If you want to effect change, leave the office and talk to people

Universities are a challenging environment but obstacles can be overcome, says Jonathan Ruddle

March 26, 2016
Man at water cooler

But the vice-chancellor is just the chief executive, right? So can’t he or she just make it happen?

So goes the conversation that l often have with friends who work in the private sector. They find it hard to take in my war stories about implementing change in universities, and not just because by then we are usually on the third pint.

Bringing about meaningful change in any sector is hard, but there is no doubt that universities bring their own challenges. The common atmosphere of suspicion between faculties and the dreaded “centre” lies at the heart of much of the problem. The recent paper by Ben Martin of the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit added fuel to this fire by suggesting that university managers are ignoring research that shows that organisations function better when decentralised. The clear implication is that university objectives will be achieved if faculties are just left alone to get on with the job. Well-meaning central teams, please get out of the way.

So, meet Joe. Joe has a problem. He has been hired as the centrally based project manager for Exciting Change X at the University of Y. The aims of the project seem laudable enough, while undoubtedly needing more clarification, and chances are that the initial schedules Joe has been given are unrealistic. At the end of his first day, Joe is rather downbeat, having heard from a variety of seemingly bright people just how hard his project will be. “The faculty of Z will never agree”; “We tried that back in 2007”; “Oh dear, that project is why Jane had to leave”, and so on.

Given the bad omens, what is Joe to do? The first thing he may consider is to throw his energy into preparing a paper for the esteemed “university management board”. This may indeed be useful in airing the proposed initiative and getting some internal recognition, but if the aim is get a mandate for change, it normally falls into the category of “necessary but not sufficient”. Is it possibly true that members of university management boards may often let an initiative through in the confident knowledge that it will likely disappear altogether or, sometimes with a little help, be diverted into the long grass of implementation practicalities? Surely not.

The most useful thing Joe can do is to get out of the office and talk. Caffeine intake will increase but understanding the different views about the project, even if those views are 100 per cent against (and some will be) is likely to be time well spent in building greater understanding, empathy and trust. Joe will undoubtedly find no information about his project will have cascaded down from the management board to the people he talks to. If Joe is clever enough to ask the right questions in those discussions he will peel back the layers of concerns and get to the real underlying issues. Holding a workshop or two can also be a great way for Joe to capture information quickly and get people to talk.

Engagement of this type may help Joe to identify some easy wins. Indeed, if he’s lucky, somebody else will suggest them. This links to another common mistake that Joe needs to avoid – insisting that the project needs to move forward on all fronts at the same time. There are occasions – a major system change for example – when the whole institution has to move at the same time, but more often in change projects there is scope for a pilot or a partial roll-out in a single department or faculty. Once enough people have seen benefits, the word will start to get out and Joe will find confidence in him and his project building.

Joe needs to remember that for his project to be a success he doesn’t need to make all the people happy all the time – this is a university and nothing ever does that. Success will depend on making enough people sufficiently accepting that Joe’s project can move forward and may eventually deliver something useful. And at that point, Joe can look forward to his next project in a less stressful environment.

Jonathan Ruddle is director of Skirrid Consulting.

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