Getting from where we are to where we want to be
By Doug Sweet
Pierre Moreau wears two big hats at McGill. Not only is he Executive Director of Planning and Institutional Analysis (PIA), he is also Senior Advisor to the Principal on Policy Development. Formerly President of the Université du Québec system, Moreau, who did his PhD at McGill in molecular biology, returned to the University about three and a half years ago, and is now a member of the senior executive team. These days, he’s especially busy, steering the massive Strategic Reframing Initiative and other projects intended to change the way McGill runs itself, as well as helping prepare for next year’s provincial summit.
Tell me a little bit about what you do; what occupies your time? Besides meetings.
My time is divided according to the name that we carry, so planning and institutional analysis. I usually say that they are two Ps and IA, so on the IA (the institutional analysis) side, it’s about data, and it’s about giving McGill’s leadership careful analysis, actionable information, but also insights. The other part (the two Ps) is planning and policy development, and some of this is in the execution of the Strategic Reframing Initiative (SRI).
Now, we’re at a stage with the SRI where we’re getting into the implementation, so this made us realize … that it was really important to start putting some energy into making sure that we execute the ideas, we deliver the projects that are the priorities and that are essential for the evolution of our University.
We know that beyond the SRI there are other major initiatives under way, on workforce planning, the strategic research plan and ASAP – all this stuff is going on at once, it seems. That would seem to be a lot of change for an organization to absorb in a short period of time.
It is. It is, but we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t avoid this, that it was of the utmost importance for us to adapt now, and to put together this strategic reframing initiative. We’re trying to do it methodologically. But it should be an exciting time because it should be transformative. And I think that once we get through the initial steps, people will feel the transformation that they are bringing about, because they are the actors, the ones who will make it happen.
It’s often said that universities are becoming more corporate in their administration. But are universities just being asked to account for themselves to a far greater degree than was the case 10, 15 or 20 years ago. And is this fact driving some of these things we’re doing?
It starts from a perspective that I think is very positive. It has to do with more accountability from the universities. I would say that 20 years ago universities were not expected to be as transparent. So, I think it’s in the best interests of the citizens, the community and the university to be transparent and to be accountable. And, yes, that takes us to a different level. I think it’s a misconception to say that because we are getting a little bit more accountable, because we are looking into making decisions not just based on intuition or on tradition – which is very strong in universities – that we are getting more corporate. We want to make decisions based on facts. So we are really trying to change to a culture of evidence – that we decide based on facts.
It might not be the traditional way to work in universities, and I think that is what triggers the reflex to say that we are more and more working like a corporation. But I think that the private sector has best practices that we can use and integrate into our own world. So, taking a look at the best practices around, translating them, and then using them to make McGill better is what we are trying to do at PIA, actually.
I think that universities will need to adapt to this culture of evidence, will need to adapt to a level where they get more efficient. The biggest challenge I have seen as a university administrator is this ability to go from the idea to the end result, to a concrete action that changes the university – and to do that, facts are essential. Our role is to build a fact base so we know where we are and where we want to go.
What PIA also brings is the benchmarking capacity. If you are aiming high and you want to be among the best and stay among the best, it’s really important to benchmark where you are, and keep score. I have never seen any team win a game when none of the players are looking at the scoreboard. So we need to keep score, and this is what PIA provides.
Tell me a bit about your team. Who is PIA?
Essentially, they are researchers. It’s a fine team, with many different skill sets, and all of them share this analytical mindset. And all of them are working hard to take the numbers, to take the data, and to do something different with them, so that we can create new tools, and offer new ideas.
We’re putting together data from different areas, and that can suddenly spark an idea. You say, “Oh, boy, I never thought of it this way.” They’re good in statistics, they’re good in economics, they’re good in political science, they have a whole range of backgrounds, which makes PIA a great team.
Tell me a bit about the Performance Management Unit.
What we’re trying to do is support McGill’s executive team. And so we’re just trying to bring some methodology, some tools, to people who have to deliver on an idea, or make sure a project actually happens. As I said, I think it’s one of the biggest challenges facing universities.
And so, for example, we’ll help groups focus on some of the elements they must do. We can’t do everything at the same time. We will help them devise “lead” and “lag” measures, to make sure that, when we come to the final measure, we are on target. The lead measure will help us predict that. We insist, with the various groups we work with, that they keep score.
Sorry, “lead” and “lag” measures. Can you give me an example of what that could be?
Let’s say we have a common project on losing weight. And so, if we want to lose weight, the “lag” measure will be stepping on the scale and measuring our weight. But if we want to lose weight and we wait three months to step on the scale, we might be in for a surprise if we haven’t checked the “lead” measures along the way. So an example of lead measures would be the number hours of exercise you do every week or the number of calories you eat every day, etc. Those are lead measures; they will predict, fairly accurately, if you’ll hit the target of the lag measure. And, I think we’ve all experienced that, so it’s an easy example to understand.
But if you’ve kept track of your lead measures, then that will inform you as to why you did or didn’t hit your lag?
That’s right. And that’s keeping score. The score is on your lead measures.
I would say that most of it is changing the mindset. It’s not that complicated. It’s not rocket science. But it’s changing the mindset with a total, total commitment to delivering. And we have so many ideas, that it makes it really impossible to deliver everything. This is where we need to focus at the beginning and say, “this year, this month, this week, I’m really going to deliver on that, at least this one thing.” So that we go forward and put some of these things behind us. We try to help with this.