Change is the one constant that occurs every day; yet, is the slowest to take root. Change does not discriminate. Change is hard for the young and the old. It’s a battle to fight against “we’ve always done it this way” with needed innovation. Leadership change within an organization can be one of the most difficult challenges especially in a 21st century workforce where the most coveted attributes are efficiency, productivity, creativity, and adaptability. Knowledge can be taught, but these inherent traits are what businesses and organizations are looking for to address economic and industry challenges. Objective evaluations, often resulting in difficult decisions, are needed if an organization is going to move forward. This is just as applicable to Fortune 500 companies as it is for higher education and resonates with all organizations in between.
Change boils down to letting go of the past, accepting the realities of the present, and adapting solutions for the future. In higher education news this past week, we’ve read about the Sweet Briar closing, the “University of Everywhere”, and what America’s “traditional” college student looks like now. While they may not have used the word, all three of these articles were about change: being unprepared for change, the future change, and the present reality of change. As we read the news, we should always ask ourselves, “How do we handle change”?
There are three theories leadership can use to approach change:
- The Sloth Theory: This is the change approach of least resistance that often signals a slow death for any organization or institution. If you know anything at all about sloths, they are slow creatures who know nothing of time or urgency. This approach to change is the least effective. Institutions following this approach actively ignore the world around them. They disregard changes in consumer or student population, changes in environment, and gradual changes in their relevance. Suddenly the realization comes too late to change, even when there is still an $80 million dollar endowment. This approach creeps into the culture and produces reactive responses that can only sustain an institution for a short period of time.
- The Rehab Theory: This isn’t just about an Amy Winehouse song. This change approach only works when you have all the right people, but lack the vision to move in the right direction. There are times when an institution is going along like they have always done regardless of the environmental changes happening all around. It’s during these times when leadership needs to reassess the institution’s direction and goals. For too many institutions, they continue to serve a need that no longer exists or is slowly diminishing. These institutions have the opportunity to pull back, take a look at internal and external trends in order to make changes in direction necessary to continue growth and sustainability. In order for this approach to work, there needs to be an intentional culture shift supported by the right people focusing on a clear vision.
- The Cut Theory: This change approach is the most effective, yet the least used. It requires a harsh look at reality and making tough decisions, but yields the best long-term results. The first step is having the right people. As James C. Collins says, “great vision without great people is irrelevant.” When an institution is facing change, it requires swift action in order to respond and people who can carry out the necessary actions required. Generally, institutions keep the wrong people when trying to respond to industry challenges. This puts pressure on other people and makes movement in the right direction a struggle. Eventually, resentment builds towards these individuals and the institution ends up suffering. In order for this change approach to work, an honest evaluation is completed and the wrong people are kindly let go. In the long run, keeping the wrong people out of obligation stalls necessary forward movement.
The 2000s has brought about some of the most innovative solutions to the way we think, work, and respond in a rapidly changing economy. There comes a time when the solutions we’ve relied on in the past no longer apply. We have seen that time come for a lot of business, but also within higher education. The “traditional” student has changed and expects a higher education system that offers the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be effective within a changing workforce. As much as employers need creativity, productivity, and adaptability from employees, students are looking to higher education to meet these same needs. Change provides a limited opportunity for institutions to look inwardly in order to meet outward needs. The ones who are successful are those with the right people, the right vision, and the willingness to make the hard choices to better serve a growing need.
“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.” ~ James Belasco and Ralph Stayer
How does your institution respond to change?