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You think you know Arizona State University. As two long-time Sun Devils, we certainly thought we did. Now, as officially oriented ASU University Innovation Fellows, we can safely say: we knew nothing (relatively), we now know some things, and we are excited for all we have yet to learn about this big, busy, crazy-in-a-good-way university.
Every summer, the Office of University Initiatives undergoes a transition as outgoing University Innovation Fellows spend a month welcoming, mentoring, and orienting their successors (that’s us!). Through a whirlwind of sessions and meetings, we learn about ASU’s institutional history and context, current projects and priorities of senior leaders, and a suite of tools, like design thinking, that we’ll put to use as we assist the UI team with designing and launching exemplary initiatives to advance ASU’s charter and design aspirations. Our sessions took us across ASU’s locations around the valley, from ASU West to Downtown Phoenix, from Polytechnic to Skysong, as well as our home base in Tempe.
We have endless gratitude for the people who shared their time, ideas, and stories with us. Senior leaders inspired us with their strong sense of purpose and optimism. Fellowship alumni shared advice on how to maximize our time and stay organized. And, our UI family and UI Fellowship predecessors kept us feeling encouraged, energized, and supported.
For our first UI blog, we thought we’d take a moment to reflect and interview each other on what we’ve learned about ASU, the wisdom so many leaders generously shared, and how we’re faring as we transition from orientation to... whatever comes next!
CN: Let’s do our intros.
MSG: If you insist...
CN: We did spend four weeks perfecting them.
MSG: Let’s just link them to our bios on the website.
CN: Deal. Here you go.
CN: How have the first several weeks been for you? Even though we sit next to each other, our projects are different… minus a couple that we’ve already collaborated on together.
MSG: I know you’ll agree, the best part of the Fellowship is how supportive our office is. Everyone is kind, smart, and thoughtful. The work is fast-paced and, at times, high pressure, but there’s a culture of seeking feedback and collaboration. And as a trained skeptic (like most PhD students), I’m enjoying the office optimism. The attitude tends toward, “how can we make this work?” I’m so used to “where will this go wrong?” So it’s a nice change in outlook that challenges my highly critical, sometimes cynical, tendencies.
Also, I can’t believe it’s our job to learn about new topics and people all day long! The days fly by quickly because of the diversity of projects, even in the span of one day: partnerships, literature reviews, quick one-pagers on a variety of topics, and design sessions. With so many things going on at once, I’m still exploring how to stay organized so that it all stays on track, but I think I’m getting there with a combination of paper planners, digital calendars, and post-it notes. Your Google docs and sheets expertise has inspired me, too, Christina. You should teach how-to classes.
MSG: We’ve both been at ASU for many years now, but still encountered many new facts and faces. What was the most surprising fact you learned about ASU?
CN: We definitely learned a lot during the onboarding experience. For the first time in my professional career, I started and completed a notebook from page one to the back of the very last page. So, it’s a little tough for me to choose the most surprising fact I learned about ASU. If it’s okay with you, I am going to cheat a little and choose a few facts/opinion statements and give a pro tip about each campus we visited (not including Tempe because we’re based here) in case you ever need to host a tour.
Downtown campus: Phoenix voters approved a $233 million bond to create the Downtown Phoenix campus. Its location in the area has allowed ASU students, faculty, and staff to work closely with businesses, creatives, government, etc.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to visit the Mercado buildings, ASU Thunderbird School of Global Management, and the Arizona Center. They’re also the homes of many ASU units.
Polytechnic campus: Mesa will soon be larger than Tucson. Polytechnic is a hotbed for industry and business partnerships through its engineering, aviation, computer science, etc. programs.
Pro tip: Every Friday during the summer, a different unit/college hosts an ice cream social. This community-building activity has been a Polytechnic tradition for years.
West campus: It’s the fastest-growing ASU campus with a primarily undergrad population, which means lots of new construction. Residence halls, the SDFC, and research labs, oh my!
Pro tip: There are several statues and architectural pieces at West Campus that are part of tried and true traditions, and they’re worth checking out (e.g., Paley Gates, Fletcher Lawn statue, The Bool Bell).
CN: What is something you’re looking forward to changing or adding to for next year’s onboarding experience for the Fellows?
MSG: One of my dreams is likely unrealistic--it would be nice to have more downtime in between sessions to reflect and journal, especially after meetings with senior leaders. I understand, however, why orientation is scheduled so tightly. We have to immerse ourselves in as much information as possible at the beginning, so that we’re ready to contextualize and act on our first assignments. I added it up by the way--we had almost 100 sessions in four weeks, each lasting between 30 minutes and 2 hours. When you consider that ASU President Michael Crow often has up to 90 meetings in one week, it doesn’t seem so bad!
