Transforming Organizations Through Bold Strokes and Emerging Strides

Change is difficult. We become socialized in how “we” do things, and it’s hard to let go of ways of working, especially if the new ways are still under development. Such is the case for higher education as we adapt to teaching and learning during a pandemic.

Crises have a way of forcing us to adapt in the short run, but what happens later? Transformative change takes time. Fast change is like a crash diet. You might get some quick results, but to make things stick, you need a coherent plan, incremental actions, and substantial social and emotional support. Transformative change can be elating, but it’s also fraught with grief. The caterpillar must let go of the life of walking in the grass in order to fly.

Over the past several years, I have been leading change in higher education. The beauty of leadership (as opposed to management) is change can happen at any and all levels of the organization.  It can come from faculty, administrators, board members, community partners, donors, and even, or perhaps most especially, from students. Sometimes my change-leadership was done with intent. Other times, I came to recognize it afterwards.

While every change environment is unique, there are a few guiding principles that I’ve found to enable and empower change leaders, regardless of what role they are assigned.  I’m using these principles to guide me as I navigate change through a pandemic and beyond.

1. Start with a compelling vision

People need an overarching vision and rationale for the change. The need for change must resonate with faculty and staff and should not violate existing values. The vision should answer questions such as: What is it that we are trying to do? What’s driving the change? Why us? Why now?

While financial constraints tend to be a change driver, I have found they fail to inspire action. Those not regularly involved with university finances often reject the idea that things are that bad, distrust the data, or become frightened for their jobs. Not the reaction that compels wholesale action.

Even if you inherit a vision, you need to develop one for your unit. It needs to align with the big picture vision, but it’s important that everyone understands the vision and how they fit within it. The emotional buy in comes from feeling involved in the vision, and in its creation.

One methodology for accomplishing this is Design Thinking. Its user-centered approach to creativity and innovation puts the student (stakeholders) experience at the center of all you do. It provides a structured method to identify challenges, gather information, generate potential solutions, refine ideas, and test your methods. Whatever the vision, you’ll want to clearly describe what you are doing and why for all stakeholders, keeping your students at the center of the change.

2. Take an agile approach

Often, we look at implementing change as something that needs to be “managed.” But think about it that—managing change suggests the process should be orderly and controlled. That might work for small tweaks, but it won’t facilitate the kind of collaboration and creativity needed for transformative change. Borrowing terminology from other industries can help us think together about change. During change, we’ve used words like agile, pioneering, and pivot.

  • Borrowing from the software industry, agile assumes the requirements and means to bring them about will evolve through the collaboration of self-organized teams. It is premised on early failures and iteration, which enables adaptability and flexibility in fast changing environments.
  • Pioneering  suggests we’re breaking new ground. There isn’t yet a standard or map. We’re trying things out.
  • Pivot gives a nod to the fact that we are free to change directions—rather, we must—if what we’re doing isn’t panning out.

Again, transformative change can be made of bold strides, but it requires enough time to allow collaboration and iteration across stakeholders. This enables creative solutions to emerge and enlists participants in a shared vision. It’s not about gaining “buy in.” Acceptance is passive. We need action! By working collectively on the vision, the team is more likely to believe in its value and commit to seeing things through. Taking time to build a strong foundation for change will save you time in the end.

I’ve found it valuable to engage advisory boards, donors, staff, and community in the development of a change vision along with its implementation. Enlisting them in the vision will reduce barriers and maintain momentum.

3. Build organizational capacity for change

Management consultant, Peter Drucker, famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, Bold Strokes will have little effect if they run counter to the beliefs, values, and basic assumptions of the organization. Part of building capacity for transformative change is to consider readiness—are people feeling the need for changes and do they have the competencies needed to enact them?

For instance, during one change initiative, we were moving from departments and colleges to a flat and integrated structure. We were changing the structure to better support a new learning model. During that process, it became apparent that we needed to flatten the organization, pushing decisions to lower levels, and altering our support systems.

While flat sounded good in theory, it became clear that the organization culture valued rules and defined fairness in ways aligned with a bureaucratic structure with centralized decision making. No one felt free to make the kinds of decisions they were being asked to make. The culture valued being able to provide input—town hall style—but the sheer number of decisions, and the pace at which they needed to be made, were a constraint.

Building the comfort and competency in the area of collaboration increased our capacity for change. We invested in professional development, bringing experts to campus and also hosting semi-annual, campus-wide professional style conferences to build the skill sets we needed. These were open to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community partners.

