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Managing Change in Higher Ed: 3 Perspectives

September 19, 2017

Successful change management is difficult to achieve in any marketplace. According to research, only 25% of change efforts are sustained long-term. In higher education, change is met with resistance due to deep-rooted traditions, fear of losing resources, and ineffective committees, to name a few. How can you overcome change?

Kuali gathered advice on higher-education change management from experts in 3 different fields.

Shana Carroll excels in change management communications. She is a professor and the Director of Management Communications at the Kellogg School of Management. Earlier this year, Carroll co-authored an HBR article on overcoming resistance in change management.

Helen Garrett has seen change implementation while working in university administrations. Garrett is the Registrar and Chief Officer of Student Information Services at the University of Washington. She has participated in over 25 software implementations throughout her career.

Sarah Crane has seen many change management methods while assisting universities and colleges adopt software. Crane manages the student business line at Kuali and has assisted dozens of institutions through software implementations.

We asked these women to answer a few questions on change management in the context of higher education.

1. In making changes at your university, how can you identify resistors to changes? How have you been able to handle resistance from your colleagues?

Carroll: The key to handling resistance with colleagues is to proactively engage in at least two conversations – ideally, in person. The interactions need to be grounded in respect – respect for the person and their point of view. The primary way we show respect is through active listening and a genuine willingness to consider another point of view. When the objective of a conversation is to manage resistance, follow the 80-20 rule, meaning that you spend no more than 20% of the conversation speaking.

Also, how you respond is critical – if you react in the moment arguing about why you don’t agree and will stick with your original plan (or position), the resistor walks away feeling unheard and unsatisfied. Instead, paraphrase what you heard and let them know you need time to think about what you’ve learned. After a couple days (the length of time can vary depending on the situation), follow up with the resistor and let them know how the conversation has shaped your thinking. It’s ok to remain unchanged from your previous position – but be prepared to reflect back how you considered their point of view and why you believe your answer is still the right one.

Garrett: First of all, you need to be constantly monitoring the verbal and non-verbal reactions of your change implementation project team. Listen between comments and pay attention to their silences, as much as the statements made by committee members. People communicate in different manners: depending on their comfort level with the others in the room, whether they are external or internal processors, and if there are any power oh,dynamics at play with those on the committee.

I have found that meeting individually with those who are resisting shows respect for them, helps them feel that they are being heard and allows you as the leader to identify the reason for the resistance. My secret sauce for getting change off the ground is to implement in phases. If there is a resistor who is holding out because they need a particular issue to be resolved, arrange for that to be addressed in phase two of the project so you can launch phase one. Just be sure to circle back around and ensure that phase two occurs as well.

2. When it comes to change management strategy, how can you handle or expedite the approval process? Do you have any tips or suggestions to simplify approval steps and avoid bottlenecks?

Crane: Getting changes approved by interested parties or committee members can be a daunting task. The more steps and approvers you have, the more complicated and time consuming it becomes. These struggles are further magnified in institutions that are highly decentralized. Any single bottleneck can halt progress or keep important changes from being implemented altogether.

I’ve had the chance to consult with administrators and decision-makers at several universities about the common pitfalls they encounter in their change management process. Most bottlenecks happen for two reasons: there’s not a clear approval process, and there’s not a good way for approvers to effectively connect and communicate.

Having a straightforward approval process across the board sets clear expectations about not only the process itself, but about each member’s role in it. Once your organization’s process is solidified, a simple training or on-boarding will help ensure that everyone feels comfortable and confident about the path of an approval from inception to implementation.

Finding a way for approvers to easily connect and communicate is key for expediting changes through a workflow. Without a tool for handling rejections and suggested changes, anything other than a simple “yes, approved” feels like one step forward, two steps back. This is why we’ve designed Kuali’s Workflow solution to be easy to implement, simple to use, and full of tools to keep changes on track. Everything is cloud-based, tracked electronically, and responsive – approvers can jump in from any device and proposers can see where any approval is in the approval process to avoid bottlenecks.

