“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar and Secretary at the University of Exeter, reflects on lessons from Exeter’s Transformation Programme and the establishment of a new Strategic Delivery Unit.

The pace of change in Higher Education is as rapid as it’s ever been and the uncertainty of the territory we’re heading into is unprecedented. Having recently completed a major transformation programme at Exeter, it might be tempting to take a moment to breathe out. However, given the increasingly choppy waters we exist in, we’re resisting the temptation.

Our Transformation Programme started in 2014-15 and completed in 2016-17. It changed our operating model; brought together our Professional Services into a single team; implemented new directorates; improved antiquated processes and systems; established new career pathways for staff and created financial headroom to invest in our future.

The scale and speed of the programme tested our resolve and led us to question how we manage change in the future; avoiding the need to return to transformation as a ‘one-off’ initiative. Reflecting on our experiences of transformation and accepting that the world in which we operate is characterised by the management acronym ‘VUCA’ (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) we’ve asked ourselves some searching questions:

  • Change Culture – is change really embedded into our culture or is it seen as a series of one-off events?
  • View from the bridge – do we have a single view of our portfolio of change activity?
  • ‘Golden thread’ – is there a demonstrable link between all change initiatives and our strategic objectives?
  • Lessons learnt – are successes and failures of initiatives routinely captured, shared or referred to?
  • Expertise – how do we make the most of our talent? When (and how) do we bring in external expertise?
  • Benefits, benefits, benefits – are benefits clearly and consistently defined and baselined from the start?

Our response to the questions revealed that to thrive in an increasingly malign environment we need to separate running the University from changing the University. As is the case in most organisations, most of the initiatives supported by our projects team have been focused on our business as usual; whilst this is not a problem in and of itself, it draws capacity and expertise away from the initiatives that really change what we do. Herein lies the foundations of our Strategic Delivery Unit.

Working hand in glove with Planning, the Strategic Delivery Unit brings together the governance of change, with capacity and capability to deliver. It is responsible for translating the University’s strategic objectives into a portfolio of programmes and projects. It is also established with agility in mind, ensuring we can direct expertise at targeted, grasping opportunities or addressing inevitable challenges that are likely to come thicker and faster than ever before.

So, how does this help address the questions we posed ourselves?

  • By embedded change management skills and continuous improvement into the way of working across the University.
  • Better decision-making, prioritisation and focus on achieving benefits supported by a clear view of the University’s change portfolio.
  • Confidence in the link between our strategic priorities to the programme & projects we invest in.
  • A consistent approach to capturing and taking forward lessons learnt from projects and programmes, ensuring the next is always better than the last.
  • Developing our own talent through secondments into the Strategic Delivery Unit.
  • A relentless focus on benefits, supported by regular reviews and clear accountability for delivery.

In short, the Strategic Delivery Unit helps us to invest in the right projects and deliver them the right way, using the right people.

With W. Edwards Deming’s quote ringing loudly, its role is to ensure that our approach to change doesn’t simply allow us to survive, but to thrive.