Aries Case Story - Masters Programs at Crunch point?

You might find it helpful as background to look at the ARIES Analysis and Tools page before reading this case story.

"That's a tired look on your face, Heather," said Francis, as the two women sat down for an after-work catch-up. "A tough day, I sense?"

"That's par for the course in the two years I've been school head here," said Heather. "But the meeting I've just come from was a shocker."

"How so?" inquired Francis, Heather's visiting academic colleague and friend.

"Well, there was a flare-up. And it didn't help that I lost my cool."

"That's very unlike you. Tell me what happened," said Francis.

"Let me give you some background first.

"The Dean has been leaning on me recently to clean up our course offerings. He's been here 18 months and had said he didn't want to make more changes than necessary in his first year. But now, he says, the faculty faces a serious budget problem if we don't successfully re-jig the program line up. I'm inclined to agree with him on this.

"In our school, we've got too many programs that have only marginal student numbers and borderline finances.

"Two of these programs are the Masters of Technology and Organization (MTO) and the Masters of Technology and Business (MTB). The Dean has singled these out and said he won't fund the two of them in their present form past the current year.

"The MTO appeals mainly to students from the public sector. This program's been knocked about by cutbacks to study leave and belt-tightening in the sector generally. I understand the program did well and was popular in its early years. But student numbers are declining and it's not viable now.

"The MTB is more geared to the business sector and has shown steady growth. But it's facing increasing competition from business programs in other universities. Also, the decline in international student numbers has hit this one hard.

"The MTB is still viable by itself but I see some synergies in bringing the two programs together," continued Heather.

"I'm sure the synergies are interesting. But I want to hear about the flare-up."

"OK, just hang on, I'll get to that. The two programs share several common subjects including in accounting, economics and HR. Apart from that, there's the potential that combining the programs could free-up resources to enable us get going some short courses, which the Dean has been encouraging. But the bigger potential comes from the program heads having, I think, quite complementary backgrounds.

"The MTB head, Roger, is a mid-career academic, early 40s and reasonably successful. He's got a background in business systems and a solid publishing record. He's well connected in corporate circles and has significant industry experience. He's quietly spoken but generally well regarded and runs the program well.

"Estelle, who runs the MTO, is in her late 50s. Her background is in organizational behavior and she brings a strong psychological perspective to her teaching and research. It seems this has been a strength of the MTO since she set it up in the late 1990s. And it's an area the MTB is lacking in, and where I think there's a real potential for bringing the programs together.

"Estelle is quite prolific. She gets an amazing amount of material out there, mainly in local journals. She has a high profile and certainly calls a spade a spade. Her directness gets some of the other staff offside. She's always bobbing up at conferences and seminars but I don't know that she's brought the same vigor to her masters program – at least in recent years.

"She and I go back quite a way. Fifteen years ago we both worked in another university and were candidates for a head of department job. I got that one and she took it badly. I think she believes I've got it in for her; that I don't want her to succeed. But that's not true."

"And the blow-up?"

"Just wait, I'm getting there.

"I met with Estelle and Roger a month ago and broadly outlined the situation with student numbers, budgets and viability. I asked them to collaborate on coming up with a model for an integrated program. There are a lot of formal hoops that we'll have to jump through before anything is settled – various faculty and university committees. But for now, I just wanted them to sit down together and scope out what a combined program would look like; where the students would come from, what the program would be designed to do, the core and elective content, and so forth.

"Roger asked if I'd be involved and that annoyed me a bit. I said, 'You're big people; you can do this without me.'

"We arranged that we would meet today to review progress. But it quickly became clear in the meeting that they didn't have anything to show me, and they hadn't really worked through any of the issues. They only met for the first time on it this morning.

"I was really peeved and I got stuck into them - well, not overly but I did let them know how I felt. I said something like, 'You two have really dropped the ball here. I asked you to come up with a model for a combined program, and you haven't even given it a decent shot. Surely it wasn't asking too much. This is just hopeless.'"

