Wicked problems: how could universities be better at change?

How many lightbulbs are changing in universities? Debbie McVitty consults with KPMG’s Sam Sanders on why universities can struggle with effective change, and what is needed to make changes stick

There’s an old joke – you’ve probably heard it before. It goes, “How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “CHANGE???!!!”

In reality it’s unlikely that HE professionals are any more change averse than your average person. Nor are universities institutionally opposed to change, if the constant efforts to change practice and ways of working, and organisational redesign and efficiency initiatives are anything to go by.

Universities and their staff are often open to change – but maybe they’re not always very good at it. Efforts to change things result in not very much changing at all. You get all the worst bits of change (disruption and tricky politics) without the best bits (things working better than they did before).

And the more change agendas stall or fail to deliver on what was promised, the more sceptical everyone is of the possibility of change in the future.

Culture eats change agendas for breakfast

“There are some distinctive features of higher education that make change a bit more difficult than elsewhere,” argues Sam Sanders, consulting lead for education at KPMG. “Line management ties are often looser in HE than in other sectors, there is often a much more collegial approach to tackling issues and an expectation that everyone is entitled to have their say.”

Sam is quick to point out that these features are admirable in safeguarding freedom of thought and expression in the academic sphere. But when applied to the management of the organisation, they can morph into an expectation that nothing can be done unless everyone is actively happy and on board. Plans experience “death by committee” or excess perfectionism where change agendas are subjected to the sort of scrutiny that wouldn’t be out of place in a doctoral viva.

There can also be a reluctance among leadership teams to articulate the extent to which different priorities are in competition with each other. “Everyone can sign up to making something sustainable, improvements in student satisfaction, or enhancing engagement, but it’s far, far harder to agree which of those issues gets the top priority in any given change agenda – partly because universities by their nature have a mission to do so much on so many fronts,” says Sam.

What might have in the past been seen as a quirk of higher education increasingly qualifies as a real problem – because higher education often really needs to change. A challenging funding climate, changes in the external environment, a more diverse student population, reconfiguring university estates, and building new partnerships at home or abroad all require changes to the structure of teams or departments, new processes, technology, or ways of working. And higher education’s presumed aversion to change has a direct impact on the attitudes of policymakers to higher education regulation and governance.

What it takes to make a change

Effecting change isn’t impossible, but it does take commitment, focus, and investment – and a pragmatic appreciation of the realities of institutional cultures.

“The most important thing to remember”, argues Sam, “is that effective change management isn’t about making everyone happy, it’s about making change happen”.

The first thing that’s required is clarity of objectives, and leaders prepared to set out those objectives and explain exactly in what ways things will have improved once they are achieved. “Meaningful scope”, in Sam’s words, is also important – choosing something meaningful to change, rather than hoping for a quick fix, or purely iterative change that just results in death by a thousand cuts. “Having a clear goal in mind keeps the plan on track when people raise objections – it’s not about blindly sticking to your guns if an issue comes up, but you do need to keep sight of the goal to keep things on course.”

Sam advocates preparing for objections and taking these seriously: “there will be emotional responses that require empathy and understanding, and practical challenges that require adapting the plan. Both are legitimate, and both can be anticipated and prepared for.”

That insight brings up the question of how best to involve the people who need to be engaged in the change. “In my experience it’s rarely as simple as addressing two well-defined tribes of professional services and academics”, says Sam. “Different university staff have different loyalties and define themselves professionally in different ways. The only way to find out what they care about and what is making their lives more difficult than they need to be, is to ask them.”

One key group that can often be really effective catalysts for change is the senior professional staff in an academic department: “they tend to command a lot of trust, and know where the bodies are buried. If they say an idea is genuinely terrible, it’s probably worth paying attention.”

A third issue is finding the balance between top-down change that people experience as an imposition and that is not sensitive to local circumstances, and attempting bottom-up change, where in practice everyone concludes that, on reflection, what they are currently doing is the best way of doing it.

Sam suggests that achieving that balance normally means setting out the objective, and then defining some parameters within which people can decide what will work best in their local context. Quite apart from the importance of gaining buy-in, it shows respect for people’s expertise and creativity, without abdicating leadership responsibility for driving through the change and making it meaningful.

Invest in change

A cynic might expect that Sam’s prescription for universities struggling to land change agendas would be to hire more consultants. In fact, effective change is often driven from within an institution.

“Change projects require careful planning and preparation, development of training for staff whose roles are changing, and detailed and frequent communication with the people affected – it takes real investment from universities in the change capabilities of their staff,” argues Sam.

Every change project can’t be led from the vice chancellor’s office, nor can these projects simply be added to an already hard-pressed manager’s portfolio of responsibilities. A dedicated programme office is one useful approach, but Sam also suggests hand picking future leaders and giving them the time and space to oversee a change programme – with the added benefit that talented people lower down the chain have the opportunity to step up for the duration of the programme.

Sam sums up: “When universities try to do change as part of business as usual, as often as not it doesn’t happen. But when people are given the skills and support to lead change, they can tap into the enormous amount of brain power, energy and enthusiasm that make the university sector so great.”

This article is produced in association with KPMG. 

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