Managing Change in Your Institution

In the corporate world, change management hasn’t had to prove its relevancy. Its principles are described in many a dog-eared management book, with various tried-and-tested methods employed globally.

Academia, however, is a different story.

Facing a broad set of challenges, university leaders are bringing change management to the forefront in higher education. Members of Leading Academic Transformation at EDUCAUSE—a Community of Practice representing a variety of Carnegie classifications—have recently emphasized that the most pressing issues on their campuses have ultimately involved strategic change.

“It is the least well understood part of any initiative, in my opinion,” said Holly Morris, Director of Postsecondary Models & Adoption at EDUCAUSE. Dr. Shannon McCarty, Rio Salado Community College’s Dean of Instruction and Academic Affairs, agrees.

Morris and McCarty ought to know. They have both personally led or coached institutional teams in change management, and will present on the subject at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in February 2017. Next week, the pair will lead an ELI course “Success-Proof Your Change Initiative: the Art & Science of Change Management,” aimed at equipping institutional leaders with the tools needed to plan and launch new initiatives effectively.

Both readily admit that change management best practices simply don’t exist in higher ed. The processes, which are borrowed from the corporate world, are research-based, and, as McCarty notes, “in industry they have entire roles assigned to these efforts; at colleges and universities, we often find that it’s tacked onto someone’s day job.”

“These principles are definitely derived from the private sector, but that doesn’t make them less applicable. They just require adaptation for an institution’s goals,” Morris added. Reflecting on her own change management experience at Rio Salado, McCarty said that it was absolutely necessary to adapt the Prosci method for their own campus culture. With it, they completed an 8 month grant project, focused on re-thinking the student experience to increase both student retention and completion at scale.

Morris and McCarty offer six tips for those managing a change initiative on their campus:

Consider Your Culture.

A campus culture can significantly influence or inhibit institutional change.

Morris: “Your environment and your culture really matters. While some might be skeptical about considering an outside consultant, others may be wary of the amount of work it takes to do in-house. There might be some definite benefits from bringing in an external expert—for example, hearing criticism from them versus your own colleagues—and having help in weighing and thinking about internal culture."

McCarty: “If you do work with external consultants, it is important to first establish trust with the experts. You do not want to be in a situation where key stakeholders disagree with expert advice. If trust can not be established, then consider leading change from within.”

Embrace Discomfort.

It’s best to acknowledge that change is often uncomfortable.

McCarty: “Disruption is a much-celebrated word in higher ed. But in the context of change management, it carries a negative connotation. On an institutional level, we say we embrace it, but you need to be comfortable with it as well. It’s very different when it affects you personally. You may not realize a natural tendency to resist change. And perhaps that’s because someone didn’t do a good job of communicating why it is important or what it would look like.”

Morris: “It’s interesting: conceptual disruption that happens to an industry isn’t necessarily perceived as a threat at the individual level. For example, I’m sure cab companies the world over were uncomfortable when Uber surfaced and stole vast amounts of market share, but consumers were intrigued (if not delighted) about the change. In scenarios that do affect people personally, however, the principles behind change management are a very helpful way to address what’s unsettling about the change itself." 

Secure Buy-In.

You can move an initiative forward by enlisting the support of key individuals.

Morris: “One of the biggest hurdles to adopting a change management strategy in higher ed is securing buy-in. You need to start by gaining the support of an internal evangelist; someone within the faculty who will carry the torch, who is excited about what’s possible. Then you have the ability to leverage relationships that build momentum around their buy-in.”

McCarty: “I reached out to several individuals across the College to be our change management champions, and they agreed they could use this tool amongst their teams and colleagues. Finding and empowering key people from across the College makes a difference; they are dedicated to change and improving communication. Focusing on the opportunity kept us centered on the vision of improving the student experience. Everyone can get on board with that.”

Morris: “It’s also critical to choose a solid cross-functional team. When you gather people from different departments who represent varying perspectives, personalities, and working styles, you’re making deliberate choices to mobilize a solid team that will orchestrate a more cohesive plan.”

Communicate Early & Often.

A strategic and tactical approach to communication is critical to managing expectations, soliciting feedback and keeping others informed.

