Facilitating successful change in a university environment

We cannot stand in the way of change. Our challenge is to manage that change as best we can, for the benefit of our students, our colleagues, our institutions. Kim Newton-Woof, AHUA coach and facilitator, offers guidance on facilitating successful change in a university environment.

“We simply don’t know how to change.”

This was the whispered admission for many AHUA members when sharing their challenges of wrestling with the complexity of what to do next, and how to do it at a time of unprecedented global uncertainty.

These past months, my conversations with members have found senior leaders caught between coping with the crisis of now, and getting their heads around embedding sustainable change for the future.

Our members are dealing with some of the most difficult situations ever faced in their institutions. These range from wholesale reviews of working practices and organisational structures, to delivering core business whilst achieving financial sustainability.

Yet, is not knowing how to do it really the issue?

For over a decade, I’ve been working with universities crammed full of some of the most intelligent and innovative thinkers on the planet. These are people who work on leading-edge research into complex organisational change in all its forms.

Is the problem really how we change, or something more?

A wise coach once shared his method for helping someone stuck with a how challenge.

His solution: “Google it. Then point to your screen and say: there’s your answer!”

Interestingly, when you Google “how to lead organisational change” you get about 50,000,000 results.

And when you add “change in a university” to that search you get 3,320,000,000 results!

There are literally billions of examples of best practice, case studies, consultant advice, research findings, and academic papers. You have an endless list of people willing to share their wisdom. They offer magic formulae or frameworks that will make your change happen.

But organisational change is renowned for being tough at the best of times, no matter your business, and it can be nigh-on impossible in universities.

And yet, I suggest that the greatest challenge with change is not simply the how.

There is also complexity and fear surrounding big-scale change in universities.

And understandably so.

Facilitating successful change in a university environment

This theme is one of the reasons why Rupert Taylor, an experienced change-enabler, has been invited to join the panel discussion at the AHUA Online Conference next week.

The session “Leading Transformation – Taking the Challenges Forward” has been designed to explore how successful transformation can be achieved. It will be chaired by Matthew Andrews, Secretary and Registrar, University of Gloucestershire.

Rupert will offer several insights, alongside two people who have also delivered change in very different environments:

  • Nicola de Iongh, Chair of Council, University of Gloucestershire
  • Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor, Wonkhe

All three will share the secrets of leading and embedding change that result in success.

In the meantime, Rupert and I will offer our shared thinking on this topic, looking at barriers to successful change, and how best to overcome them.

Barriers to successful change in a university environment

Challenge 1 – Thinking differently

I recently heard rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson speak about his career, and how a mental health crisis led to a life of exploration.

He reflected that life has shown him that he’s perfectly equipped for dealing with everything that happens to him in the now.

However, he found he isn’t equipped for dealing with everything that happens to him in his mind.

His response?

He chooses now. He gets involved.

By moving on, he eventually makes sense of the moment, whilst so many people try to make sense of things before they can move on.

What does this have to do with enabling change in universities?

Some questions to consider:

  • Does there need to be a shift in the way we think about change?
  • Do we need to be more radical in our approaches to thinking?
  • Do we need to think less and – in Jonny’s words – “move on” to make sense of the moment?
  • Are your people prepared to accept that what we’ve done in the past may not be the best model for the future?
  • Are your institutions ready to review and, if necessary, revise traditional operating principles?
  • Are your leaders willing to challenge themselves, and their own mindsets, as a starting point for change?

Uncertainty is here to stay. There’s no right answer. There’s only right now.

Challenge 2 – The culture conundrum

Ah, culture!

Possibly the single most challenging, yet important, issue to resolve in successful change.

Never has a word struck more fear into the hearts of leaders keen to get on with doing something concrete, whilst hopefully avoiding the can of worms that includes a conversation about “how we do things around here.”

Never has a subject generated more confusion, more distraction, more rabbit warrens of discussion, and more tension between colleagues than, “What is an enabling culture for change? How do we lead it?”

