When I was a higher education vice president some years ago, our institution was asking important questions about student retention. We brought in experts from around the country to look at our retention efforts and implemented a number of first-year and curriculum-wide programs to help more students persist until graduation. While we made some progress, I was troubled by one aspect of our approach to increasing student retention. Specifically, our institution went to great lengths to interview students who were leaving or who had left in an effort to assess the factors that influenced their decision-making.
While the stories of those who made the decision to leave could be helpful, I offered at the time that we were missing a more important story. Namely, what about the students who were staying, excelling, and having a fantastic experience with us? What was their story? Why were they delighted with us?
Understanding why people choose to join you, give to you, and become a champion for your cause is a powerful form of appreciative inquiry that helps to clarify your strengths and opportunities for explosive growth. Conversely, understanding why people reject you, your programs, or your institution may encourage some leaders to go to great lengths to develop strategies focused on “fixing” your weaknesses. This approach is the basis of “gap analysis” — determine the extent of the distance your service might be from “excellent” (i.e., “the gap”) and then work to close that difference.
The problem with “closing the gap” is that you may end up pouring a ton of creative energy and financial resources into enhancing your sub-standard areas, only to find that you are now merely “average” in those areas. And “average” won’t create delight in your students, donors, or anyone else you serve.
You are better off asking questions that will help you understand the stories of those delighted with you. Then, you can identify your institutional strengths and develop strategies that amplify those characteristics across the enterprise. When you build on your current strengths you will attract more people who fit your preferred profile.