In My Words/Let Me Level With You

A few weeks before I first joined the Informational Technology Services team at St. Norbert, I met the division directors Krissy, Scott, Ravi and Rob. It was over lunch. I gave a little talk about plates and bowls, and I think the group was puzzled a bit by my analogy – except for Rob who was busily enjoying his burger. The lunch was nice and somehow, later on, I learned I’d got the job.

The talk goes like this: The name of the game is Plates & Bowls, and the goal is for a team of three to lower a plate of six marbles through a hole in the floor to a basement where a dinner table is set below each hole. To achieve this they each use a short fishing pole, fishing line, and a 9-inch plate with three evenly spaced holes drilled around the rim. Each player ties their fishing line to the plate and then the team places the marbles to begin the task. The first team to lower the plate of marbles to the waiting table without dropping any of the marbles wins.

Oh, and the players are blindfolded.

How can you win such a game? Success, I believe, lies in the level of experience and, more notably, trust among the team members. A team that trusts one another to maintain the delicate balance that is required, that uses the right amount of communication among players and manages to compensate for shortfalls during the competition will have the same confidence in lowering a plate of rolling marbles as if it were a bowl of marbles.

I love this analogy. And, although, three years in, the team still often looks at me as if I’d lost my own marbles, I think it has a lot to do with our work here at St. Norbert.

One of the first things we need to do, in order to help our teams transform from lowering plates to lowering bowls, is create a “no-blame” environment. That’s a key principle of the lean-process approach we’re beginning to adopt at the college. That’s where a team says to itself, “If there’s something not working – some service we provide that is not meeting the needs of our faculty, students and staff – let’s not blame. Rather, let’s dig in to analyze and improve the process.” 

A culture of no blame opens up ideas, lowers feelings of vulnerability and starts to build trust. We start to listen better, we get excited about making small improvements, we’re not afraid to experiment, we don’t get down when things go awry, and we start to transform our precarious plates into safe bowls. It’s the same safe environment, in fact – one that welcomes diversity of perspective, critical thinking, experimentation and hands-on learning – that our students have always experienced in their classrooms. We become more effective, together, in working toward our goals.

Along the way, inevitably we drop a few marbles. In the IT world, these are the times where the internet connectivity is down, deadlines are missed and systems don’t perform well. We run over to try and restart the technology in a classroom, only to find we don’t have the right tools. We launch a few ideas; for all those that help move the college forward, there are some that don’t pan out so well.

But we have colleagues to help us with their feedback – both when we get it wrong and when we get it right. They help us to learn how to be better; and we’re especially grateful for the times when they trust us to be a supporting partner in their success at SNC. Working together, we in IT can develop the tech they need and the services to keep it useful, and build up our partnership as we define what’s our best “next” for the college. We as a college can refine and streamline our processes so we can keep our focus clearly on our mission to create the best possible learning environment for our students.

So, back to my lunch with the ITS directors. As we parted, I think we all pondered how things might pan out. Well, the team has gotten used to my fondness for analogies, and I still haven’t lost my marbles. And all the while, we’ve continued to build up the sides of those plates, starting to form them into bowls – into vessels that can do the job more easily and more successfully.

Oct. 31, 2018