How can a culture embedded in a university evolve, and quickly?

Embedded behaviours that reflect subject and departmental-centric mindsets can play a real role in the collaboration required for institutional success and league table status.

The apparent paradox is those same behaviours can be a major obstacle to delivering a strategy for change. There is a balance to be struck between the need for subject focus and university business focus.

Challenge 3 – Leading from behind

Even before the pandemic, the level of change universities were having to confront was new to many of their senior leaders.

Whatever their experience, all leadership is required to enable, lead, and role-model the change for their area of responsibility – whether cross-functional or departmental.

Yet, this has to be tensioned against the need to meet a range of standards and requirements from NSS, REF, and TEF, to day-to-day performance.

Are leaders prepared to accept where they have developmental needs and invest the time, space and effort into meeting them?

Are they able to step off the “corona-coaster” and delegate, coach and upskill those around them to share the load?

Challenge 4 –  Analysis paralysis

The default cultural paradigm in many universities is one which focuses on robust detail, debate, and analysis.

However, when overblown, these positive qualities become unhelpful, opposing any force for change and creating organisational stasis.

Not only does this approach consume leadership time unnecessarily, it obstructs progress and can obscure clarity of the ‘big picture’ which the change aspires to create.

Challenge 5 – Overcomplicating complexity

…which brings us onto a fifth challenge.

Systemic change in an ever-changing world is complex, but do we have to make it complicated?

An over-analytical approach leads to increased complexity and unnecessarily complicated narratives about approaches to change.

Are you truly able to engage and enthuse your communities and stakeholders in this way?

Overcoming change barriers

Below is some thinking about what to consider when overcoming these change barriers.

Once again, I have sought the help of Rupert to gather his experienced transformation programme management perspective.

1. Keep it simple

Many years ago, I read the musings of a modern philosopher who advised that if something appears simple in the world of academia then it is not to be trusted.

However, Rupert and I are in violent agreement that the simpler change programmes are better and more effective.

These two opposing views offer a challenge to universities.

Though there are many reasons to champion simplicity.

Proportionate, pragmatic approaches to complex organisational change will:

  • Simplify processes and governance
  • Provide clarity to decision-makers and other stakeholders
  • Accelerate progress towards defined outcomes and goals.

Any change framework can work if people understand it, and are prepared to hold each other to account to stick to it.

Simplicity aids this understanding.

2. Support your leaders

Effective senior leadership is a critical element of how change is governed and delivered.

Leadership also sets the tone for an institution’s culture and behaviour. Changing culture may be hard, but changing an organisation’s climate or mood is not.

As unpleasant as it sounds, “the fish rots from the head” as the Chinese proverb tells us.

As such, leaders need to:

  • Roll up their sleeves and get stuck in
  • Support of the climate they create around them, through feedback and awareness-raising
  • To understand how aligned (or not) it is with delivering the change required.

Council, Senate, UEB, sponsors, and stakeholders require:

  • Clarity about their leadership roles and accountabilities throughout the change journey
  • Time and opportunity for critical thinking and (self) reflection
  • Enhanced collaborative working practices that create an effective leadership bridge between the academic and professional services. This is critical for embedding successful change.

Ultimately, clear, rational and rapid decision-making should be tensioned against the requirement for compliance with the relevant codes of governance unique to the increasingly regulated university environment.

3. Communicate and engage


Another contentious word in change management circles. Oh, how this old chestnut can set hares running!

Emails, newsletters, town hall-style presentations, comms plans, Gantt charts, stakeholder mapping: a veritable cottage industry of words and wordsmithing.

Communication is not engagement.

You do not engage the hearts and minds of the people who will be affected by change with an email, no matter how beautifully-crafted.

You do it through building rapport with your people. That engenders trust.

Even if they don’t like the decision you make, or the outcome of the change has a negative consequence on them, or their area… They will nevertheless trust you to treat them with respect and compassion.

When considering the management of change at scale, Rupert is clear that effective communication is key to gaining and retaining the momentum needed to deliver change. This depends crucially on the engagement of all involved – from staff to students.

This engagement then depends on consistent and constant communication of:

  • Why the change is happening
  • What is changing and how
  • What progress is being made.

Push techniques, such as reports and updates, are not effective in isolation. Consider interactive and dynamic ways to both broadcast out and listen back. Listening to your university community and stakeholders is as important as your own messages and narrative.

4. Be clear and transparent

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Clarity is more than using clear language, and avoiding phrases or terminology that could obscure your meaning. The “illusion of transparency” is a common cognitive bias, and a frequent cause of misunderstanding.

Research by academics Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab (HBR, Oct 2019) finds that leaders often think they’ve been clearer than they have. We are all too quick to assume that the message has been understood, especially if perceived as bad news.


Often, for fear of retaliation, or to spare colleagues’ feelings.

However, being so focused on your own intense feelings and intentions may mean you overestimate the extent to which your view of the world is coming across to others.

Rupert suggests that this translates best into a leader-led set of behaviours that creates a culture of transparency and accountability. This is a culture where it is okay, and indeed encouraged, to share risks and issues with leadership, rather than hiding them under the carpet.

Agree measures of success and indicators of progress. Ensure all those accountable for enabling your change will report regularly through a single and trusted mechanism. This mechanism should offer genuine performance insights, and highlight escalations so that leadership can determine when their support is required.

5. Remember we are human

A thread connecting all of the above is a respectful reminder that we are all human.

We’ve evolved to avoid things that may hurt, scare, or upset us. We have an in-built need for certainty.

Existing in a complex and uncertain world, we start to observe a number of mind traps that result in common, very human responses.

For example, our sense of being right enables our decisiveness, but as a result we may polarise when we can’t agree.

Meanwhile, our sense of being in control is directly tied to feeling happy and satisfied, so are we trying harder to control things? In doing so, are we substituting what matters with what can be measured?

People under emotional duress are less able to think and act rationally.

This is true no matter where we are in the organisational hierarchy, or however big the impact of change affects us personally, or the people we care about.

Using Barry Oshry’s reference to the three tiers of roles in an organisation:

  • Humans at the top of the organisation may feel burdened by what feels like unmanageable complexity and responsibility.
  • Humans in the middle may feel torn and confused between the conflicting demands and priorities coming at them from above and below.
  • Humans at the bottom may feel oppressed by what they see as distant and uncaring leadership, and trapped in stifling pressures to conform.

Rupert and I both agree that organisational change cannot be outsourced.

There is no magic solution, wand, or potion that can replace the need for university leaders to roll up their sleeves and take responsibility.

However, the change will only happen when the multitude of individuals and groups that make up our diverse university communities are able to collaborate.

The challenge remains: our rich and vibrant communities, which are our greatest asset, can also keep us stuck in the now, not able to gain traction for change.

That’s where outsourcing can become an option – perhaps argued as the only option?

Support from an appropriately-qualified third party can help:

  • Facilitate the necessary collaboration
  • Take an objective view of all perspectives
  • Raise awareness to what is keeping you stuck or holding you back
  • Offer both challenge and support as you work together to create your own change solutions.

Moving forward with organisational change

Mapping out a plan for change as a paper exercise with an “expert” on hand to advise is arguably a straightforward process.

Yet, even this exercise can be difficult and time-consuming, in a culture where collegiality and committee-driven decision making are the norm.

Then taking those words from a page, and implementing fundamental and transformative organisational change, led by you and your people, becomes extremely challenging and high risk.

There is no easy or correct answer, but we hope that the above themes will spark some thoughts, and help develop your approach to change.


Kim Newton-Woof is an AHUA coach and facilitator. She offers her thanks to Rupert Taylor for his time and wisdom.

Rupert is the Director of Pro4 Solutions Ltd. He will be a guest speaker at the AHUA Online Conference on Friday 27 November 2020.

There’s still time to register your place.