(A Journey of) Transforming Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones

“But you can build a future out of anything. A scrap, a flicker. The desire to go forward, slowly, one foot at a time. You can build an airy city out of ruins.”

Lauren Oliver, Pandemonium.
Lauren (1982-Present) is an American author known for her young adult books.

Transforming Stumbling Blocks To Stepping Stones 2014-01-14How does a leader form an inspiring vision and create a culture of excellence in an environment that seems hamstrung by regulations and whose service inspires dread in its customers? This concern echoed in Carole’s mind (not her real name) when she accepted a position at a university as director of the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a department almost universally reviled by its constituents. The IRB approves all research that uses human subjects (people) before the studies can proceed. The position of director had been a revolving door and department morale was at its nadir.

Carol set a goal to transform her department from mainly of administrative (organized to execute) to a more educational with active monitoring in the field that embraced learning. Many of her employees, who are drawn to the work of rules and regulations, define their success by how closely they can enforce the letter of the law. One of Carole’s assistants described her ideal day by starting with a long checklist of tasks. If she had checked everything off her list by day’s end, she felt a thrill of satisfaction and would go home happy. She admitted the best way to ensure that she had a good day everyday was to minimize new or unfamiliar items on her list. If learning equals change and change translates into a temporary productivity drop, she avoids learning new things to avert having a bad day.

Creating a fresh start with a challenge

Carole was determined to make changes to ensure that research adhered to the highest ethical standards, yet encouraged some flexibility to support life-changing research. In Carole’s own words, “A lot of what the staff thought were rules was really folklore. I needed to convince them to look at the intent of the regulations. Don’t just put barriers in place. Work to find a solution.”

Carole began by inviting all her staff members to a meeting. She posed the question, “Why do you do this work?” Overwhelmingly they responded that they thought the work they did was important. Carole thought that the dialogue was promising. She outlined her vision to make the IRB a center for excellence. The path to achieving that vision was through a team challenge – to acquire full AHRPP (Association of Human Research Participant Program) accreditation, considered the gold standard in the industry.

Changing culture (one interaction at a time)


  • Where would you choose for a more relaxed/ comfortable location for your team meeting?
  • What question(s) did Carole ask her team to bring everyone onto the same starting point?
  • What question(s) would you ask to bridge what your members can do with what they need to do?
  • How did Carole realign her team members’ perceptions with the eventual team-goal? What would you do as a leader?

Carole focused on changing perceptions behind regular department-customer interactions. Carole noted that “…a persistent suspicion had built up over the years by my administrators that researchers (their internal customers) were trying to get away with something. And, the researchers thought my regulators were throwing up roadblocks and not using common sense. There was probably a little truth in both views.”

Carole understood the value of communication in building empathy with customers (outside of her team), “It’s harder to throw a tantrum, if you know the person you’re talking to.” She opened the department’s offices to the researchers, encouraging them to talk with her staff face-to-face about their research applications.

Internally, she leveraged the team’s experience to develop their own library of case studies of varying complexities. The key objectives of the case studies were to: align familiar concepts that the staff understood, introduce new yet understandable concepts, and stimulate the team’s learning minus the confusion. This solution gradually enhanced the team’s skills to examine the intent of the regulations and provided a basis to design solutions that both protected research subjects and promoted research.

As part of individual resource development, Carole coached her staff on unique research cases and supported them with additional training to ensure they thoroughly understood the regulations. She budgeted for professional conferences, encouraging her staff to meet other professionals for a broader perspective of regulatory impacts on industry developments. Most importantly, Carole allowed for some bumps in the road. She provided a safe place for her staff to take risks and fail occasionally so that every team member can learn from the identified lesson points and to collectively grow as a team.

Open communication, empowerment, training and a safe environment to learn helped Carole transform her department. The coda to her story is that the university received full AHRPP accreditation, joining an elite group of just over 200 organizations to receive this distinction, a huge source of pride for her department and their collaboration as a team.



(Safe) Environment. Choose more relaxed avenue than your typical meeting space so team members can comfortably express themselves. Food is always welcomed, as is the option to wear relaxed clothing.

Inquiry. Ask your team “why they do this work?”. Ensure an open dialogue for all the members to express your willingness to listen to all ideas. Expand your discussion to how the team wants to be perceived.

Empowerment. You can challenge each member to be situational leaders for their own individual projects (just as Carole did with her team using the four modes: instruct > coach > relate > delegate). Review last week’s blog on how to Equip-Enable-Empower your team members.

Shifting mental-models. Use a three-pronged approach of educate ~ recognize ~ build empathy. Educate takes the form of seminars and professional conferences. Recognize your members with praise and give them the opportunity to walk the group through their success story and process. Build empathy includes setting up events for your team members to experience what their clients go through (e.g. role-playing, site tour of client’s department).

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