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Transforming organisations: from student to board

31 Mar 2021 | Kim Ansell After a turbulent year with rapid change, organisations need to review their purpose, vision and strategy – Kim Ansell introduces our Connect Member Benefit Series for April and May

“All organisations today face a Covid-19 reality that they cannot just wish away.” Lorenz Graf-Vlachy

While we know that HE institutions are in different places strategically, the most common feedback we hear at the moment is the need to review, stress test or re-evaluate the strategy in the light of the disruption caused by the pandemic. Although, on the whole, HE leaders feel that their institution's purpose remains extant, how the strategy is delivered might need to look and feel very different as the landscape continues to change. Graf-Vlachy goes on to suggest that “Once the immediate need of business continuity is met, it is time to think about what true continuity can and must look like in the ‘new normal’.”

It is certainly true over the past year, that most staff, including senior leaders, have been more short-term and/or tactically focussed than usual. In governance there has been some very fast decision making – supported by activity such as ‘Red team’ stress-testing or ‘Covid task forces – and most would agree that, by and large, the sector has responded exceptionally well in this crisis. This outcome brings with it an inherent risk that, impressed by how much has been done or achieved, this could, and perhaps should, become a steady state. Clearly, there are new ways of working which are better than before, but all institutions need time to reflect on what really does work better and what needs to be left behind; and to allow the necessary thinking time, institutions should start that process now.

“Most executives I know are so action-oriented, or action addicted, that time for reflection is the first casualty of their success.”, Margaret Heffernan CEO and author, Professor in Practice, School of Management faculty, University of Bath

Over the coming two months, we will be looking at ‘Transforming Organisations’ from the perspective of different stakeholder groups. We will consider how HEIs can bring about authentic strategic and cultural change.  We focus on the importance of stakeholder engagement as a key first step in creating the vision and co-owning the transformation process; and how aligning this process with organisational values helps to achieve an holistic realisation of change, and the successful delivery of the strategy. We plan to explore why a creative process to better understand and involve all stakeholders is a good place to start when embarking on transformative strategic or culture change.

"Most people have their best ideas when they take their minds away from problems they are trying to solve." Margaret Heffernan.

In recent months, I have spoken to senior executives, leaders, managers and OD professionals and I have observed Board meetings: my reflection is that there is recurring evidence of the tension between ‘wanting to think about the future’ and being ‘stuck’ in short-term thinking and action. Perhaps this has always been the case to a degree in some organisations, but it seems to have been exacerbated in the last year.

The resurgence of #BLM presented a twin ‘challenge’ for leadership in 2020, in that, like Covid-19, it also prompted urgent reflection, reaction, and reckoning with what has not been in place, and how to rethink and revision the future.

Given that there are, understandably, high levels of fatigue among those responsible for leading and implementing change, there is an emerging risk that long-term strategic thinking and engagement will be lost to the temptation to jump straight to ‘action’. In my experience, successful transformation has three key ingredients:

  • Co-creation, clarity and shared understanding of the vision
  • Authentic conversations and two-way communication, recognising the centrality of dialogue to support transformation, and
  • Joined-up, inclusive and collaborative implementation in which everyone is involved -  feels part of -  and has a responsibility for making it happen.

Taking Stephen Covey’s advice (‘7 habits of highly effective people’), “Live out of your imagination, not your history” - your “most important work is always ahead of you, never behind you”. My own take on this is that organisations cannot ask the question “What does success look like?”, without offering the opportunity to uncover and draw together a rich picture of a vision in which everyone concerned can see themselves and wants to help realise. Some of the best success stories in approaches to achieve transformation have been to ‘borrow’ from creative expressions such as imagery, metaphors, storyboarding, rich pictures, drama, poetry and music.

Such approaches mean truly consulting – from student to board – and taking time to listen. It means being prepared to welcome collective intention, and diversity of opinion and to navigate tensions, as Covey goes on to explain how two people can see the same thing and yet differ from each other: “If I were to summarise in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Leaders must find ways to create or find shared understanding about culture, identity and the organisation’s direction of travel in a way which unites. If the institutions people (primarily staff and students) are not passionate about the vision, they won't be enthusiastic about executing the strategy, but if they see their own vision reflected in it then they will have the commitment and agency to deliver it. In their 2021 paper Arday et al note:

“Further, it was also felt that collective engagement was needed throughout all levels of the university structure from an operational level through to senior university leadership level. Participants noted that diversified curriculums at universities provide the opportunity for the sector to truly be a reflection of equality, egalitarianism and wider society." (Arday, 2018; Arday & Mirza, 2018)

Once the future vision emerges it needs articulation – three things will support the transition from vision to implementation. First and foremost, open and brave conversations, coupled with authentic communication and time to deeply reflect on the implications, outcomes and requirements for transformation.   People need time to ‘hold’ a problem or an issue and explore it from different perspectives and with different colleagues.

"Reframing problems to create new solutions." Gareth Morgan, Emerging Waves and Challenges, puts conversation and communication at the heart of transformation.

Finally, the opportunity to bring the vision to life in a joined up and collaborative way is absolutely essential: student movements are calling for greater democratisation, and boards want to – and should – engage in formative strategic thinking; but doing this well is rare, and its difficultly should not be underestimated. For that reason, the idea of co-creation and dialogue should continue so that an artificial divide is not created between vision and implementation. The term ‘everyone must play their part’, has become a positive mantra during the Covid-19 pandemic which now must equally be applied to organisational transformation so that everyone concerned recognises it and feel they belong.  

We hope that over the next two months that we can make a small contribution to a more inclusive and sustainable transformation of the sector as we start to re-imagine our HE future beyond covid-19.

“Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.” Joanne Ciulla (Author & Educator)

N.B.: The Tackling Racism on Campus project in Scotland is a great example of collective vision-making, and stakeholder engagement that genuinely engaged with the need to be ‘bottom up’ as well as ‘top down’ and to be held accountable to students and staff. A huge range of assets has just been released to support those in the sector working towards the same collective vision.

Full details of April and May’s Connect Benefit Series Transforming Organisations: from student to board can be found here.

Outputs for this month will include a series of blogs, a visioning activity, a virtual sandpit event, a Tweet Chat on 28 April and a live webinar on 12 May 9:00 BST.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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