Session 13: Leading Change and Transition


The morning session for today was given over to a discussion on the related concepts of change and transition, and importantly the difference between them, and was heavily contextualised to address the university’s cross institutional review of support staff which is now reaching its conclusion.

We began by considering the drivers for change in the HE context, consistently returning to what we felt was the one huge macro factor acting on the education sector nationally and internationally, and for a number of decades now, namely the process of the implementation of a neoliberal philosophy, and the shift away from viewing education as a public good that benefits the whole of society. This has driven competition between HEIs to attract students, especially in the last few years as the UK has undergone a demographic dip in the number of eighteen year olds while the government has simultaneously cracked down on international student recruitment. This led us to consider how the university has responded to these changes. With students now being the direct source of the majority of university income, one response has been to try and find ways of providing students with a good return on their investment in their education. We have also found new ways of expanding the market, by taking over an institution in Hong Kong for example, and by reviewing our estate portfolio to find efficiencies, and implementing the cross institutional review which was aimed at streamlining the support staff structure.

In this context we were introduced to the work of William Bridges, specifically Managing Transitions. Bridges distinguishes between change and transition by defining change as something that is situational, e.g. getting a new manager or moving to a new office, and transition as a psychological process that people have to go through as they are dealing with change. This, he argues, is something that cannot be rushed, that people have to go through at their own pace, and that the role of a leader is to help them manage this process and guide them with positivity and sensitivity.

He defined three phases of transition, ending or letting go, the neutral zone, and new beginnings. It is the neutral zone and the uncertainty that comes with it that he argues is the most difficult time for people. Part of the reason for this is that there is a temptation for people to either want to cling to the old ways of working, or else move on to a new situation too quickly, not giving them enough time to explore options and possibilities, both of which can cause a change initiative to fail.

This led on to the work of John Kotter who published research in 1996 showing that 70% of change initiatives ended in failure, a figure which has not been shown to have significantly declined in later studies. He suggests that one way to improve this is by involving staff in the story surrounding the change, as it has been shown that people are more committed to something when they have chosen it or at least have had some input.

Something I really liked from Kotter’s article, which was provided as a handout, was the section on role modelling which talked about self-serving bias and how this can be found in leaders who rate themselves as better agents of change than they actually are. The anecdote about Kevin Sharer attempting to get past this by asking his employees ‘What should I do differently?’ stuck a cord with me and is something I may try using with my team to inform my own feedback and for use in the assessment of this course.

The afternoon was given over to the computer based EduChallenge Simulator which was designed to give us experience of implementing a major change in an HE context. The simulator placed us in the position of a change agent at the fictional Humfield University, our purpose to persuade the Dean of the Graduate School of Management to implement the new AcadQual system for improving academic quality which has been adopted by the rest of the university. The simulator gives you six months, 120 days, in which to complete this task.

This was an interesting exercise with a lot of potential. It was good to experience the other side of a change implementation, but it was hampered by the extremely dated software. The main problem being around the way language has changed since the software was written, over a decade ago from what I found in my probing. Activities like ‘Electronic Mail’ don’t work at all as you would expect. Instead, to send a message out to all staff you have to use a ‘Memorandum’. Then there is the obscure and bizarre, the ‘The Sandwich Meeting’ and the ‘One-Legged Interview’ for example. There is descriptive text which is meant to describe what these are, but we found that it was rarely helpful, and only in carrying out an action, using up precious days, did you actually learn what it did. This made the exercise clunky and annoying; it felt very unfair. This is a shame as I can see the value in the activity, it just needs to be updated to make it more intuitive and useful again.