"And then Estelle opened up. She said, 'This is a farce. You're just trying to shut down my program. Why don't you have the guts to say so? I've worked myself into the ground for the MTO and it's been very successful over the years. There's no acknowledgment of that. There's no support. You're the school head. If you want to drop my program do it, but don't expect me to do your dirty work.' And with that she stormed out.

"Then Roger, who'd just sat there saying very little and looking like he'd rather be anywhere else, excused himself and left too.

"Talk about a letdown. You try and give people space to collaborate and this is what you get. It doesn't exactly augur well for a successful integration."

"I have some questions," said Francis. "Did you tell Estelle about the Dean saying he wouldn't fund past 2011? Did you speak with her about the program's changing fortunes over time? And do you have a model in mind for how the two programs could be combined?"

"We'll, I'm generally a glass-half-full kind of person," replied Heather. "But I'd have to say my glass is fully empty on these three counts."

Now we shall work through the ARIES analysis, looking at each of the elements in turn and applying them to Heather's case.



The essence of attending in the ARIES framework is to put the quality of our attention in a particular moment ahead of task achievement; to listen, to observe, to discern what may be significant in the environment around us—or within us. A potentially significant observation might be an overheard remark, a glance or gesture, an unexpected piece of data in a report, or a personal recognition of something that you are sensing or feeling. Adopting the stance of the informed-yet-invisible observer (i.e. someone who can see the action without influencing it) may assist you in gaining perspective on your own behavior and impact on the situation; e.g. "I was speaking quickly", or "I tapped my fingers on the table when one person objected to the changes").

Attending is not a matter of trying to notice everything. You cannot realistically expect to do this. Receiving from the environment is critically important; recognizing what is actually there – or at least what you discern directly – as distinct from forming judgments.

This exercise invites consideration as to what is actually observable or discernable in a particular situation, as distinct from what might be inferred.

Here are some examples of possible observations, as well as some inferences, from Heather's case. You may notice some others.

Attending: observations and possible inferences from Heather's case


Possible Inferences

The dean says he expects program changes, given budget pressures

The necessary savings can be achieved by combining the programs (as Heather suggests)
Other creative options can be explored to bring about the required savings

Student numbers have been falling in one program, the Masters of Technology and Organization (MTO)

The falling numbers indicate declining interest in the areas emphasized in the program
The falling numbers are largely a reflection of constraints facing public sector organizations
Notwithstanding the declining numbers, the cohort that this program is designed for represents an important one for the university/faculty

Roger asked for Heather to be involved in discussions about program redesign

Roger feels it a waste of time to do this without Heather
Roger perceives working with Estelle in this context as problematic, or he feels uncomfortable with the prospect
Roger feels Heather's idea of merging the programs is flawed, and seeks opportunities to explore this with her, without wanting to be negative at the outset

Roger and Estelle are different ages

They will have different needs and aspirations that make collaboration difficult
Their different ages and experiences represent a potential source of synergy

The purpose, then, of this first part of the ARIES analysis is to encourage more careful attending—observing and listening closely to what is going on, including with one's own behavior. Partly, this is to foster an attentive mindset in working through the rest of the analysis process; partly to prevent undue haste in locking-in on a particular interpretation of the issues.


The reflecting component aims to help in uncovering a more complete story as to what might be real for the various stakeholders; to decipher more about the underlying logic, beliefs and feelings that drive them. This part of the process uses a tool called the Reflection Matrix to look at what might be "under the waterline" of the iceberg for the key stakeholders; that is, possible hidden assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge.

In the present case, we imagine - from Heather's perspective - what might be true presently for each of Estelle and Roger, as well as for herself. The presentation here is not intended to be comprehensive: you might be able to think of other hidden assumptions, interests, feelings or knowledge for the people involved.

Keep in mind the importance of attributing reasonableness in completing the matrix. It is only if we can regard others as acting reasonably – at least from their perspective – that we can test our analysis. Only an analysis capable of being tested is likely to contribute to engaging people and eliciting energy for change.