This type of learning builds community and facilitates the kind of institutional engagement needed to sustain change over time.

4. Provide frameworks along the way

Transformation is a process—not an event. There will be many things that will be changing to bring about the vision. They’ll run simultaneously, impact one another, and have the potential to add confusion. Frameworks can be helpful. They provide structure and shared goals while allowing new ideas and approaches to emerge, freeing participants to design, act, and make decisions.

Frameworks commonly help us see what success looks like. For instance, as we looked to revise the student experience, integrating not only multiple academic disciplines, but also the co-curricular experience, we collaboratively arrived at the 3 C’s—anything we do should serve to make students more capable, connected, or contributing. Deciding what to do, and not do, got easier by framing the outcomes in this way.

Those responsible for the overall change will want to provide any givens to guide and empower the development of frameworks and the actions they support. But then step back and let those closest to the activity make the magic happen!

5. Mitigating risk & avoiding roadblocks

People’s reactions to change vary. One change model repurposes the Kubler-Ross stages of grief to create a response to change the curve.[1] As we transform, we gain a new way of being, but first we have to let go of the old ways. During change, people may experience denial and anger. Recognizing and legitimizing the perception of loss can help people move forward.

Another model borrows from Everett Rogers’ Theory of Innovation to explain engagement or resistance to change. One such model is offered by the Gateshead Council in the UK. While I don’t know the science behind the percentages, the model still provides a useful framework for leading change.

5% of people will lead the change (Champions; they’ll take it forward for you)

20% will get involved at the first opportunity (Early adopters; they need some guidance, but they’re all in)

50% will wait and see what happens (they’ll go with you, but you’ll need to tell them why and convince them of the benefits)

20% will get involved when there is no other option (this group will come along when they are resigned that the change is happening—with or without them)

5% will never change (these are your cynics and a group that be influential on your wait and see group as well as your resignation group—that could be up to 70% of your organization—so you need to be providing the answers and frameworks the others need)

The strongest influence on your base is likely other members of the base. Most of us experience our organizations through our immediate supervisor and our peers. The more you can help the middle 50%, and their managers, the more likely you are to energize the kind of change—to culture and operations—needed to transform.

The previous 4 steps—provide a compelling vision, take an agile approach, build organizational capacity for change, and provide frameworks along the way—should help. Sharing information at the moment it’s actionable will also help. Conducting listening sessions reduces ambiguity, fosters feelings of support, and facilitates engagement.

Recognize—not everyone is going to make the journey with you. Respect that and help them find their next opportunity. Celebrate them; don’t let them hold you or the change initiative hostage.

6. Advice for individuals attempting to lead change

Don’t try to lead, if you don’t yet believe. If you need to step aside to let others lead, do so. Don’t give up, but you must do the work to understand the need for change and embrace the vision before you can help others. I see this as akin to putting your own oxygen mask on first.

Shared vision and culture changes happen one cup of coffee at a time. Meet people where they are and bring them to where they need to be.

Trust that everyone is doing their best. We may need to dig deeper to help them do better.

Don’t let uncertainty—or not knowing all the answers—stop you. As George Patton once suggested, a good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed when it’s too late.

Be curious—when you are faced with a directive, decision, or request, contemplate how they got there; what’s driving their thinking; and how can I help? If you come from a place of curiosity, it opens pathways to meaningful and potentially influential conversation.

Don’t let constraints become an excuse for not acting. Voltaire posited that perfectionism is the enemy of good. During transformation, we must try or risk irrelevance. Good is good enough to warrant a try. “Yes, but”—doesn’t move us forward. “Yes, and” does. This is one of the cardinal rules of improvisation—and as it turns out—it’s a cardinal rule of change as well. You must collaborate to make the scene work.

Don’t let the constraints overwhelm you; ask for help. The collective mind can find solutions.

When assigned to a leadership role, it’s best to guide from the side. Unless everyone owns the change, it won’t last. Just like that crash diet, we’ll revert back to old habits and likely be worse off for it.


Yes, change is hard, but in the immortal words for Woody Hayes, “anything easy, ain’t worth a damn.” The future depends on us—our students and society depend on us. The world is changing at breakneck speed and we are uniquely positioned to make a difference—no matter what our role. We can help our organizations transform to meet the needs of those we serve. It just takes bold strokes and emerging strides.


Leave a Reply