And we also knew that it was undersized. Essentially, a series of events unfolded fairly, fairly rapidly, and what’s important to note is they unfolded rapidly for one important, systemic reason, which is that we had done a great deal of planning beforehand and thus could basically open that research when this urgency arose to do this project. But the second thing that’s important this was not seen as an obstacle by our director of athletics, Tammy Geldenhuys. This was seen as an opportunity. The opportunity was to engage donors because of the urgency created by the project. So in 2018 we had multiple meetings with donors and the ICC foundation. We held a special board meeting to discuss and ultimately they voted to approve the construction of a multi-use artificial turf practice field to serve various constituencies on campus and also in the community. The board approved the expenditure of the entire project, although it was understood that either most or all of that money would ultimately come from donors. The ICC Foundation stepped up and agreed to match most of the donor money. So as a result, within about three months, three and a half months of the cancellation of our lease, we had on our campus a brand new multi-use turf facility.

The project was completed under budget. As I’m speaking right now, 85% of the project was privately funded. The financing of the project occurred over an eight year period, which means we have eight years to raise the other 15%, which we will do easily. And the real reason why it happened was because we had an athletic director who said, no, this looks like a problem, but it’s really an opportunity to do something that we had recognized years ago and done the correct research so that now we do not have to do that groundwork. Instead, we can go to donors with a full-fledged plan and we can make it all happen in a very, very small amount of time.

In both the cases I’ve just given, both the Fab lab and the multi-use use turf athletic field, we’re reacting to a problem. What’s important to note though, is that it’s the entrepreneurial mindset that allows us to react in a certain way, a way that sees solutions, possibilities, a way to move forward, not back, not sideways, not merely in reactive mode, not just fight or flight. But instead you’re basically saying, no, wait a sec. This is a problem. There are a bunch of solutions to that problem. Some of those solutions actually let us move forward. Let’s take a look at those. So another example is that a few years back, the college was placed on notice by the Higher Learning Commission. For those of you who don’t know what “on notice” means, it means that although you’re fully accredited and you meet the criteria for accreditation, it means that some of the things you are doing, if they continue, at some time in the future you may fail to meet the standards for accreditation. There were a narrow set of practices that in HLC’s eyes met that criteria. One of those practices was program review. Prior to being placed on notice, the program review process, the academic program review process, it was frequently changed because the leadership at the of the academic part of the school, tends to change frequently, not just here in ICC but throughout higher education. And so the program review process was often changed by that person. And also it was being performed very, very sporadically. It was essentially falling farther and farther behind in the kind of regular review that the accreditors expect to see.

In the next two years, basically, the process was completely overhauled. All programs were reviewed, all programs are up to date in their review cycles. The program review is now the work of a permanent institutionalized committee with an appropriate membership. The program reviews that we do, the overhaul of those reviews, which are now very comprehensive, they offer employees, the public and the board of trustees in some cases for the first time, a detailed look at curricula outcomes. Resource needs were, we were pretty proud of this evolution. Well, why did this happen? We are, of course prompted to do it by our accreditors, but the commitment, the opportunity we saw, was not just to meet their requirements but to exceed them, but to say no, our program review definitely does need help. We can correct everything that’s going wrong with it, we can make it a much more comprehensive review. We can codify the process much better. We can make it so that it is not dependent on the person who is the leader of the academic part of the school. In other words, we can make it so that it’s somewhat impervious to employee turnover and we can come out of this with a much, much better process.

I would argue that the mindset there is that the kick in the pants from the accreditors is a prod to get you not just to meet the accreditation standards. We are just not interested in doing that. We want to exceed them. We want to take it as an opportunity to look at the program review process and say, not only what don’t the accreditors like about this process, but what don’t we like about this process and what can we fix? Let’s fix everything as part of this one single critical examination of that process. I know that academic program review is not one of the sexier things that college administrators can talk about, but you know, the college, even though we have athletic teams, it’s not a sports camp. We have a dining hall, but you know, we’re not a restaurant. We have dorms, but we’re not a hotel. We’re a school. And so the central thing that we offer is the education primarily exemplified by the academic programs that we offer and careful review and continuous improvement of those programs means that we’re going to serve our students better and better and better. We’re going to be a better and better school. So I’m particularly proud of that project because I think that more so than the other two that I’ve mentioned, it strikes at the core, the very core of our traditional academic mission, and was a very concerted effort to make it better.

I could give many other examples, like when we revamped our William Inge theater festival, which is hosted every year by our campus and which is the official theater festival of the state of Kansas. That festival, which was the first theater festival in the US to specifically honor playwrights, has been completely retooled to preserve that heritage while refocusing on playwrights who are women and people of color, both of whom have been sadly largely ignored by the artistic community, in terms of recognizing the quality of their work.

I could talk about how we turned a public relations nightmare of viral photo of raw chicken being served in our dining hall into a multi year effort to upgrade our dining facilities and our service. But you get the idea. This isn’t about “never wasting a crisis.” There are lots of ways to use a crisis. Some of them are noble and some of them are not so noble. This is about a commitment to continuous improvement and fostering a mindset in which people’s minds are open enough, and the institution is nimble enough, to recognize and seize on the opportunities that present themseleves.

No wait, to say “opportunities that present themselves” makes it sound like it’s a passive activity. Like the opportunities are just there and you just have to see them. Honestly, sometimes that’s true, but what’s really exciting is when a group of creative people get together and combine a set of opportunities into something truly new, something that you could argue really didn’t exist until those people decided to create something: a solution that created real value because it was better, a step, two steps, 10 steps better than the ordinary solutions than a more ordinary way of looking at things would have seen.