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#X Mascha's view on the power of dialogue

The story of Mark's strategising theory is a story of Mascha's view on the power of dialogue

Associate professor Mark van Vuuren and communication advisor Mascha Weijers can’t stop talking. About life and work, about how organisations and people develop, about UT and Shaping2030, but especially: the power of dialogue. Mascha recently gave a guest lecture about this for Mark's students. Time to catch up…

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Wednesday 14 July 2021

Towards the goal, together

Mark: 'Hey Mascha, what did you think of your guest lecture at Vision, Strategy and Leadership?’

Mascha: ‘That was fun to do. It was daunting though – I don’t teach college master's students every day. But I think it turned out well. I liked how you spoke to your students about going from strategy to strategising. From a boardroom text which you need to deal with', to something active; an inspiring, ambitious process to which everyone contributes. You can also see that in Shaping2030. Weren’t you at the basis of the Shaping story? Could you tell us more about that?’

Mark: ‘Of course, I'd love to. In 2019, UT asked me to become the substantive project leader of Shaping2030. My main assignment was to map our collective dreams and ambitions and to turn them into a vision for the future. That turned out to be a beautiful process; like a parlor game lasting a few months. Many people – from all walks of life at UT – let their hearts speak. In the end we were able to turn 270 pages of very pluriform input into a short, powerful, and resounding story. It shows who and what we want to be as a university, and how we can shape the future together. When we presented that story in the arena of the Gallery, we really noticed something. People felt seen and heard. As someone remarked: "this means I'm not the only one here who has a dream." It unlocked so much energy - and the conviction: now we are really going to do it!'

Mascha: ‘I can imagine that. What I think UT does well, is not to simply want to respond to ‘what might come at us in the future', but really does shape the future. By contributing with new knowledge to a better world that is fair, sustainable and digital. I believe that’s exactly what this university is intended to do. But, you won't attain that with just a great narrative. The trick is to nurture living things so that they grow bigger and stronger. You have to convince and move people to contribute to the intended goal. Added to that, it’s often difficult to control the flow and energy which got you rolling at the start. Especially in the way a university operates.

An average employee will often find it hard to follow such a strategy process. They feel far removed from the process, and might deem it slow and bureaucratic. We want to prevent that sentiment with Shaping2030.’

“Shaping2030 needs more than a great narrative. The trick is to nurture living things so that they grow bigger and stronger. You have to convince and move people to contribute to the intended goal”
Mascha Weijers

Mark: ‘Exactly. You often see a divide in strategy and organisational development. On the one hand you have people who think: this is optimism for the future, I’ll see if it really actualises. On the other hand, people say: hey, we’ve been doing this for a long time already, tell us something new! That blocks development on either side. It really is all about balance. That you meet each other after yesterday and before tomorrow – so today! Mutually strengthen what you have been doing well for years, in order to take a step forward - together. That way you can see tomorrow’s projects in action today. I see that happening more and more at UT. But tell me, how do you prevent it from it becoming a pipedream? What is your role in making that happen?’

Mascha: ‘Over the past year and a half, I have worked as a communication advisor for Shaping2030, in a multidisciplinary team with people from HR, Strategy & Policy, Planning & Control and faculty representatives. Together we help colleagues, departments and faculties to make Shaping concrete and practical. For example, we are currently conducting a pilot with the departments. We talk with them about what’s going on and what they need from the organisation to be able to contribute to Shaping. It's really about substance, and subsequently translating it into daily practice. So, strategising!'

“It really is all about balance. That you meet each other after yesterday and before tomorrow – so today! Mutually strengthen what you have been doing well for years, in order to take a step forward - together. That way you can see tomorrow’s projects in action today”
Mark van Vuuren

Mark: ‘That’s great! I often see that organisations add new goals on other spearheads until employees don’t know what’s going on. UT can be like that too. I personally believe in 'stop, start and strengthen'. What are you going to stop, what are you going to start, and what are you going to strengthen? Do you hear people make similar choices during those conversations?’

Mascha: ‘Sure. We all like to start – and we're good at it too. But stopping is often difficult. You can't just pull the plug out of any project. We have noticed that in the new prioritisation as well, during which the Executive Board listened to the organisation. Because we have too much work on our hands. But when you prioritise, you automatically make other things less important. And we're not very good at that. What I'm interested in: what do you think of how the implementation progresses is going so far?’

Mark: 'What I see and hear around me is that we are much more concerned with the impact we want to make. Our work is often very specialised and substantive, so of course we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture or 'the outside world’. We’ve managed to turn that around. The fact we now have an action-oriented, idealistic narrative, seems to me the biggest positive change. Even if maybe not everyone calls it shaping, we do work on it. And no, we're probably not on schedule with the strategic objectives. But honestly, I don't find that so important. You can’t implement based on a shopping list. I do think that we have to take a good look – in 2022 - at what corona really meant for us. To then make choices – based on current insights.'

Mascha: 'We have indeed formulated a lot of strategic goals. Which is quite daunting. How do we keep track of progress? When have we reached our goals? You cannot determine this in advance, you have to constantly adjust. This requires a different view of leadership and responsibility. Shifting from wanting to control to trust. You can also see this change in the Shaping Dialogues. During these meetings, the board enters discussions with the faculty boards about how they can shape. By questioning, inquiring. That takes some getting used to for everyone. Since there’s a tradition of accounting through metrics. With Shaping we don't just want to count and tick boxes, but above all: narrate. Of course, that also includes FTEs and euros. And the things that didn't go according to plan. Talking about these things openly requires a lot of mutual trust and new conversation skills. I hope that UT will continue to practice and grow in this area. If we manage to change the dialogue at the top, it will automatically trickle down into the rest of the organisation.’

Mark: 'Interesting Mascha! I don't think we're finished talking yet. But I understood that you are going to stop at UT, is that correct?’

Masha: ‘Yes. I've been working 'externally' for a year and a half now, and the last six months I’ve been a project manager as well. From July 1st, Leontien Kalverda will take over the project leadership. I'm very happy with that. It is important that someone from UT takes over and continues with what we’ve set out to do.’

Mark: 'Nice, I have an appointment with her soon! Last question: what would you wish for UT?’

Mascha: 'That more and more colleagues feel and experience how they contribute to Shaping2030. That they encourage, reinforce and strengthen each other in this. That way the collective movement can success in going towards the intentions. It doesn’t have to necessarily be convoluted or complicated. On the contrary: make it manageable and concrete. Do the necessary and help each other in doing so.'

Mark van Vuuren (1975)

studied and obtained his PhD at UT, where he has also been working for about twenty years. Today he is an associate professor of Organisational Communication. He is also a partner at WhereWeMeet, building bridges between organisations, teams and professionals. In 2019 Mark was substantive project leader of Shaping2030.

Mascha Weijers (1972)

studied business communication at the Radboud University University of Nijmegen and specialised in communication in organisations. She has worked -amongst others- for the Dutch Railways, Radboud UMC and Dichterbij, where she guided vision, strategy and change processes. Mascha was communication advisor and project leader of Shaping2030 until June 2021. She facilitates dialogue at Vank and Rechtdoorzee, and helps organisations and employees have their best conversations.