Case #2:  Creating a Climate for Change in Higher Ed

A small college was struggling with implementing their strategic plan effectively.  From our assessment, a fairly decent (but not great) high level plan had been developed, however; a year later the colleges administrators had been unsuccessful at meeting any of their targets.  The college’s President decided to host a all-day strategy retreat over the summer with all 125 of its employees in order to re-set efforts and solve for their key strategic issues which were published into their formal plan.  Our consultants were engaged and were asked to facilitate the retreat.

In our first meeting with the college’s President and his Provost, we reviewed their existing plan and asked a series of questions to gain insight into why they’ve failed to execute their plan.  A few key things stuck out.  First, the plan that was developed focused on 7 key areas (what we call Blue Chips) which is far too many.  If nothing else, the bandwidth of their leadership team would be stretched so thin that making significant headway on any one area would be difficult.  Second, the plan was developed, but with no real set of detailed initiatives to solve for them.  Third, the plan didn’t lay out any ownership of who was accountable for driving these efforts.  And finally and quite possibly most critical to the success of implementing their strategy was that it became clear that employees of the college hadn’t been a part of the crafting of the plan and there wasn’t a sense of urgency or climate for change to take place.

The end result of that first meeting was a challenge to reduce the number of focus areas (Blue Chips) from 7 to 3-5 in order to ensure that adequate bandwidth existed in the organization to execute on the most critical of those areas.  Second, we identified that a key part of the retreat needed to be in gaining buy-in on those focus areas, but also giving the employees a voice and ownership in determining how to best solve for them.  And third, since they already have some semblance of a strategic plan, the focus isn’t as much on strategic planning as it is on creating a climate for change so the plan can be executed.  John Kotter, a Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Business School and the world’s leading expert on change believes that in order to implement change (and strategy is all about change) to be effective, you first must have a climate where change can take place.  This includes creating a sense of urgency, creating a powerful coalition of people to drive change, and creating a vision that is compelling and that can create the momentum needed to execute.   This retreat needs to lay the ground work where a climate can be developed before change can be enabled and implemented.

The retreat started with the President of the college articulating the current landscape and challenges that exist in higher education and for the college specifically.  He articulated the consequences of doing nothing and why the time to act is now.  The college’s Vice President of Finance articulated the same in financial terms and other key leaders provided perspective to help gain support from various factions of the college (e.g. faculty, administrators).  This helped to create a sense of restlessness and to help the college’s staff understand and buy into the focus areas and why they are critical and must be addressed.  The remainder of the day consisted of our consultants leading a session on change and why we resist change and what to expect throughout the process of implementing strategy which helped to set expectations and also served as an “unfreezing session”, recognizing that we all have resistance to change consciously or otherwise and that its normal and what can we do individually to unfreeze ourselves.  Having started to create a sense of urgency, having some presentation from the college’s guiding coalition, we then framed up the vision and a call to action.  The remainder of the day consisted of the college’s 125 employees breaking off into 17 groups presented with a focus area or Blue Chip and asked to identify initiatives that could be implemented to solve for it.  Those initiatives were later consolidated and voted on by staff in order to create an action plan of what the college’s staff believed would be the most impactful and of the highest priority.  Later that action plan was further developed with timelines and an accountable owner for each (which was not necessarily an administrator) who would be driving that initiative and this was all incorporated into the revised strategic plan, but prior to the end of the session, we asked each employee to sign their name to at least one initiative.  This helped to not only create committees of employees to help drive these initiatives rather than the work resting on the administration, but it also created a sense of ownership and investment for the entire college community to help realize and execute their strategy.

Ultimately, this effort led to a revised strategic plan which was more focused and realistic, but created an environment where the changes needed to be successful could actually take place.

The Takeaway:  Creating a strategic plan is the easy part and it’s really easy if you don’t take the time to craft a plan that is focused and well researched.  The hard part comes in executing strategy and in order to do so, an organization needs to create a climate where change can take place.  Otherwise, it’s like pushing against the tide and putting too much strain on a small number of people only to achieve few results.  Effectively implementing strategy requires the organization to come together.  That’s why it’s called organizational strategy and not the leaderships strategy.