I believe we both agree that we should set aside time--perhaps a couple of lunches at the beginning and the end--with just the outgoing and incoming fellows. Some of the most informative sessions were informal, unscheduled ones with just our predecessors in which we could ask our candid questions, get to know each other, calm nerves and share our excitement. They were even kind enough to spend some downtime helping us walk through ideas for first steps on our initial assignments. I think we should turn that into a formal session. New fellows could map out what they think they might do, and then as a group, we could evaluate and provide suggestions.
MSG: You’ve worked with other teams across ASU--how does the type and pace of work in UI differ from or compare to your other experiences?
CN: The work isn’t all that different than what I’ve experienced in previous roles at ASU. I think what makes UI so unique is that we have the chance to see the system and what goes into building programs and advancing initiatives. It can be easy to see things myopically in other roles - maybe I’ve been more of an executioner in previous roles? At UI, you get to see how the sausage (or soy-sauge) gets made. It’s been an enlightening experience for sure. I have found myself leveraging a lot of what I learned during my graduate programs in the work that I get to do in UI. Doing market scans, thinking about users, trying to navigate complex challenges--I feel like I’m putting theory into practice. Using futures thinking to figure out what risks may exist and how to prepare for resilience when issues arise in the future, leveraging design thinking to build user-centered products, services, and experiences, and practicing values thinking to ensure that we are transparent about what it is that is organizations value (shout out to Regina for the overview of different types of thinking we use!) it's pretty incredible that we get to do this. Right? It’s not a we have to do this, it’s a we get to do this.
You already mentioned this already, but something else that makes this team so special is that it’s a requirement to learn if you want to be successful. The assignments that we are responsible for requiring us to travel into black holes of Google searches, comb through extensive reports, and become mini-experts on things we’ve had very little (or zero) exposure to in the past. People are typically hired for a role because of the expertise they bring. Here, we’re expected to leverage our skills to become an expert at any moment on any topic. I’m crossing my fingers for the day UI asks me to learn HVAC, but that’s a story for another time.
As for the pace, things move fast here. And I mean really fast. One of the pieces of advice that I appreciate most from the outgoing Fellows was to ask questions when handed a new assignment. One of my first questions is, “When would you like it by?” (I know that’s not grammatically correct.) It’s one of my first questions because it helps me prioritize the work that needs to get done. You and I are Post-its/checklist people, and leaving items unchecked it a no-no. If a new item is marked as a high priority, it doesn’t mean the other items go away. It means figuring out a strategy to move forward on everything because the deadlines are real.
MSG: I think we should both share a meaningful piece of wisdom we took away from one of our senior leader meetings.
CN: It might seem corny because my portfolio is focused on Social Embeddedness, but what most resonated with me during all of our senior leader meetings was the importance of building relationships with communities and individuals. Duane Roen is involved with numerous organizations in the East Valley. Todd Sandrin spends time getting to know community college leaders in order to ease the transition for transfer students. Grace O’Sullivan believes in the power of listening to others and identifying synergies between ASU and corporate partners. Ji Mi Choi can name a laundry list of people and organizations to connect you to on just about any subject. These are just four examples of the many senior leaders at ASU who emphasized the value of relationship-building both professionally and personally.
The first bullet point that describes the type of candidates that UI looks for in candidates is, “ability to connect people, groups and organizations.” Absolutely yes, and I think there’s an implied “with” in that bullet point. Successful leaders have the ability to connect with people, groups and organizations.
MSG: Jim O’Brien, Sr. Vice President of University Affairs and Chief of Staff to President Crow, shared some wisdom that really stuck with me. It goes back to this idea of having immersed ourselves for four weeks of orientation and still feeling like we have more to learn about ASU. When we asked him about how we should go about being more aware of the institutional context for our initiatives, he wondered, “might that be the project that eats the opportunity?” In other words, ASU, including our ecosystem of partners, is complex, and you might spend all your resources on background research (the project) before you ever reach a state of complete and total knowledge or context to proceed with your opportunity. And that’s assuming perfect knowledge is even possible.
This stood out to me because when I enter a new, complicated situation, my instinct is to attempt to mind-map, noting all the components and connections in a system and drawing them out. But ASU is not a system you can accurately map. Or by the time you’ve drawn the map, it’s already evolved. Our job description says, “must have comfort with ambiguity,” and it’s not just about the concepts or projects. ASU is a complex system. Importantly, I didn’t interpret Jim O’Brien as implying that the quest for context is worthless. You should do the best you can gathering background information with a reasonable input of time and resources, and then remain open to recalibration, collaboration, and clear communication should new knowledge or partners arise through action, as is likely at ASU.
I’d like to note, each senior leader we met with had an inspiring, strong sense of purpose driving their work. Many shared their life stories openly, and they drew clear connections between their experiences and why they show up to work energized every day (or at least, most days). Comfort with risk and ambiguity threaded through many of their stories, often seeming to stem from either inherent or learned sense of optimism. I wonder how many organizations can say that about their senior leadership? I know we both feel very fortunate to spend our days learning from and supporting our leaders and their initiatives to advance ASU’s Charter.