Change Management in Higher Education: Using Model and Design Thinking to Develop Ideas that Work for your Institution

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1 Change Management in Higher Education: Using Model and Design Thinking to Develop Ideas that Work for your Institution By Michael P. Meotti Ed Policy Group Introduction Change and innovation are hot topics in higher education today. External factors pose tough enrollment and financial challenges that may last for a decade or longer. Worries about these cumulative pressures on reputation and finances can lead to tense discussions among campus constituencies. Scanning the widely read books and articles on higher education can lead to false choices. This is not just a choice between disruptive innovation and status quo. Very few colleges are teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and almost all colleges have been changing in one way or another for many years. But the world has become much more challenging and ignoring these trends can lead to a very uncomfortable future. Presidents, board members, faculty, staff, students and alumni need a framework to assess their current environment, create a vision for the future, and manage a change agenda. They must understand the different types of change; the scale and pace of change; and the limits on your ability to know in advance how to succeed at change. Our approach to change management creates a framework for a productive conversation about change and how to implement your agenda. We connect several well-known management tools to help you get from high-level, strategic choices to next steps for implementation that can guide your work the day after you adopt a strategic plan. Our tools include building an operating model grounded in your mission; understanding external challenges to assess your ability to meet them; and a framework for change management that provides immediate guidance for next steps and increases your likelihood of success. The next four sections provide an overview of our approach: To change or not to change? The types of change The scale and pace of change Managing change o A strategic model to understand your needs o A theory of change to identify your challenges and opportunities o A portfolio of projects to discover what works

2 2 To change or not to change? Much of the current conversation about change in higher education implies that one must choose between change and the status quo. The reality is that colleges and universities have been constantly changing. However, they may not have developed a broad-based understanding of the change that is going on or where it might be leading their institution. Take a quick inventory of all that has changed on your campus over the past five years. Can you answer the following questions about these changes? What changed? Who made the changes? How is it connected to other changes? Are the changes connected to your mission? Where will this change take you in five years? Is anyone trying to determine if the change has produced results? This inquiry is likely to uncover a lot of change but not as much coherence. The change work will tend to be individual and not part of a departmental or institutional strategy. No one is measuring success thus the life span of the implemented changes is up to those who made them. And it will be very difficult to draw logical connections from the changes to the challenges posed by the new demographic, economic and financial realities. These questions are not based on an assumption that some chaotic bubbling of individual initiatives is a bad thing. It isn t. In fact, this should be one of the more attractive characteristics of a learning institution with a commitment to rigor, experimentation and discovery. But this unstructured fermentation of ideas is not a substitute for an institutional change agenda that will improve your educational success and financial sustainability in difficult times. The types of change Understanding the types of change helps an organization match its change agenda to its needs. The current popularity of a management theory is no reason to pursue changes too aggressive (or too timid). Disruptive innovation may be the rage right now in the business book market but most colleges and universities don t need to go there and may not be capable of doing so in any event. There are four basic types of change defined by how much a potential change moves the organization beyond its traditional mode of operation.

3 3 Small steps o Incremental improvement that focuses on what you already do, but do more of it and/or do it better. o Goes on all the time and often at small scale. Sometimes it does rise to the level of a departmental agenda (improved enrollment management, increased persistence in nursing majors, etc.) but rarely operates on an organization-wide basis. o Is an essential part of any vibrant organization but is very limited in its ability to meet big challenges that emerge in a changing environment. Pushing the envelope o Expand beyond traditional geographic or programmatic boundaries to expand the market from which you draw students. o Achieve levels of student success that exceed historical expectations for all students or important sub-populations o Stays within existing educational approaches. o Most of what has been considered to be the big changes at colleges and universities over the past 50 years fall in this category. Outside the box or Disruptive Innovation o Deploying a new operating or educational model. o Deliver results that defy conventional wisdom and/or external demographic and economic conditions by a large margin. o Usually faces significant hostility from those tied to your existing model. o Technology has been an enabler of this type of change but truly outside the box change will affect something deeper in your model than how you share educational content with students. Change or disappear o The changes necessary to fend off an impending financial crisis. o Usually occurs when it becomes clear that budget deficits are depleting reserves so quickly that you can forecast the time when you might run out of cash. o The focus is on cutting spending. o The budget cuts and news around the financial circumstances make it very difficult to increase revenues by expanding enrollment. The scale and pace of change There are questions of scale and pace in a change agenda. Just as there are different types of change defined by your needs, there are different approaches to change based on how broad and how fast you want to move. Sustainable organizations need a strategy that sustains the organization as a whole in order to maintain the finances that support mission activities. But this does not mean that your

4 4 change agenda must address everything at your institution. Instead, you must align your change agenda to your needs a process that will be discussed in more detail in the following sections. While you should build a comprehensive strategy, it is likely that your actual change work will look quite small at the outset. You should avoid intensively planned broad-based change initiatives to reduce the risk of failure and to encourage a discovery process that reveals what works in your environment. The pace of change can often be frustrating. You need to keep an active change portfolio constantly percolating but results may be slow to cumulate to institution-wide effect. There is a risk of giving up too soon. You need to keep the arc of change in mind; slowly accumulating results for some time before things pull together and results get better a lot faster. Managing change A strategic model to understand your needs If you want institution-wide results in student success and financial sustainability instead of unconnected wins in a handful of projects, you need to build a strategic model of your institution. This is the first step to identify where you need to focus your work and what type of change you need to implement. Your model is grounded in your identity using typical planning concepts such as mission, vision and values. A clear sense of identity enables you to be explicit about the key activities that fulfill your mission and achieve your vision. Understanding these mission activities enables you to see your strengths and weaknesses and how they relate to your goals. The model provides a framework to identify and cluster many topics under the elements of capabilities, relationships and finances. The model is an interconnected process in which each area impacts others. It is not a linear process in which elements precede or follow each other in a set order. A strategic model requires 6 elements. The first element, Identity, includes elements commonly found in strategic plans such as mission, vision, values and benefit proposition. The strategic levers of a model are found in its: o Learning environment o Student relationship o External relationships o Capabilities o Finances.

