From Episodic to Continuous Change

James Hutchinson, Director of the Strategic Delivery Unit at the University of Exeter, on how we can make continuous improvement a reality in our institutions.

There are few blogs on higher education that don’t start by reflecting on the pace, complexity and uncertainty of change we are facing. To quote John Kotter, “We are moving from episodic to continuous change”. With this being the case, what might we do to support our teams to lead change through continuous improvement?

With plenty of shelf-space in airport bookstores taken up by paperbacks on this subject, I’ll reflect on the key foundations for supporting continuous improvement rather than on the detail of the process itself.


Communications enable our teams to be proactive. Universities are increasingly complex organisations and internal communication is rarely straightforward. However, if we want our teams to lead through change, we need to share what we know about the changing environment around us; without this the challenge of continuous improvement falls at the first hurdle!

At Exeter, regular open Vice-Chancellor and Registrar talks are punctuated by weekly bulletins, monthly team briefs led by members of the senior team and local communications in Colleges and Services, all of which align to the discussions taking place amongst our Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group.


Meaningful performance data drives continuous improvement. Measuring and openly sharing the effectiveness and efficiency of what we do is a powerful basis for teams to continually improve.

In recent years we have developed our business intelligence tools, providing managers and their teams with access to a wide range of performance dashboards that make information visible, consistent and easy to digest. This enables teams to see the challenges and develop solutions, often delivered through small scale initiatives that are more likely to stick.


We are blessed with talented managers and teams. However, we haven’t always given them the tools to lead continuous improvement in their areas.

At Exeter, alongside internal training programmes (e.g. lean techniques, change management and project management) and advice from our internal experts, we have developed online toolkit available to all staff: our ‘Change Blueprint’. The Change Blueprint provides a consistent approach to managing change across the University and is designed to be scaled from local initiatives focussed on continuous improvement to University-wide change programmes. It provides practical steps, with supporting tools and templates grounded in change theory and linked with the University’s values.


Without a conducive culture in which teams are empowered to challenge the status quo, continuous improvement stands little chance of success. It’s important to design mechanisms for colleagues bring forward their ideas for improvement, confident that they will be listened to and acted upon.

We have found that creativity can come from facilitating partnerships across departments, with students and with external stakeholders; communicating proposals as ‘green papers’ for development and feedback rather than fait accompli; and developing plans through workshops open to all staff to collectively develop their ideas.


In short, continuous improvement is a way of working. Before we can start we need a shared understanding of the internal and external environment we are operating within; a clear and consistent evidence base; a common set of tools to apply and an empowering culture. With these in place, you are free to apply the myriad methodologies that exist to realise meaningful change through continuous improvement.