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Voices of the Global Community


Tim Kirkner, Two-Year College Commission Chair
Julie Levinson, Two-Year College Commission Member


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The current state of the U.S. economy has affected almost every sector, including higher education. For many advising professionals who work at two-year colleges, tight budgets have led to increased student populations, reduced resources, and pressures to hold down salaries. To the extent that higher education also relies on carrots and sticks to motivate faculty and staff, the current conditions have left the sticks in place but severely limited the supply of carrots.

Even in the most challenging times, autonomy and freedom are powerful incentives that colleges can offer employees at little cost. Daniel Pink (2009) published a timely book that makes the case for why this approach to motivating employees can be so effective. The central argument of his book, Drive, is that pay and acknowledgement for a job well done are not the sole motivations for our work. He describes numerous studies and examples that illustrate how autonomy, freedom, and creativity can keep workers happy and productive.

Several companies have made autonomy a formal policy. Google™ and 3M© are among the companies who have a “20 percent time” policy (Pink, 2009, p. 94) that officially establishes for employees an expectation that one-fifth of their time can be spent exploring ideas or projects of their choice. At 3M, allowing workers to be creative led to the invention of sticky notes; at Google it produced popular applications such as Google News and Gmail™.

While a uniform 20 percent time is not easily replicated in higher education, the core concept still can be recognized and encouraged. For example, while Montgomery College does not have a 20 percent time policy in place, freedom to pursue self-selected projects is part of the workplace culture. In fact, it is embedded in the College’s mission statement. If faculty or staff have a new idea or want to pursue professional development, they are encouraged to submit a proposal through the college’s “Make it Happen Innovation Grants' program. Conversations where ideas are first explored often begin with the words “wouldn’t it be cool if..?”

In fact, some of the college’s most highly valued advising programs, such as those focused on African American males, international students, first-year students, and returning adults all have roots in “20 percent time.” Another significant innovation to emerge from this creative license is eMAP, an online version of Montgomery College’s advising program. For years, the counseling faculty wrestled with how to efficiently and effectively provide advising to new students. Traditionally, the new student program was delivered in a group format that coincided with our peak advising periods. In fall 2005, several counseling faculty began a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversation that led to a successful funding proposal and an award-winning online student advising program. Those involved found that the creativity and teamwork required to produce the online program made it an extremely gratifying experience.

Of course, these examples all pre-dated the current economic crisis and enrollment boom. So the question becomes, how do we find time to have these “wouldn’t it be cool…” moments and, more importantly, develop them into something more than just an exciting idea when time is limited and resources are scarce?

While the Mid-Atlantic states were enduring the harshest and snowiest February on record, there was time to reflect and think about how to do more with less. More importantly, we were able to address how to keep people motivated in these troubled times. It is a delicate balance to meet the needs of our students in new and innovative ways and yet avoid a workplace culture where advisors feel burnt out and abused at the end of a long, tough advising rush.

Most advisors experience the intrinsic rewards that come from seeing students blossom and reach their goals. However, the loss of extrinsic rewards beyond our paycheck makes it feel like professional conferences, time to read, and freedom to explore are going the way of coffee and donuts at college-wide meetings. Poof!

Ned Donnelly’s (2009) research supports the importance of looking beyond the paycheck for attributes that enhance workplace satisfaction. Donnelly found that advisors report variety, empowerment, and teamwork as strongly related to their job satisfaction. All are related to encouraging a creative and dynamic work environment. Pink (2009) points out that what we do on the job can be broken into two categories: algorithmic tasks and heuristic tasks (p. 29). Algorithmic tasks are tasks such as answering the same question for the hundredth time, while heuristic tasks require creativity e.g., what is needed to reengineer the service delivery model. Lately the algorithmic activities encompass a larger percentage of our time; as a result, time for heuristic endeavors has declined. It is easy to see how this situation could lead to a workplace dominated by uninspired, overtaxed, and unmotivated employees.

How can advisors and advising administrators address this dilemma? A starting point may be the evaluation of our willingness to carve out time to generate and follow-through on “wouldn’t it be cool…” projects. Remember this is not part of the day-to-day routine, but rather a creative outlet.  Csikszentmihalyi (1997) noted that our time is divided into: what we want to do, what we have to do, and things we do because we did not know what else to do. Csikszentmihalyi implores us to not only be more aware how our time is spent, but to consciously seek out experiences that bring “flow,” e.g. “flashes of intense living against a dull background” (p.31). Think of this as rewarding times when we feel creative and energized. These rewarding times are not necessarily tied to financial reward; money does not drive everything. This raises the important question, what motivates people to do something for the sake of doing it?  The answer, in part, is flow.

Of course, it takes energy to attain these rewarding experiences. A straightforward solution is to focus on finding opportunities for heuristic work. However, even during busy advising periods, finding an extra five percent of the week to think, read, research, draw, or converse with others is critical. It is during these creative times when flow can truly take hold. Where institutions have a mission that includes continuous learning for faculty and staff, capitalize on this as an opportunity to find flow and think heuristically. Take the time to brainstorm such things as conference presentation ideas; even as travel budgets decrease or disappear, some institutions still support presentations. Develop a podcast. Join online discussions and listservs to stay current and motivated.

Finally, advisors who consider “flow” find that the most inspired ideas can be hatched while catching up with colleagues. Take time to ask the question “wouldn’t it be cool if ….?”

Tim Kirkner
Professor and Counselor
Montgomery College
[email protected]

Julie Levinson
Associate Professor and Counselor
Montgomery College
[email protected]


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks.

Donnelly, N. (2009). A national survey of academic-advisor job satisfaction. NACADA Journal, 29(1), 5-21.

Montgomery College eMAP.  Retrieved from www.montgomerycollege.edu/emap

Montgomery College Make It Happen Innovation Grants.  Retrieved from www.montgomerycollege.edu/vpaip/mihig/index/

Montgomery College Mission Statement.  Retrieved from  http://cms.montgomerycollege.edu/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=5782

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive:  The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York:  Riverhead Books.

Cite this article using APA style as: Kirkner, T., & Levinson, J. (2010, September). Inspiration and innovation: The value of pursuing 'wouldn't it be cool?' projects in challenging times. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 June 33:2


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