February 27, 2023

Ditching the Easy Fix at Victor Valley College

group of people talking in an art classroom
By: ELIstaff


If you’re always implementing an easy fix, you’re probably looking at all your problems as technical issues rather than complex, adaptive ones. But it can be hard to find the motivation. Not to mention the time to peel back the layers of those big, intractable issues and devise solutions.

Here’s a pep talk in the form of an example from Victor Valley College in Victorville, California, where McKenzie Tarango is the Dean of Instruction, Public Safety & Industrial Technology. She inherited a tricky challenge involving fiscal accountability in a program with hundreds of instructors and multiple classes. Some of these classes were so complex their schedules weren’t even written out.

Tarango chose it for her very first project under a new entrepreneurial mindset opportunity from her boss, Victor Valley College Superintendent, and President Dan Walden.

A New Kind of Solution

After hearing Gary Schoeniger speak in 2021, Walden intuitively recognized that he already had an entrepreneurial mindset—he just hadn’t had the vocabulary to talk about it as straightforwardly and clearly as the Ice House model does. He introduced it to his leadership team and all the college’s managerial-level administrators, and it received a warm reception. But rather than mandating, they started to use it. Walden tried something different. He offered a small cohort of volunteers the chance to meet with Schoeniger on an ongoing basis. 

Each participant would choose a project to tackle where they could apply the model’s 12 design principles. Tarango picked the multi-instructor fiscal accountability problem within the college’s STAR Technology program. Millions of dollars were encumbered in payroll. The extremely labor-intensive process of approving hundreds of timesheets for the program within a short window of hours each pay period led to some instructors being over-compensated.

“In a class where you have 40 instructors, and they vary from day to day, you can see how easily that can spiral out of control,” Tarango said. Working with the program’s support staff, Tarango undertook the manual process of peeling back layers of outdated processes that had been in place for years. 

They noted patterns of inaccuracies and traced them to individual instructors—some of whom are no longer with the college. They also realized that some classes had such a complex structure. There wasn’t even a schedule for who was instructing when. Thus there was literally no way for the support staff to check the accuracy of the hours that instructors submitted. For instructors, it was tough to track their hours too. This led some of them to submit well-intentioned averages based on the number of hours they supported students rather than time spent actually teaching.

Ideas into Practice

The solution was remarkably simple: clean up the schedules, so instructors knew their time commitments and then have the program’s support team generate timesheets based on the instructors’ assignments. Responsibility for reviewing the timecards shifted to the instructors.

“We started with the world’s best spreadsheet,” Tarango joked, “but we believe we have fiscal responsibility now. Our next step is to add the technology to bring the new processes out of the Flintstones era and into the Jetsons era.” 

A related challenge was changing instructors’ perception of the updated checks and balances within the program’s payment processes. Some felt that the changes signaled a lack of trust from college leadership. Tarango emphasized that there is still plenty of room for self-direction on the part of instructors. Instead of unilaterally deciding how many hours they put in, they agree to the course structure and then determine how best to utilize their hours to support students’ learning.

The best of the 12 design principles

Tarango found it especially helpful to internalize the terminology of the 12 design principles through the recurring meetings with Schoeniger and her four fellow cohort participants. “Analyzing what’s happening through other language changes your way of thinking,” Tarango said. 

In particular, she found that these six resonated with her:

  1. Putting emphasis on what she, as an individual, could do.
  2. Using active experimentation. 
  3. Embracing micro-failures creates a safe environment to test ideas by experimenting without being afraid to “fail forward.”
  4. Employing self-direction and a sense of empowerment—but still asking questions when you need to.
  5. Encouraging self-reflection.
  6. Having patience. 

“We found the problem, we worked on the solution, we implemented it within our locus of control, and now we’re trying to take it to the next level,” Tarango said. This is where patience comes in; the support staff is still working on getting tasks automated. But once the new processes are in place, everyone will have additional time and brainpower to tackle the next problem. “Eventually, we’ll be able to do much more high-level critical thinking and customer engagement.” 

Tarango and Walden shared more about how the Ice House programs have helped Victor Valley College’s leadership discover new problem-solving opportunities and design their own solutions in this case study

Walden is optimistic about their experiences so far. He’s also optimistic about the long-term potential for the mindset to take hold across the administration, faculty, and students. “I am more excited now than I’ve ever been because I see it growing,” he said. “This is too good to be true!”