Change is no longer coming at colleges and universities in waves – it is a rushing river that we are standing in. From COVID-19 and changing perceptions of price and value, to demographic shifts and massive federal moves on issues like Title IX, higher ed is in the middle of a great transition.
At many schools, all this change has led to vague talk about “change management.” The concept first appeared in my academic work but became most important during my earlier career leading a large information technology team. Essentially, change management is the process of applying a systemic approach – and knowledge about how change happens in organizations – to achieve organizational goals.
Conquering the 4 biggest challenges to change management
Change management can seem like a cute idea at the moment: a nice concept for academics and business consultants who aren’t living your chaotic personal experience. But while implementing change management practices as a higher ed leader can seem impossible right now, it’s actually critical because the change isn’t going to stop.
Healthy and effective institutions are going to have to build good habits around change, including being open to feedback, employing continuous improvement strategies and improving communication. It’s like training a muscle or reacting to a curveball pitch. The more we do it, the better we get at it. But there are barriers we need to overcome.
1. The mystery of change
Some people believe change just happens and there is nothing we can do to make it better or manage it. However, there are universal truths about how to effectively handle change that can be applied in most situations. For a plumber, every house and client are different, but some basic knowledge allows them to effectively fix most problems.
There is an entire discipline of change management, and a lot of good research to get you started. Not dealing with change leads to long-term problems, like the plumber who keeps fixing the leaks but ignores the fact that the entire system is old and rusty. The way to address it permanently is to fix the system, not just the symptom.
Take a step back and learn about change as a concept, and then start to look for applications of what you are learning. For instance, when faced with change most organizations and individuals follow a map very close to the Kübler Ross Grief Cycle. We transition through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Knowing that cycle might help you manage employees, and yourself, better when faced with change. Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch is a great place to start, as well, as is the John Kotter classic, Leading Change. No book is perfect, but after reading one of these you will have new tools to apply to multiple situations.
2. The pit of time
Picture a bucket as a representation of your job. The tasks and activities get poured into the bucket, and in a perfect world our bucket holds about eight hours of work per day. In reality, most of our buckets are overflowing. When our buckets overflow, we can be fooled to think we’re getting a lot done, but often our work isn’t getting done well. When we’re overloaded and don’t prioritize our work, strategic thinking and planning often take a back seat, which leads to more work in the form of downstream problems. My suggestion: drill a hole in your bucket and let the non-essentials drain out so you can focus on big-picture priorities.
Yes, there is a lot of change – and it’s happening rapidly (especially since the beginning of the pandemic). But if you are going to successfully manage that change you have to think carefully about what changes you can actually do something about. In my current role, I can do very little about federal government policy changes that may or may not impact my work. Getting sucked into reading endless articles or mentally strategizing what new regulations will mean is unlikely to benefit the organization. Instead, I try to focus on a limited number of change projects where I can make the most impact. Prioritize your change projects so you can start making progress.
3. The wall of negativity
“It won’t work,” they’ll say. “We’ll change this and then something else will happen.” It’s easy to put aside change management work because people don’t think they have all the facts – or they have been asked to change in the past and it didn’t work out.
A lot of times it is easier to do nothing, to let the change just happen to you. But, in the end, that leaves people demoralized and organizations poorly prepared for future success. Energy comes when people feel they are creating their future. And change that isn’t recognized and dealt with often comes back in the form of resistance to the next change. Giving people a positive experience makes a big difference in their motivation levels.
Change typically happens in three basic stages: the end of something, a transition period and a new beginning. Start leading your change projects by creating a vision for the new beginning. Ask your team how everyone can get there and follow up with consistent words of encouragement and affirmation, such as: “Won’t it be great when we can contact all our incoming students within 24 hours?” or “Won’t it be great when we see our first graduates in X program?” Remind the team constantly that they are in the midst of the change, but when the destination is reached it’s going to be great. Then, when you get there, throw a little party.
4. The illusion of quick fixes
Crisis requires quick fixes, and it can feel like higher ed has been in crisis for a while. It’s like being in a leaky rowboat. During a crisis, you better patch the holes quickly and keep rowing. However, if you just stay in crisis mode and keep trying to fix the leaky boat you miss the fact that there is a perfectly good, new boat you could step onto, or that while you have been fixing the leaky boat you have rowed 1,000 miles off course.
Leaders have to help their teams step out of the crisis and into the strategic discussion by building the organizational capacity to talk about and deal with change. There are few quick fixes. Share articles or books about what you are learning about change, and then apply it directly in your situation. By framing situations, problems or barriers in the language of change management you may be able to help others at the institution discuss sensitive topics in a new way – and build some organizational muscle to deal with future change.
Seize the moment: Rethink traditional higher ed business and academic models
There are significant changes happening right now in higher ed, and there are real barriers to effective change management practices. But the bottom line is that institutional survival is at stake for many colleges and universities.
Even if our institution survives another day, we are all watching as long-time colleagues are let go, important student programs are ending and a downward spiral of poor morale is perpetuated by near-constant budget cutting. By learning how to deal with and manage change, your institution can yield tremendous benefits in time, effectiveness and satisfaction that ultimately improve the lives of staff and students.