McCarty: “Communication doesn’t just play a role in the process, it is the process, really. At Rio Salado, we are learning to put communication at the forefront. You start with awareness, determining the desire for change based on conversations with key stakeholders, frontline staff, and managers. They have information available that you’re likely unaware of and could benefit from knowing.”

Morris: “I think that’s very true. None of this works if you’re not communicating it. You start with urgency and vision. Teams struggle the most when they think they’re being extremely clear. Having an extensive vision isn’t helpful; it needs to be trimmed for clarity so that everybody can roll it off their tongue without a hitch. How do you take that elaborate vision and distill it to something everyone can express in 10 words or less? Then all pieces flow from that.”

Morris: “Channels are important. For example, students are much more responsive to texts and tweet. Don’t expect them to read a lengthy email. Similarly, faculty are more responsive to research-based communications. Maybe you share a white paper to add context, or organize a brown bag lunch.  It’s about tailoring the same message for different people in different ways."

McCarty: “We recognized this. In some smaller instances, we have also worked on creating communications for different constituents. Staff may want an opportunity to ask questions. Maybe the messaging really needs to be a two-way communication instead of an announcement. Learning how various constituents respond to different types of communications helps, as well as crafting messages for folks throughout the organization to share—from the president, dean, and managers to frontline staff.

Manage Time & Expectations.

Knowing how much time you have upfront sets the tone for the entire project.

McCarty: “Our team at Rio Salado was on a tight timeframe because of the grant we received. It meant that we had roughly six months to get the necessary pieces for Student Success and Scaling Initiative moving, and just two months to launch the effort. I’ll be totally honest here: this wasn’t easy! But it was possible once everyone was aligned and committed to the project.”

Morris: “Part of managing the time expectation is building a sense of urgency around what you’re hoping to achieve. What you’re trying to do—whether it’s on a departmental or system-level—should arise from an urgent need. Otherwise, you run into another problem: initiative fatigue. If you want people to view this effort differently, you have to think about taking other tasks off the table so people can focus on it. That helps people to set the right expectations about time and workload.”

McCarty: “Exactly. When others ask me how much time should be allotted for an initiative, I think it depends on the scale of change you’re seeking. If we’re talking total transformation, then you need to set aside at least a year so that you can do a deep dive into the current landscape, learning as much as you can, and work on business processing and visioning. At six months, change management efforts come into play, and then you start implementing after year one. At the end, you want a good plan. So it’s better to take your time and get it right rather than jumping in and getting to the next thing.”

Anticipate Obstacles.

Change management processes typically get derailed in avoidable ways.

McCarty: “The more players that are involved, the more complicated planning becomes. If you have to leverage funding and partnerships, you have a lot of constituents to coordinate and likely stipulations to abide by. For the next version of Rio Achieve, we have a fabulous vision and we’re trying to work on those things we have control over.”

Morris: “From my perspective, the most important thing you can do at each step of the process is give it your full attention and not take it for granted. ‘Oh we all know what it means to work here. We have a mission statement.’ Prior work does not equal alignment.”

McCarty: “Resistance is inevitable. Whenever we encountered it in our process, we made it a point to bring everybody back to the vision. If you check new suggestions against the vision, then you’re working with more concrete evidence of what fits well, what doesn’t or takes you away from the end goal.”

Morris: “All resistance boils down to is fear. And yet most change management programs don’t take the emotional component  into consideration. Let’s just say it: change provokes fear. It’s totally normal and completely natural. But if you frame it differently, that can turn fear into enthusiasm. For example, competency-based education represents an opportunity for faculty to shape new roles if they jump in and get involved. Remember to show how it can preserve what’s best about what you already have.”

When asked about role models leading change in higher education, Morris and McCarty named several institutions: Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and the 26 iPASS grantees now diving headfirst into their own student-centered projects—a group Morris called “more embedded, knowledgeable and intentional than almost any other cohort of universities right now with respect to change management.”

ChangeMgmt.pngTo learn more, check out the ELI course “Success-Proof Your Change Initiative: the Art & Science of Change Management,” starting October 6.



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