Resetting Spend: Top 3 Response Types

If you have been tasked or challenged with finding savings and efficiencies for your department or institution, you will soon find yourself in front of all kinds of great people. Since there are likely near zero leaders not currently on a savings and efficiencies path, please recognize there is no better way to learn a culture than by getting out there and digging in. Whether your charge is finding efficiencies, identifying savings, generating pathways to new revenue, or, most likely, all of the above, your role is important. It matters. And beyond the role, how you as a person and colleague are received and how you react oftentimes matter even more.

First and foremost:

All past decisions were made by people. Each decision was made for a reason. By people. With thought. With best interest of the institution in mind. Never forget this.

On your journey, you will encounter these people. Or other folks who considered the prior decision-makers close colleagues and efficient peers. Especially in the higher education industry, people dedicate their entire lives to a single institution. So know, if they know the conversation is coming, defenses will be up – not unlike the frills of Jurassic Park’s Dilophosaurus – before you introduce yourself. Awareness of this and grace in response are crucial.

One of the greatest features of academia is the diversity of its population – in body, mind and spirit. Across several very different institutions, I’ve always encountered these three types of response to scratching the surface on the conversation of spend and value:

  1. “We’ve always done it this way.”

    You are holding a contract, what someone refers to as a contract (but isn’t) or referencing a legacy spending pattern that could be improved upon. You are speaking directly with the current owner of this vendor relationship – might be the original customer that signed the agreement or someone that took ownership of the relationship at some point. Before you can ask ‘the why’, your colleague needs to share with you a story. A long story. While the story does infer to ‘the why’, almost immediately you see that the entire vendor/customer agreement needs to be refreshed. What’s key at this juncture is expressing respect for the hard work that’s been done on this to date. In addition, recognizing internally that, while times and methodologies have changed, intent for the current process was always honorable. Your best case scenario here is that you encounter more of these opportunities in your charge, as these are simply outdated agreements that, upon revisiting, will likely result in near-immediate and substantial cost-savings. But the people, know their intent was for good.

    Key takeaway: These are the best kinds of discoveries. And the original agreements, while needing refresh, were negotiated by good people. Keep that in mind yourself as they deserve respect and thanks. They also deserve understanding why refreshing agreements is important.

  2. “I would still choose (insert cheapest way).”

    Short-term savings do not lead to long-term sustainability. Like a college student living for a year off of their first credit card, unless there is a plan in place for addressing that debt long-term (and a dedication to prioritize that plan), stopping the bleed for one fiscal year does nothing to address long-term survival. Short-term savings is fine. But seeking long-term solutions is key. Regardless of situation, you will have savings-first colleagues defend the cheapest path forward for today. Without exception. Easy example. Should a technology system be updated now or later. It’s a core component. It has failed once. It’s aged and near its expected lifespan. When it fails, the entire campus is impacted. It is planned/budgeted for replacement in six months. Implications: Can we get it back up and running? If we do, for how long? How much time will it take to get it up and running? If it fails again, will it recover? How long to get it running again? In all instances, the campus, which relies heavily on uptime – and relies even more on uptime with current increasing online opportunities – will experience disruption. The bad kind of disruption. Downtime will negatively impact the campus, its users, its investors, its optics and confidence in general as an institution. We have the funds now. We could reallocate intended future funds for rapid update of items in the next priority list. We can spend the next six months focusing on keeping this particular component up and running OR we can knock it out, upgrade, and focus on long-term improvements that support the long-term sustainability of the institution. “I would still choose the cheapest option.” Reminder, cheapest is not fundamentally smartest.

    Key takeaway: This is what they know. Success is savings. Long-term sustainability and service, while not foreign words, aren’t computed  They will learn, they will get there. For now, as a leader making a decision, if your goal is long-term sustainability, you can’t win over every mindset. But reminder, that’s not actually your job. Your job is long-term and strategic gains.

  3. “I will leave that up to you.”

    I tend to view these folks as either truly getting it or not wanting any responsibility for the outcome of the decision. Either way, I’m here for it. You identify an opportunity, present your idea and the response is, “I just want the best solution.” These folks know their limit and trust your instinct. They just want to be able to work better, smarter and will get behind whatever will get them to that point. OR they want nothing to do with the accountability of it all and will use what they’re told to use. In both instances, find the solution and praise them for their willingness to support the cause. These are blessings. Take the blessings.

    Key takeaway: You’re in this position for a reason. Do your job and embrace the people that clear the path for you to find the best solution and implement it in the most efficient way.

There are so many flavors of response when a university pivots from business as usual to business as unusual-to-them. It’s change. It’s new relationships. It’s new learning. And each of these steps are scary because they’re different. Finding savings, efficiencies, removing roadblocks for new revenue, it’s quite thankless. And there will be people, loudly and quietly, questioning and doubting your every move. Just keep moving forward, stay mindful and appreciative of your colleagues and never lose sight of your ‘why’. As a technology leader, your ‘why’ involves driving change in areas that are much simpler and painless than changes that might need to occur in other areas that support teaching and learning. Improving an institution takes many. Be proud to be but one of those many. The hard work matters, but never forget the people involved in every process.