Reflection Matrix for Heather's case

Your (Heather's) assessment of what the stakeholder (Estelle) might take as given

Your (Heather's) assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder (Estelle); what they value or want to protect

Your (Heather's) assessment as to what the stakeholder (Estelle) might be feeling but not saying

Your (Heather's) assessment of what the stakeholder (Estelle) might know but have not declared


Heather wants to close down my program

A decision has already been taken – this is a fake consultation

Heather doesn't have my interests in mind

My program is still viable

Roger's program will be dominant in integration

MTO will be swamped by business model

Strong attachment to program

Profile in sector attached to program

Attachment to area of program

Distinctiveness of program aligns with my academic reputation

Protecting my position of authority

Protecting my time (program well established)


My interests are not supported

Betrayed re effort and investment in program; and that it looks like being dropped

Anger (walking out of meeting)

(possibly) past experience in working with Roger


Your (Heather's) assessment of what the stakeholder (Roger) might take as given

Your (Heather's) assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder (Roger); what they value or want to protect

Your (Heather's) assessment of what the stakeholder (Roger) might be feeling but not saying

Your (Heather's) assessment of what the stakeholder (Roger) might know but have not declared


It's a solvable problem

Collaboration would be too hard

My program is still viable – it could still survive in its present form

I'll keep my head down – and hope for a good outcome without my direct involvement

Not jeopardizing what is a successful program

Not being seen to launch a takeover bid for Estelle's program

Not being seen as unwilling to collaborate


Fearful of consequences of putting these programs together



(possibly) past experience in working with Estelle


Your assessment of what the stakeholder might take as given
(Heather's self-assessment)

Your assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder; what they value or want to protect
(Heather's self-assessment)

Your assessment of what the stakeholder might be feeling but not saying
(Heather's self-assessment)

Your assessment of what the stakeholder might know but have not declared
(Heather's self-assessment)


There's an opportunity here for a positive collaborative outcome

Roger and Estelle can and will collaborate

Estelle doesn't like me

They can do this without knowledge of Dean's threat to de-fund

Combining the programs is the best solution

Deliver to the Dean

Have one viable program

Get the outcome without too much personal investment of time and effort

Maintaining and improving relationships with Estelle and Roger

Frustration at lack of progress made

Desire to avoid conflict

Lacking confidence in supporting collaboration

Discomfort that I didn't handle meeting well

Confusion – why did Estelle and Roger not collaborate effectively; why did Estelle get so upset?

Feeling undermined

Dean saying he is unwilling to fund existing programs in their present form beyond the current year

The Reflection Matrix offers glimpses into what might lie underneath others'—as well as our own—perceptions of the problem. The analysis here points to some aspects in which Roger's and Estelle's implicit assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge could differ from those held by Heather. This analysis should assist Heather in identifying and framing powerful questions that she can ask Roger and Estelle, to learn more about what is real currently for them concerning the funding/masters programs issue, and what they aspire to.


The inquiring component of an ARIES analysis involves the case owner in framing vital questions; those that, in the particular context, are likely to foster joint exploration of contentious issues towards the achievement of deep-reaching change. An imperative for Heather, or for anyone else undertaking this process, is to think about the questions that really matter, including questions she would like to ask but may be inclined to hold back on. The attending and reflecting parts of the ARIES process should help in identifying such questions. A task then is to find ways to express those questions so as to minimize the prospect of hostile responses by others.

The inquiring component of ARIES includes 5 types of questions, as described in Chapter 8 of in the Leadership Mode:

Checking Verifying your understanding of what is being communicated
Information Gathering and Clarifying Seeking more information to expand or flesh out understanding and/or to clarify meanings
Exploring Delving into underlying thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and assumptions
Testing Scrutinizing claims that others make by putting forward new information or observations and seeking their response; examining the inferences that we draw from others' words and actions
Futuring Seeking to clarify what the future may hold in relation to a topic of inquiry

Some sample questions in relation to the present case

As an example of a checking question, Francis (Heather's colleague and friend) might ask Heather:

What I'm hearing is that part of your concern is what happened with Estelle today in the meeting, and another part is to do with how you can work with Estelle and Roger on changes to their programs to meet the dean's budget expectations. How close to the mark is this?

