The art of problem-solving Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

David L. Deming knows better than to try to run The Cleveland Institute of Art by himself. Instead, the president and CEO involves others in the process of developing a strategic plan for the CIA and its 2008 operating budget of $16 million, and then he focuses on guiding his team toward that plan.

“I am reminded over and over again through my career that you really need to have a vision for what it is that you want your school to be doing and what the direction is,” he says. “Without that vision and direction, everybody flounders.”

Smart Business spoke with Deming about why you shouldn’t try to do it all yourself and how to find the right people to help you make the right decisions.

Q. How do you create a vision for an organization?

A big part of building the vision is that you’re not pulling it out of the sky. You’re usually doing it by talking to a lot of people you have respect for and respect for their particular thoughts, dreams and aspirations. The vision that you usually come up with is built on a lot of communication with a lot of people.

When you finalize that vision, hopefully a good leader is finalizing that vision not in isolation but openly with key leaders in your institution.

Q. How do you ensure other people are involved in the process?

One of the principal things we look at is to have a small group of people representing the faculty, staff, and administrative staff and board to be an overseer of the process, because you really want buy-in from a lot of people, so you develop a lot of task forces of individual issues. Then you bring those task forces together, and they report to the bigger group.

You just collect a lot of information. A lot of research goes into a good strategic plan. Then it’s up to the board leadership, the president and the vice presidents to finalize an action plan to move forward on.

Q. How do you determine who serves on the task force?

The automatic first thought most people have is that you just seek out who you think are the best people who are going to come up with the best solutions or recommendations. But if you only do that, you will alienate everybody else.

So what you usually do when you create these task forces is you do ask certain people to step up to be leaders. But then you open it up for anyone who wants to join that task force to do it. You never know where great ideas can come from.

Sometimes you have people on your faculty or staff who might be shy, they aren’t going to be as vocal at times. But you definitely want to give them opportunities to step up and have the input when it’s really important to have at the beginning of those processes.

Q. How do you determine what these task forces should do?

For example, we would have a task force on academic programs, and the charge would be to look at what people really want out of their careers these days. What are they anticipating that they want out of college? That research is very important.

If you’re not doing that research, you may be designing a curriculum they have no interest in. Then, they’ll go somewhere else.

I would dare to say that many universities and colleges in the past have taken the attitude that we know what they need to learn; that’s what they’re going to get when they come here. That worked for quite a long time.

But with the way information flows these days, even sophisticated faculty are seeing their jobs differently than ever before because they recognize that they have to continue learning at almost the same pace their students are in order to become effective teachers and leaders.

So we are all in a learning institution; we are all learning and trying to keep up and trying to think ahead, so when we design a curricula, we’ve designed it to be flexible for constant change and adaptation to the needs.

Q. What do you do with the input you get from the task force?

The steering committee would receive those reports. Usually, one or more members of the task force not only hands the report over in writing but verbally walks the task force through it, so there is clear understanding of what the document is.

It’s always in the form of a recommendation. Everybody understands that going in. They are making recommendations based on what they’ve found.

For instance, a recommendation could possibly be something the institute decides not to do, based on a number of choices that may come before us. But if the task force has really done its job, it will probably be solid information that would be very helpful to move on. That’s why you do these things.

How to reach: The Cleveland Institute of Art, (216) 421-7000 or