Last week I had a conversation with one of my trusted thought-partners from a Maple League university. The conversation was ostensibly about advancing a particular project but quickly turned into a conversation about the topic of institutional culture change. This colleague compared trying to innovate at his university as a game of “whack-a-mole” whereby the change-makers are the mole, and organizational structures (and their enforcers) are the mallets. He lamented that despite the best (and often repeated) efforts of an individual or small group of hopeful humans, the barriers (policies, systems, structures, or mindsets) frustrate even the most creative and persistent problem-solvers.
This metaphor framed a larger conversation about how we enact change within institutions – and why change is so difficult. To extend the mole metaphor, mallets are often invisible, fast, and frustrating. After enough whacks, do you dare pop your head above ground, or do you learn through experience to stay in your hole?
With permission from my interlocutor, I shared the “whack-a-mole” metaphor at subsequent strategic alignment meetings to see if it resonated with partners from across the institutional strata. Many staff, faculty, students, and administrators, it turns out, identified with the mole as they shared their experiences stewarding diverse projects and initiatives.
One colleague suggested that the regular Maple League meetings were a crucial form of support; connecting with like-minded colleagues (who were themselves working towards institutional change) made the moles more resilient and the mallets less “whacky.”
Indeed, the theme of resilience emerges as one of the most important “value-add” components of the consortium; when we analyze the large number of testimonials collected over the past year, collaborators across the 15+ communities of practice reported significant benefits in regular Maple League meetings, including: helping them enhance design and systems thinking, providing emotional and logistical support, and sharing good practices to advance strategic thinking.
When I beta-tested the “whack-a-mole” metaphor of institutional culture change with a small sample size, all of the individuals perceived themselves as moles. However, if we surveyed a larger group, how many would self-identify as the mallet? If we ask the right questions, would they be able to identify when they are moles and when they are mallets?
While we might be inclined to sympathize with the mole, the mallets are just as worthy of our attention (and empathy). How we might support those who must wield the mallets by helping them to reframe the systems to be more inclusive and flexible? Can we support the mallets to co-design helpful and hopeful spaces with the moles?
The design thinking we do together helps build resilient and hopeful institutions. As we move into a post-COVID world we must consider what is fundamental to our mission that we can conserve and protect? Where must we open, adapt to evolving contexts, release some deep held assumptions and practices that no longer serve? How can we put equity at the centre of every decision we make?
We have work to do, and the work is more generative and delightful together.
— Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities