Managing through change

There is no doubt that the education sector is facing its biggest challenge to date, no matter what part of education you are working in. We are faced with getting our students and staff through to the end of the year while having to do the complex longer-term planning for how we will go forward and survive and thrive in a COVID affected world. In Higher Education the considerations are complex, not least because of the multi-faceted purposes of our institutions as places of education and research, as well as a significant contributors to the local economy. Discussions to bring some regulation on student number control, while offering possible benefits, could have longer term challenges we may not welcome down the line.

And it’s the uncertainty of the ongoing situation which makes this a particularly difficult example of a crisis. In crisis communications we are adept at riding through the curve of establishing the initial situation, responding appropriately and supporting colleagues through the subsequent decisions and outcomes, until you reach the debrief of what you have learned for the next time, but we are uncertain as to when this will be.

Structurally, universities have ways of addressing the crisis, with COVID teams looking at each of the significant areas such as student and staff wellbeing, estate management and research impact. McKinsey have recently written on how US universities should organise themselves to respond, with a useful “nerve centre” model, applicable in any context, recommending four stages of a process: Discover; Decide; Design and Deliver.

Of course, organisations can go through change multiple times over their operating history – easier without the backdrop of a global pandemic – but the same principles apply, and they are worth using as a guiding framework for how we are managing through the situation.

What we must remember is that project management doesn’t make change happen, people do, and university leadership needs to ensure they are engaging and informing people as well as possible through this time. An extremely effective and useful framework for managing change which is people centred at its core is ADKAR. I use this with colleagues to make sure that there is clarity throughout on what is happening and what is expected of people:

Awareness: this is about communicating the “why” of what is happening. Don’t assume everyone can understand the reason for the change, even now. Leaders need to be very clear on what the plans are – and be transparent even if you can’t give people all of the answers at the moment. Universities are places of complex structure and decision making processes so its important that leaders and managers are all clear of the why, so they can cascade to their teams.

Desire: this answers the question of “what’s in it for me?” In other words, how is this change going to affect me and what is being asked of me in this situation? People are motivated for many different reasons at the moment as it is in everyone’s interests to survive, so be very clear what you need from your teams now and through this ongoing process. In the current climate, this will need communicating more than usual as people feel very much out of control with their current situation. Bring some stability back by continual review and communication.

Knowledge: we are facing a possible change to the way we deliver our education, and this may mean that we need to arm ourselves with different knowledge in order to work through this. You may find teams have the right skills, but you may need to consider how they will acquire knowledge they don’t have through online training. As education providers we should embrace the willingness of teams to adapt and learn new skills.

Ability: until we arrive at an appropriate level of ability, then change can’t happen. This is a key turning point in change management and in the current situation universities need to ensure that tools teams are using, or have access to, are able to support them. Be mindful as well that teams can be overwhelmed by the workload of dealing with their role, plus changes which are being asked of them, so some support around structured management of tasks would be welcome.

Reinforcement: don’t let the fact that you are remote from your teams stop you from regularly communicating your purpose and your “why” – and remembering to reward people for their hard work. Reinforcement is about keeping change on track, but it is also about celebrating successes, which can still be done even though you are working remotely.

While each level of ADKAR involves a lot of work, it’s an ideal tool to keep you connected with what your teams need, now and in the uncertain future we are facing.