Other questions that Heather might ask Estelle and/or Roger (question types are shown in brackets)

  1. How do you see your course as going at the moment? (Info gathering)
  1. I'm interested in hearing what's prevented you from meeting until today? (Exploring)
  1. I'm inferring that the reason you didn't meet until today was something to do with collaborating with (Roger or Estelle) on the task of integrating the two programs. How close is this to the mark? (Testing)
  1. What do you see as the value – and the obstacles – in combining the courses? (Exploring)
  1. We have this cost constraint. I've suggested integrating the two programs as the best way of getting there. Do you see other alternatives? If so, please tell me about them? (Exploring)
  1. What do you see as most valuable to students/graduates from your current program? What should be taken forward? (Exploring)
  1. What is your vision for the future of your program, whether in standalone form or in combination with (the other) program? (Futuring)
  1. In our last meeting, I said I though the two of you could collaborate without my involvement. I'm wondering what you thought about that? (Exploring)

    The above question, in a "testing" form
  1. In our last meeting, I said I thought the two of you could collaborate without my involvement. I imagine that might have left you feeling somewhat disempowered. Was that the case? (If so, please tell me about your experience? If not, I'm interested in how you reacted to that statement.)


Of course, Heather would need to frame her questions in language that she feels comfortable with. Some of the questions identified may not be used at all and others may be asked in modified form. The questions that are actually asked need to make sense in the context of the interactions occurring in that moment. They cannot fully be predetermined.


The expressing component provides an opportunity to think through and rehearse what you might say to specific stakeholders – of course, keeping in mind the critical guidelines (from Chapter 5) concerning observation, reasonableness and authenticity.

Keys with expressing are to:

  • Speak from beyond your own frame of reference (i.e. to avoid being captive to the "truth" of your own argument and to acknowledge other realities, while holding open the reasonableness principle)
  • Disclose some of what might otherwise be hidden for you (assumptions, interests, feelings and/or knowledge)
  • Invite others to engage with what you say.

Creating a short "script" may help you in working out what to include in a verbal presentation and how best to express it.

Elements of the expressing framework

(Chapter 9, In the Leadership Mode)

Introducing: Outlining the context for your remarks, your purpose in speaking up, the content areas you intend to cover

Asserting and supporting: Putting forward the key elements in your case and any reasoning and evidence to back them up, while acknowledging other views

Illuminating: Presenting stories and examples to "color-in" your arguments

Disclosing: Making explicit the relevant assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge that you might not otherwise state

Inviting: Creating an opportunity for others to respond to what you have said.

Let's assume that Heather reflects on her meeting with Roger and Estelle and decides she wants to speak with Estelle to debrief on the outcome of that meeting and the question of change to meet faculty's budget requirements. Let's also assume that she recognizes her initial assumption regarding a need to combine the programs may have been unnecessarily limiting.

What follows is not intended to be prescriptive but to illustrate one possible approach.

Of course, in reality, such a conversation would probably include elements of both expressing and inquiring.


  • I've been thinking about our last meeting. I'd like to talk with you about what happened there and also about the matter of the changes we might need to make to meet the faculty's budget requirement
  • The budget matter is important as I'm under some pressure from the Dean to improve our performance here.
  • In hindsight I can see that I didn't handle some aspects of our last meeting too well
  • I do value your contribution as a leading researcher and a senior member of the school
  • I'd like to have another shot at working through these issues collaboratively
  • Are you prepared to give this a go?

Asserting and supporting:

  • I noticed that you were upset in that last meeting
  • Thinking about it afterwards, I realized I contributed to that in a number of ways
  • To put this into context, can we go back to our earlier discussion a month or so ago when I asked you and Roger to collaborate on putting together a model for an integrated program
  • I made some assumptions at that point, such as that combining your and Roger's programs was the only way to meet the faculty's financial requirements, that you and Roger would be prepared and able to collaborate on a redesign, without any further involvement from me, and that you would be aware of the positive regard in which I have held your contribution to the faculty.
  • (possibly talks to above points and invites responses from Estelle)
  • One thing I didn't tell you was that the Dean has said he will not fund your and Roger's programs in their current form past 2011 (explains why she didn't divulge this)
  • We must meet this budget imperative, but perhaps – and contrary to my initial assumption – there's the possibility for creative approaches in how we do this
  • I'd like to work with you and Roger to explore how we might work to this cost constraint.