3. How do you convey to detractors, or resistors, that you are taking their concerns into account and want to create a solution that works for them?

Carroll: The most important way to show resistors that you’re taking their concerns into account is to spend time truly listening to them. Listening is the best tool we have for showing people respect. Listening carefully, asking probing questions to understand more and paraphrasing what you hear to confirm understanding is critical to showing resistors that you value their perspective. It’s also important to note that listening to them can’t be cursory – it must be sincere with a true openness to hearing and integrating what you learn.

4. In the higher education setting, change management is often done by committee. Those committees are often made up of a variety of campus locations and departments. In regards to change management, what constraints have you experienced in that setting and how would you suggest working through those?

Carroll: Committees are one of the primary tools through which universities facilitate change. In my mind, there are a few essential considerations when establishing and overseeing committees:

Selecting committee members – First, consider the influence, reputation, attitude and skills/expertise of potential committee members. Also, think hard about committee size; there’s a tendency to focus on inclusion of all relevant departments, schools etc. but the risk is that the committee will become large, cumbersome and ineffective.

Providing a clear scope – Have you clearly articulated the problem you want the committee to solve? Is everyone on the same page about the goal, the timeframe and what success looks like for the group?

Checking in periodically – It’s essential for committee leaders and their sponsor(s) to touch base periodically to ensure that the committee’s work remains on track or that the university/school leaders remain on the same page as the work evolves.

Communicating with stakeholders along the way – One of the most important factors in leading change successfully is to communicate clearly and often – John Kotter, a leading thinker on change management, refers to it as ‘over-communicating by a factor of 10.’

It’s critical to bring stakeholders along as the committee makes progress and, where appropriate, give them an opportunity to have voice/input. Managing resistance (by listening and integrating) – Resistance has to be managed actively. You need to identify your blockers and work to understand why they’re resisting and take time to truly listen and understand their concerns.

Garrett: The ideal situation for leading change at an institution of higher education is to be able to choose the committee that will advise on the project before the project even begins. By carefully establishing the stakeholders that will be impacted by the change, assessing who may be your champions and early adopters and looking for those who may resist, you can create the best climate to implement change.

The constraints that one faces can vary from becoming the new lead on a project well after it is underway, experiencing changes in the representatives on the project, seeing alliances build among committee members that may be in opposition to other alliances, and dwindling support from executive sponsorship.

The most important step is to ascertain what value each committee member places on the project and to determine what is in it for them and the organization they represent. Then, look for common goals among committee members and continue to work toward focusing the progress and efforts of the change to satisfy those goals.

5. While a startup in the business world is lean and nimble, higher education institutions are larger and tend to change slowly and methodically. Do you think colleges and universities could begin to manage change at a faster pace? How would you recommend creating a culture that can emphasize that importance?

Crane: You’re right, the larger an institution becomes the harder it is to pivot and execute changes. While an idea for change may make sense, red tape, an excess of opinions, and too many moving parts can slow the entire process – or halt it altogether. That being said, times are changing. New software and other tools targeted at higher education are making it possible for them to become nimble like a startup.

Let’s compare a prominent university to a startup company in the tech industry. The simple fact that the university has been around for decades (or even centuries) means that they adhere to processes both old and new. They also may have staff who have been there for 10, 20 or 30 years. Perhaps they manage change with paper forms, because that’s always how it’s always been done.

The startup company, on the other hand, is trying to break into their industry, make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time, and establish their name as a serious competitor. They’re willing to invest in the software and tools that are already available to make their jobs easier and help them meet their aggressive goals.

Here’s where the university should take a note from the startup: take the tools that make sense for your institution, and run with them! Just like for the startup, these tools were designed to make processes easier and better for the university. For example, Kuali’s Curriculum Management software helps colleges and universities say goodbye to paper forms, buried emails, and breaks in communication. Instead, users can easily create and update course and program information, manage proposals and approvals, automate workflows, and more. While your goals may be different from those of a high-tech startup, adopting the right resources can help you reach your outcomes more effectively just like them.

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