Fifteen Suggestions for Developing a Successful Immersion Program

What does an immersion program look like?

Currently, we’re piloting a 14-week immersion program that focuses on an inspirational theme we knew would generate interest. Participants meet for 3.5 hours each Tuesday, with an all-day trip to neighboring institutions on the first Tuesday of each month. During the first half of the semester, the participants hear from on- and off-campus leaders to learn more about the university and its peer institutions. During the second half, they will explore a team project and ultimately deliver a presentation of their findings to the president and provost. Whereas the program’s specific theme is new, and whereas some of the participant makeup is new, the program’s general format parallels many of our other immersion programs’.

Regardless of the type of program, an immersion experience can accelerate the development of people’s leadership skills. Leadership skills benefit every individual, as well as the institution or community as a whole, irrespective of the person’s official position. People with leadership skills achieve more, develop a greater sense of purpose, and improve organizational or community health.

The very structure of an immersion program fosters those skills. Like most of our others, this pilot program challenges participants’ time-management skills in order to build their capacities for new initiatives, raises their institutional awareness, and organizes sustained engagements with diverse perspectives — not only to develop participants’ critical-thinking skills and diversify their problem-solving techniques, but also to encourage institutional thinking over departmental thinking.

Projects dramatically improve immersion programs. A project can help participants not only develop their teamwork skills, but also comprehend the value of collaborating with stakeholders and cultivating champions for the cause. Whereas everyone appears to understand the importance of buy-in, few demonstrate knowledge of how to cultivate it. The early, uncertain stages of our projects include structured conversations and brainstorming sessions with stakeholders, while the participants try to better understand and accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. This investigative process elevates stakeholder awareness of unmet needs. It also invites them to help shape the end result. Both of those aspects often generate champions for the cause. Behind the scenes, the champions then raise more awareness, and particularly if they come from diverse constituencies, they broaden buy-in. Without a project and structured reflection on the process, even immersion programs would have trouble raising awareness of how to generate buy-in.

Perhaps most importantly, immersion programs foster close friendships. Close friendships can lead to sustainable networks for increased knowledge-sharing, collaborations, and potentially even resource-sharing. Connectivity creates an adaptable and resourceful institution or community, capable of responding rapidly to threats and seizing timely opportunities. In fact, friendships succeed where reporting structures and other forced networks fail. Their tangential conversations can blossom into innovations, and intimacy can increase collaborators’ personal investments. That level of friendship necessitates not only ice-breakers, a “Vegas” environment, structured peer interactions, and scheduled time for group reflection, but also topic flexibility to accommodate tangential and idle conversations.

After last week’s day trip, a participant related how much she values our bus rides. The bus rides have helped her, in her words, “really get to know” some of her colleagues. She claimed their new-found friendships already have seeded potential collaborations. Bear in mind, she and her colleagues do not merely desire to maintain their relationships. They better comprehend each others’ needs, skills, and resources, as well as how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

That comprehension improves organizational culture and effectiveness, and well-structured immersion programs can not only replicate that comprehension. Well-structured immersion programs can scale it.

Here are fifteen suggestions for developing a successful immersion program:

1. Elevate the program’s profile by creating a competitive application process.

2. Clarify time and other obligations in the call for applications.

3. Further raise the program’s profile by outsourcing the participant-selection process to a committee.

4. Coach the selection committee to choose participants based on their diverse backgrounds, experiences, access to resources, …. In other words, select to create the best program experience. Selection is part of the design.

5. Schedule the program to meet routinely for multiple hours at a time; more frequent meetings can require fewer hours for fewer weeks, but less frequent meetings demand more consecutive hours for additional months.

6. Create a relevant ice-breaker activity.

7. Incorporate a relevant team project into the experience.

8. Craft a project charge that is broad enough to encourage team ownership but specific enough to provide structure.

9. Consider reserving a day for participants to shadow relevant but diverse colleagues, community members, or professionals.

10. Invite diverse, but relevant contributors.

11. Schedule regular opportunities for reflection and discussion, away from contributors.

12. Have participants anonymously evaluate contributors in order to make program improvements.

13. Build time into the schedule for meetings with project stakeholders and for general project development.

14. Require a project presentation before an esteemed audience.

15. Additionally raise the program’s profile by utilizing that esteemed audience in a closeout ceremony.

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