(Possibly an example about creative approaches to cost containment she is aware of in another context)


(See points above about Heather speaking up re pressures she is under from the Dean, acknowledging she didn't handle the earlier meeting well, and assumptions she had made re the collaboration process etc.)

It's possible that at the end of the day there will need to be some restructuring of your and Roger's programs to meet the budget outcomes. I want you to be fully involved in thinking through different approaches. But as school head I will need to take responsibility for any decisions made at school level.

I say that not as a threat but to ensure that the possibilities are "on the table".


I hope we can work this through together, to achieve a viable cost outcome. How does the idea that we try to work through this jointly sound to you?

Some qualifications need to be made about the possible script above.

  • Anyone using this framework when putting their views forward needs to do so in a manner in keeping with their own style and using words they feel comfortable with. The sample script presented is just one among any number of possibilities.
  • The script largely follows the structure of the expressing framework (though with quite a bit of disclosure built into the asserting and supporting component). In your own drafting, you might find the structure helps you in getting started. But stepping outside it is fine and may give a better end result.
  • A script like this is not intended to be delivered verbatim. It's really no more than a resource and a guide. In practice, the need is to communicate in a manner appropriate to that moment, including with listening and—depending on the circumstances—inquiring.
  • Finally, keep your scripts brief; just as many words as you need to act as prompts. (The script above uses more words as it needs to be intelligible to a wider—reader—audience.)

One of the most difficult aspects of expressing – both in the preparation and presentation – is to avoid speaking from within an implicit set of assumptions and beliefs about the problem that concerns you. If this example helps you step outside this frame of reference, even partially, then it is likely to have been of value.


The synthesizing component in preparing an ARIES analysis is in capturing the essence of the leadership and change-related challenges to be faced. Two particular tools (from Chapter 10, In the Leadership Mode), are the transformational challenge and the relational challenge. The transformational challenge represents the major shift that needs to occur; a progression from the present order of things to a preferred future state. The relational challenge refers to a critical hurdle that needs to be overcome for the transformational challenge to be realized, allowing that there can be more than one relational challenge. Defining each of these challenges draws on the analysis conducted so far and paves the way for the identification of action strategies.

How might the transformational challenge be defined in Heather's case? One possible framing is:

From: a situation in which the school is offering two related masters programs, where one of the programs does not have viable student numbers and the other, while viable, is also under pressure; where there is an expectation from the faculty to reduce budget outlays; and where there has been an unsuccessful attempt to explore integration of the two programs

To: a situation in which agreement has been reached among stakeholders regarding specific savings to be made in the school; with these savings involving some changes being made to the current MTO and MTB programs, and possibly integration of the two programs. Stakeholders report that the process of identifying the necessary savings has been inclusive and respectful.


Such a definition incorporates references to both current reality and vision. As is standard practice with the ARIES framework, this definition needs to be presented as one interpretation, with other stakeholders invited to contribute to its framing. It may be that Heather receives feedback prompting her to reframe the definition of the transformational challenge.

Heather probably needs to have further conversations with Estelle and Roger, before being able to articulate a statement of a preferred future that she can test with them and others.

How might a relational challenge be defined? Perhaps the most critical challenge for Heather is to engage with Estelle and Roger- and possibly other senior academics in the school at a later point – to enable a focused yet blame-free discussion on what transpired with the first effort to think about the future of the two masters programs, on the realities of the budget situation, and on viable options for change to accommodate the faculty's expectations regarding savings.

It is unlikely that much progress will be achieved on the "content" issues relating to budget savings without also giving attention to the "process" issues, including to do with the failed initial attempt at collaboration.


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