SPA Blog

Strategy, Planning and Accountability Blog

Work as “Arrangement”

Posted on: October 14th, 2015 by spablog No Comments

I love a good Trapper Keeper. When I was in grade school, the Trapper Keeper was the “thing” to have at the start of the school year. The idea was that notebooks and folders in different colors could help a student easily separate one subject from another; it made arranging work easy.

Trapper Keeper

The word “arrange” means to “put (things) in a neat, attractive, or required order” ( While life is not always neat, attractive or orderly – and of course we grow and learn from confronting the unexpected – it is nevertheless helpful to arrange things and ideas when we can, in order to make life simpler, easier, more enjoyable.

Over my past five years working in the Office of Strategy, Planning and Accountability, I have started to see how so much can be gained by creating the right arrangement of ideas, information and things. I’d like to talk a bit about “arrangement.”

Let’s start with ideas. Have you ever been in a meeting where ten people are talking about the “same” issue, but no one can figure out what the problem really is? We talk in circles until the end of the meeting and we wonder what the point of the meeting was. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask, like Tabatha Ries-Miller (SPA senior research analyst), “what is the problem we are trying to solve?” Then you can make a list and organize the ideas into related groups. When you have an arrangement of the issues that makes sense, you can hone in on what the real problem is. Affinity diagrams help you arrange ideas. These are easy to create. Team members write down individual ideas on post-it notes (top box), then start grouping them up into logical categories (bottom box). After they are grouped up, you label the categories using group consensus. After that, you can rank which categories are most important to deal with first. This is one way to help a group literally see their ideas arranged so they can, later, decide what to do with them.

Affinity Diagram

Another of my favorite grouping techniques is the logic model. The logic model is simply a series of boxes that allows its users – usually a team that is designing a new program or service – to think clearly and thoughtfully about what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it. This particular arrangement of inputs, outputs and outcomes helps everyone on a team be very clear about what a program or service is designed to do. What do we want to give to the customer/student/participant/client? How will we get it to them? What resources do we need to have and what activities do we need to do in order to provide it? After a logic model is created, resources can be obtained, activities can be planned and people can be assigned tasks. The arrangement of ideas lends itself to organized action.

Logic Model

Now let’s talk about arranging things. What’s beautiful to me about this desk is that it is arranged in a way that makes work easier. It’s not perfectly organized but the essentials of organization are there. This desk allows a person to delineate tasks (see task board), put pending tasks in the bucket at left and store things in the drawer to the right. Writing utensils are all in one place and there’s a notebook next to the (absolutely necessary, if you know me) glass of cold press coffee. The user has an arranged physical space that can counteract the disorganization of the mind. “What was I going to do again? Oh yeah…”  While people often switch from one task to another, or float in and out of mental to-do lists, with a desk like this they can immediately come back to arranging those thoughts and activities into a concrete task, a pending item, a storage item, a note or something else. It would be relatively easy to keep track of yourself with this set-up.

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Organized Desk

What I have come to realize about my work with process improvement, strategic planning, project management and evaluation is that it is about creating the right arrangements. It doesn’t matter if the arrangements are made up of ideas, information or things. By grouping things up in a way that is sensible, clear and thoughtful, with an eye to action, it’s easier to get work done and accomplish your Most Important Things.


What do you and AQIP have in common? Continuous Improvement!

Posted on: June 2nd, 2015 by spablog 1 Comment

Back in the early 2000s, my husband graduated from MCTC with an associate degree in Graphic Design.  He had a well-organized professional portfolio that highlighted only his best work and he was soon hired as a junior graphic designer at a local advertising agency.

That’s one kind of a portfolio process, where only the best work is shown.   MCTC’s accreditation process requires a different kind of portfolio. The Higher Learning Commission accredits MCTC using the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) pathway. The AQIP process requires that AQIP colleges and universities create a portfolio every four years that details how processes in six key areas are working.  It also demands that where things are not working based on results, there is a plan for improvement. But why describe what isn’t working? Why don’t we just provide information on all the things that we do best, like my husband did in his professional portfolio? Because, luckily for us, the AQIP portfolio process is not about perfection – it’s about continuous improvement.

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Continuous improvement can only work if we know how we are doing in the first place.  In AQIP, the cycle of improvement involves having a Process, collecting Results and making Improvements.  By knowing our results, we can understand our process, and by doing improvement projects we can begin to shift the process to get better results.  As an example, I recently created a survey to better understand the experience of employees who serve on AQIP action projects teams. By gathering participant feedback using a short survey, I will be able to improve MCTC’s action project process this year.  I didn’t try to make the survey perfect – in fact I only took 15 minutes to create it.  But I’ll get some data relatively quickly that can lead to changes right away.  AQIP – and continuous improvement in general – is about getting information in order to act.  In SPA we like to say, “Don’t collect data if you aren’t using it to make a decision or a change.”

Are there important results you have access to that have not been acted on?  Is there a tiny thing you could do today to act on those results? Remember: your plan of action doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to make things better than they are today.

To learn more about Continuous Improvement, contact Jessica Shryack or look for a fall 2015 Continuous Improvement Calendar in a future edition of InsideMCTC!

Starting Your Work Day

Posted on: May 5th, 2015 by spablog No Comments

How do you start your work day?

On days when I remember to focus on the most important things, I pull out my lined notebook and write down the three to five activities that advance my work (sending an important email reminder, creating a project plan, compiling focus group data). I prioritize those activities and then do them, checking off each one as I go.  In contrast, I feel least productive when I forget to prioritize and instead do something like answer my emails first thing.

How do you figure out what are your most important things (MITs)? Stephen Covey provided a useful matrix that uses urgency and importance to categorize our daily activities from those that are both not urgent and not important to those that are both urgent and important. Interestingly, our most valuable daily activities tend not to be the urgent ones.  They are the Box 2 activities and they propel us and our organizations into more ideal versions of what we currently are.

Urgent and Important

(Taken from

If you find yourself trying to find an item that is very important to you personally, won’t ever end til you have think it is. In fact should you be your tough kind, almost every other task comes to be a make in which propels anyone even closer the actual destination. Here is the frame of mind of winning trades and you can now not be a particular in the event you don’t believe that like this. This is just what I actually asserted by using after i ended up being seeking out the ideal essay writing help write my essay for me DoMyWriting to create our essay to me.

In terms of our work at MCTC, the most important things that support our long-term goals could include things like: include developing assessments that align with learning objectives, planning a timeline for an improvement project or meeting with potential long-term donors.  All of these activities take time, and are not necessarily urgent, but if we do them we feel better, the organization becomes better and we avoid the stress inherent in doing mostly Box 1 or Box 3 activities.

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