5 5 Identity: Answers the key questions: Who are you? Where do you want to go? It is very risky to embark on a change agenda that is not connected to your core purpose. And if you don t define your desired outcome over the next three to five years, you will have no chance of getting there. Learning environment: The key activities that enable you to fulfill your educational mission, achieve your vision and deliver on your benefit proposition. Every organization engages in many activities that are necessary but not essential to your mission. They may surface in your change agenda but should not be the centerpiece of your work. Student relationship: The nature of the relationship you want to have with your students. The academic experience in the classroom (real or virtual) lies at the core of the student relationship but it includes other elements of the student experience at your institution. These elements will vary based on the nature of your institution. Capabilities: The talent and skills you need to have inside your organization in order to successfully carry out your mission activities, produce a benefit to those you serve and achieve your vision. External relationships: Outside parties who can have an important effect on your ability to succeed, including the media, high school partners, elected officials, alumni, philanthropy, neighborhood groups and more. Finances: The funds to support your capabilities and partners. You don t need to spend a lot of time building your model. Keep it at the strategic level. Draw out the latent consensus that exists within many organizations about these fundamental issues. Once built, the model will provide a powerful framework for the next steps in building and implementing your change agenda.

6 6 A theory of change to identify your challenges and opportunities Your strategic model can now be used to examine the outside world within which your institution works. This environmental scan will include both the traditional higher education market (especially competitor institutions) and broader factors that will affect your ability to succeed. These include trends in the economy, demographics, technology etc. Putting the environmental scan alongside your strategic model enables you to turn the strengths and weaknesses framed by your model into a more action-oriented set of challenges and opportunities that will define your change agenda. Every strength does not create an opportunity, nor does every weakness compel a major investment to correct. Combining the model and the environmental scan will show you where your priorities should be. The theory of change should be at a strategic level. It must be reasonably informed by credible information about your institution and the outside world, but it does not require extensive research on every issue. You are not picking specific actions or innovations to pursue. At this point, you are just making high level connections between your challenges and opportunities and your goals in order to move onto implementation. Here are a few examples of high level if/then statements that are the core of a theory of change: If we could identify at risk freshmen in their first month of classes, we would be able to intervene successfully and increase our retention rate. If we work closely with employers, our health care programs would be viewed as the best in the region and grow in enrollment. If we built closer relationships with a select number of high schools, we would increase undergraduate applications and yield. A portfolio of projects to discover what works At this point in traditional strategic planning approaches, the planning work done to date is used to craft an ambitious and sweeping change agenda. The finished plan is then released with much fanfare and is given to those intended to carry out the work. The history of strategic change work across all types of organizations shows that this approach fails more often than it succeeds. These plans usually provide very little detail on next steps. The aggressive nature of this approach unleashes all the forces that typically resist change while the lack of direction for implementation leaves the responsible managers wondering what they are expected to do next. And, most importantly, the plan presumes that we can know in advance what will work in our environment and we just need to get about doing it a very risky assumption according to many experts in organizational change.

7 7 The portfolio approach reduces the risk of failure. It enables an institution to learn by doing what will work in their environment. It unleashes the creative ability of people already motivated to change without creating unnecessary entanglement with those instinctively opposed to change. It empowers leaders to launch experiments in innovation that align with your mission, match the types of change you need to pursue, and create lasting cultural change. Senior management uses the portfolio approach to launch small scale projects in the areas that you have identified as priorities. The projects are essentially experiments organized by faculty and staff who are already motivated to work on innovation. Their motivation and ideas can be turned into action with the support of campus leaders in a variety of ways. You may know some people ready to move, recruit innovative types or launch a small grant competition to surface new participants. This approach enables each layer of the organization to focus on a role that works in advancing an innovation agenda. For the most part, top leaders cannot do the change work themselves. Their role is to launch and manage the portfolio of change experiments, derive the lessons learned from this work, and scale lessons learned across the campus as appropriate. Faculty and staff are the ones who will do the change work. Discovering what works at the front lines of an organization creates the opportunity for successful projects to be embraced by colleagues and change the campus culture. Finally, the Board can oversee the change portfolio at a strategic level, making sure that the portfolio management process is vital and staying out of the details of the change work itself. The portfolio approach is a way to discover what works in your environment. It is also a management style that supports continued and creative change that will not overwhelm your institution s capabilities. Given what is going on in the outside world that shapes students lives, change is a constant. The challenge is to organize your change agenda in a way that maximizes success, connects change initiatives to overall goals of student success and financial sustainability and maintains an environment of learning and discovery so you can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

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