Yoga for the CIO: A Flexible and Agile Approach to Collaboration

By Borre B. Ulrichsen, CIO, Gonzaga University

Borre B. Ulrichsen, CIO, Gonzaga University

During a meeting the other day, a colleague asked me where I saw our information technology team in 5 years.  I replied that one of my primary goals is to increase our agility and flexibility so we can be as responsive as possible to the needs of our community.  Another colleague turned to me with a smile on her face and said, “You sound like you need to do some yoga.”

I laughed, but then it struck me that there are indeed many similarities between yoga and limbering up to become a more collaborative and cooperative IT organization.  Just as yoga is a thoughtful and deliberate approach to health and wellness, cooperation and collaboration only work if we build a framework that actively promotes it.

Why We Need Yoga at Gonzaga University

Increasing flexibility and agility? (ability to get stuff done) while reducing stress, what CIO wouldn’t want that?  At Gonzaga University, demands on our technology infrastructure only seem to increase.  This year, we are implementing a campus-wide Constituent Relationship Management solution that will track our community members from prospective student status, through degree completion, and well into alumni status.  To get the full value of this technology investment, we simultaneously need to overhaul our business intelligence/analytics infrastructure and establish a formal data governance process across the institution.  And this is just one high-level initiative.  As the environment in higher education changes, we know to expect many new demands on our technology infrastructure.

"Just as yoga is a thoughtful and deliberate approach to health and wellness, cooperation and collaboration only work if we build a framework that actively promotes it"

Yoga Secret #1:  Focus on your breathing (and community)

The key to a successful yoga session is to let go of everything that is happening outside of class and focus on my breathing.  All that matters is what is happening right here, right now.  In higher education, the life-giving internal force that brings us together is our mission and how it guides on in supporting our community.  We may not agree on how to best provide this support, but we know our success comes from the success of our users.

At Gonzaga, we take time at the beginning of a project to gather data from our community through surveys and interviews.  This gives our end users a voice, and also enables us to move towards a data- driven approach to requirements gathering.

Yoga Secret #2:  Wake up your body (and collaboration tools)

Every self-respecting yoga session starts out with poses that activate our muscles, get the blood flowing, and wake up our body.  For IT collaboration this means using technology to get communication flowing.

At Gonzaga, we have decided to make the Microsoft Office 365 collaboration tools available to our community.  We provide training and support, but leave it to the individual teams to decide how to use the tools.  SharePoint and MS Teams are the most popular, but letting users decide themselves has greatly increased adoption and acceptance.

Yoga Secret #3:  Modify the poses for your needs (and push decision-making authority down when possible)


The key to a successful yoga session is to listen to your body and modify the poses to make them work for you.  For IT collaboration, this means pushing decision-making authority to the collaborators whenever possible.

In many cases, a leader can’t really tell collaborators from all over campus what to do, or even make them collaborate in the first place.  At Gonzaga, we have found a couple of approaches successful.  First, teams are told WHAT needs to be accomplished and WHY it is important for the community, however they are given autonomy to decide HOW to accomplish their goals.  Whenever possible, operational decisions are made by the people who do the work, while leaders focus on alignment with university strategy and resolving issues as needed. We also take time to celebrate successes along the way.  We have found that a thank you or praise for a job well done, small gifts like coffee cards, and most importantly, project cake, are great ways to take time to recognize individuals and the team for a job well done.

Yoga Secret #4:  Total relaxation (and telling the story of success)

The most important part of yoga (and, interestingly, the hardest one for many Americans) is Shavasana, where you let your body fully relax at the end of the session and stay relaxed for 5-10 minutes.  As IT leaders, this is where we make sure we tell the story of the collaborative effort.

At Gonzaga, we have defined the story of success as a deliverable for all our projects.  The story is less about technology or even collaboration, and more about how we have impacted people.  Our outline typically describes a problem, how we collaborated to solve the problem, and the impact on individuals.  Most of our stories will have pictures and quotes to make them more real and relatable.  We are finding that the stories, rather than dry facts and figures, resonate widely; with our board of trustees, students, faculty and staff.

Come out Feeling Energized (and ready for continuous improvement)

I have never come out of a yoga class wishing that I had not participated.  I feel grateful, rejuvenated and ready for the day.  The same is true for collaborative efforts.  Collaboration is all about people and making sure that participants are clear on goals and objectives, have the tools they need, are empowered to make decisions, and are recognized for their contributions.  This makes it a lot easier to bring them together to begin with.

At Gonzaga, we have made this approach to collaboration part of our Continuous Service Improvement process.  This has enabled us to engage our community in an ongoing effort to jointly deliver the best possible IT services. Just as we take a moment at the end of a yoga session to say ‘Namaste’ to show deep respect for our fellow yoga enthusiasts, we make an effort to recognize all voices and viewpoints as we work together on IT projects.

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