Implementing Disruptive Change within Higher Education

Kurt Dorschel

In Brief

4-Minute Read

Very few institutions are insulated from the disruptive forces at play in higher education. It's not a question of, "Will we be impacted?" But rather, "How will we respond?"

To further assess the topic, Huron recently asked 250 institutions to project their institutions’ results over the next five years if they continued to act or perform exactly as it does today. Given five options spanning “Much Better” to “Much Worse,” over 75% of the respondents responded with “Worse” or “Much Worse.”

These results suggest that higher education leaders foresee the detrimental impact of doing nothing. They recognize the urgent need to respond to current challenges while concurrently planning for the future if their institutions are to survive and/or thrive beyond the near-term. The reasons for adopting this proactive approach are well-documented as challenging economic and competitive conditions.

As we work with clients to initiate disruptive change, we are challenged with the task of making institutions more effective with proactively implementing change successfully despite their unique operating environments. Unique barriers often exist in higher education, including:

  • An operating model that highly distributes authority, rendering decision making difficult.
  • A lack of alignment among institutional leaders about the business case for action and/or definition of success.
  • Designated sponsors or work teams that lack authority to make decisions and implement them across the entire organization.

In this environment, how does higher education become more effective at implementing disruptive change?

A Nuanced Mindset: Change Leadership Versus Change Management

Change management as a discipline generally delights in metaphors. A selection of recent presentations on the topic depicts caterpillars becoming butterflies, ice thawing and refreezing, heroes traversing a low valley to eventually scale a high peak. While these representations reflect some truth about the process of moving from one state to another, they tend to reinforce the idea that “change” is a discrete, material experience (metamorphosis, melting or mountaineering). The simplicity of the metaphor parallels sound principles of engaging people on a journey (or just being patient), but it belies the reality of persistent, overlapping dynamics in large, complex organizations. In a college or university, multiple “changes” are happening at any given time at all levels of the organization. Innovation and positive change may be happening in one area while entrenchment and resistance burgeon in another.

Many institutions have already embraced the language and principles of the “change journey.” Defining change management roles is now standard practice for major initiatives, and some institutions have even identified standard frameworks, roles and practices related to supporting change. This approach brings much-needed focus and discipline to addressing the people side of a change initiative. It complements project management to ensure that the results of an initiative stick and are integrated into an organization.

Nonetheless, even with these investments, many institutions still deeply struggle with moving to a future state. So, if we’re all doing “change management”—why aren’t we ready for change and implementing in a sustainable way?

We try to make an important distinction between change management and change leadership. Whereas change management provides the basic set of tools or infrastructure, change leadership serves as the driving force behind the vision for the processes. A leadership mindset further ensures that changes are implemented on time, on budget and in a sustainable way that meets both the business and human objectives.

Critical Factors of Change Leadership

Studies across a variety of industries reveal that sustained success isn’t the result of “hard factors” as many believe — it is the “soft factors” that are most critical.

Change initiatives often focus on the hard factors of defining efficient structures and roles within the organizations. Emphasis is placed on making sure the project teams have the right project management skills and ability to train others on whatever the initiative requires. Performance measures and incentives are aligned to reward achievement of a defined metric for success (e.g., on time, on budget); once achieved, the initiative moves into “maintenance mode” where the focus is on project management and progress updates.

Soft factors, such as management sponsorship, a shared vision and transparency, however, are the harbingers of lasting change. When initiatives are cascaded down and owned by middle managers — communicated in an honest and timely manner — true “change leadership” takes hold.

Contact Us

I want to talk to your experts in