Leading Change on Campus: How to Move the ElephantFocus on the bright spots, the people or units who are already doing the change you want to see.
It is characteristic of living systems to continuously renew themselves,” Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 2001).
Change is a constant—and it’s nothing new. People make changes every day. They marry or partner, have children, change jobs or move to a new city. So why is institutional change so challenging?
“You can’t hold on to change. It’s slush; it falls apart,” said Susan Jurow. “You can’t manage change, but you can lead it.” She is subject matter consultant for the National Association of College and University Business Officers, one of 17 sister organizations sponsoring the Women’s Leadership Institute held at Dana Point CA and Amelia Island FL in December.
Jurow offered insights and tools for leading change, beginning by noting that change takes many forms:
• Change by exception. When the library floods, everyone drops what they’re doing to help clean up. Afterward they’ll return to business as usual.
• Pendular change. If program offices relocate or presidents succeed one another every few years, each transition is a swing of the pendulum.
• Incremental change. One department tries a new approach, others copy it and eventually it’s in the faculty handbook.
• Paradigm change. A phone is no longer the black box on the desk; it’s a whole new way to communicate. A paradigm shift brings a whole different way of thinking—a new mental model.
Mental models are images and descriptions that we form from our experience. They shape our perceptions, expectations and behavior. Mental models are inherently fuzzy and differ from one person to another.
How we think about change affects how we approach it. Meg Wheatley’s image of change as a natural organic process frames it as renewal, not the destruction that people fear.
White-water rafting is Peter Vaill’s model of rapid change in Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (Jossey-Bass, 1996). He argues that effective leadership is based on learning as you go. Just as negotiating the rapids builds the rafter’s muscles for the next stream, leading one change is a learning process for the next one. It’s not about just this event.
People want to leap from where they are to the new place as soon as they know the destination. But in Kurt Lewin’s change model, to get from one static state to another you must first “unfreeze” the existing mindset. After a middle stage of transition and confusion, you have to “freeze” a new mental model to consolidate the change.
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown, 2010), Chip and Dan Heath say the main obstacle to change is the tension between our reason and our emotions. Feelings are like a headstrong elephant; reason is like the rider holding the elephant’s reins but not really being in charge.
Change can come when the elephant and rider move together. “We look at the elephant as out of control, but this is our imagination,” she said.
Whether you initiate the change or it’s driven from outside, you can’t move the elephant against its will.
But you can manage four things to get the elephant where you want it:
• Intentions. What is your intention? Be honest; be clear.
• Events. So much is going on, large and small. Don’t introduce changes at the most difficult time, like in October when the campus is going crazy.
• Perceptions. Each of us views reality through a different set of lenses. Find ways to share your mental model for the change.
• Emotions. Attune yourself to feelings. “For those who make the decisions, change is intentional and anticipated. For those who did not make the decisions but must implement the changes, change is without choice and disruptive,” she said. Emotions are the hardest part of change.
Three roles describe individuals’ relation to a change. Crusaders are the leaders; they create motion around the change and push against the status quo. They focus on the “what,” the end result or goal.
Tradition-bearers remind us of our history. Attending to the details, they ask the rationale and focus on the “why.” If not persuaded, they may resist the change.
Pragmatists see both sides and want to get things done. They focus on the “how.” They absorb the chaos and provide stability.
“We tend to focus on the resisters,” Jurow said. If 80% buy into the change, our attention turns to the 20% who don’t. Resisters aren’t just being perverse; they have reasons, such as:
• Self-interest. Will this change cost me my job?
• Misunderstanding or mistrust. I thought you meant something different. • Different assessment. I see it another way.
• Low tolerance. I need more stability than this.
• Lack of skills. I don’t believe I can do that.
How to respond to them depends on many factors, including the amount and type of resistance and the relationship of the initiators to the resisters. Is the relevant information widely known or must parts stay confidential? Other factors include how much energy you’re prepared to put into creating buy-in and how fast the change must occur.
At one end of the scale, there’s plenty of time and a willingness to put in energy up-front. The plan emerges through a widely participative process, and resistance is probably minimal. Women who emphasize collaboration and relationship-building generally prefer this approach, but circumstances don’t always permit using it.
At the other end of the scale, time pressures force a more hierarchical approach. Situations involving campus safety or ethical violations, for example, may not allow the luxury of slow deliberation, and sometimes there is information you can’t share. A rapid change must be planned clearly with little participation; dealing with resistance comes later.
These tools for dealing with resistance are rank-ordered from the broad-based to the top-down end of the scale:
Graphing the change process
In Managing at the Speed of Change (Random, 1993), Darryl Conner graphed a curve with “Time” on the horizontal axis and “Pessimism” on the vertical one. Change starts in the left corner with uninformed optimism. In this honeymoon period people are excited and intrigued, viewing the change through rose-colored glasses.
As time passes, people learn more and develop doubts. The curve rises to a stage of informed pessimism. At first they saw the benefits; now they see the costs. This will take more work than we thought. What do the lawyers say? I have to give up what?
At the peak of the cycle, some pessimists withdraw from the process. They may resist publicly or go underground. How you deal with resistance at this stage can make the difference between success and failure.
With the passage of time, increased information and effective leadership, a cautious optimism creeps back into the mix. Maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The curve starts to slope back downward in hopeful realism.
Meeting milestones generates confidence and informed optimism. At the completion of a successful process, participants feel rewarded and satisfied. Pessimism is at an all-time low.
Emotions around this process are the elephant you’re trying to motivate. Leading change involves the rider, the elephant and the path:
Direct the rider. In the Switch analogy, the rider represents the analytical side—the part of us that likes to think about the problem. Focus on the bright spots, the people or units who are already doing the change you seek.
Motivate the elephant. The rider may think she’s in control, but emotions win every time. Data is not enough; use stories or experience to connect with people’s feelings.
Shape the path. Tweak the environment to make change easy. Give clear directions and remove every possible barrier. Provide training and support to build the desired habits and rally the herd.
Jurow concluded with 12 tips to lead change effectively:
Contact Susan Jurow: