What the Rugby World Cup can teach us about university transformation

rugby-player-holding-ball

Oliver Peppiatt explains how preparation is as important as delivery for both successful sports teams and higher education institutions

Like many, I’m counting down the days until the 2019 Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan on 20 September. While waiting to see the likes of Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton try to unlock defences, it occurred to me that we can learn a lot from the sport. The core roles in a rugby team offer an interesting lens through which to explore the factors underpinning a successful university transformation programme.

As competition grows in the higher education sector, universities across the UK are increasingly seeking to transform themselves. Funding challenges, increased regulation and Brexit make improving service quality and minimising costs key ambitions for many institutions. However, university transformations are complex and few universities have experience of delivering change of this scale. This poses the question: what are the key factors of a successful university transformation programme? We can explore this by looking at the principles of a game of rugby.

In its simplest form, a rugby team comprises three key parts: the coaching team, the forwards and the backs. Despite the maxim “forwards win you games, backs decide by how many”, most fans would agree that these three groups must operate harmoniously to deliver success. University transformations are no different. They require multiple components to come together in a cohesive way.

Just as success on a rugby pitch isn’t determined solely by what happens on the field of play, the success of university transformation is as much about preparation as delivery. In rugby, the coaching team dictates the strategy and style of play that it believes will result in success.

Whether it be the kicking game adopted in the 2019 Six Nations by Eddie Jones’ England or the focus on tenacious defence by Wales, there must be clarity in how success will be achieved before the game begins. In transformation programmes, top level leadership, sponsorship and direction should offer this clarity and dictate the pace of change. The commitment of institutional management to delivering change provides the same confidence to colleagues as coaches give to their teams. This is integral to ensuring buy-in across the institution. 

When the starting whistle blows, the first aim is to take possession of the ball. You can’t score points without it. This is predominantly the role of the forward pack to put in the “hard yards” by tackling, winning the ball and gaining ground. In the context of a university transformation, these “hard yards’ equate to having a widely agreed and universally understood case for change, a programme vision and objectives, approach to governance and a clear and realistic plan for delivery. These are the components that underpin a successful programme and must be in place prior to any change. Just as not having the ball denies the platform for rugby teams to attack, without these the university is without the platform to change and its transformation is destined to fail.

Once these elements of the programme have firmly secured the ball and prepared the institution for change, it is over to the backline to start scoring the points (delivering it). Extensive communication and engagement, middle manager advocacy, an understanding of change capability and appreciation of the institutional culture and context will most effectively facilitate change. A failure to recognise the importance of these components will see the ball knocked on and a need to re-evaluate the initial strategy. Prioritising them will enable the delivery of the transformation that should futureproof the university.

While these principles will help any university transform, there will undoubtedly be challenges along the way. The most successful rugby teams in the world have to adapt to find their way to the try-line. Universities must accept that ambitious change programmes will experience unexpected events. The key is to be flexible but always keep the vision and objectives in sight.

The team with the best coaching, forwards and backs that will return from Japan with the Webb Ellis Cup in hand. For universities, it will be the ones that best understand how to deliver successful transformation programmes that will revolutionise the experience of their students, staff and academics.

Oliver Peppiatt is a public sector expert at PA Consulting. A version of this article previously appeared on the PA Consulting blog.

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