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A Workshop to Develop Change Agents in Higher Education

There have been many calls for change in higher education.  Successfully implementing change – especially broad change – requires faculty and administrators to develop new competencies.  Our ‘Making Academic Change Happen’ (MACH) workshop was created to bring research-based change strategies and skills to higher education faculty and administrators.

The workshop begins by helping participants understand themselves, exploring their personalities and communication style preferences.  Next, participants focus on cultivating a community of colleagues, considering their proposed change project from multiple points of view and practicing communication techniques to build support and teams.  Finally, participants think at the institutional level, identifying sources of support and resistance, planning partnerships, and creating action plans for moving their change project forward.  Throughout the workshop, participants repeatedly consider how their change project aligns with the culture(s) at their institution, choosing change strategies that are most likely to be successful in their particular situation.  The workshop is very active.  Participants spend the majority of their time working on exercises that allow them to immediately practice the concepts or skills presented, applying the material to their own unique circumstances and change project, and receiving immediate feedback from facilitators and peers.

We have now conducted the full workshop four times (as well as additional reduced sessions for various audiences), and used formative and summative assessments for continuous quality improvement.  Participants reported that the workshop enhanced both their confidence and their capability to identify and overcome potential barriers to change.  Participants also reported implementing the action plans developed at the workshop.  Interviews with workshop alumni demonstrated that these individuals had adopted the change agent mindset promoted at the workshop and recommended in the literature.  These results indicate that the workshop is successfully disseminating skills and practices that can be adopted at a variety of institutions, enabling leadership and change in higher education.



MACH workshops facilitate broad change in higher education by helping faculty and administrators become effective change agents within and across their institutional cultures.

Impact and Expansion Potential

Who benefits from MACH workshops?

  • MACH alumni, by acquiring new skills.
  • Collaborating colleagues, when MACH alumni use skills to effectively promote change projects.
  • Students, when MACH alumni successfully implement, assess, and continuously improve change projects.

MACH workshops have reached roughly 75 faculty/administrators to date.  We are currently expanding our roster of facilitators, and have discussed developing a training program that would certify external individuals to conduct MACH curricula on their own campuses.

We recently received a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to deliver MACH workshops to recipients of “Revolutionizing Engineering Departments” National Science Foundation grants.  As a result, we will be supporting disruptive change in engineering education at pioneering institutions across the United States.  We hope that our upcoming Malaysia (AKEPT) MACH offering will open doors to more global partnerships.

Fundamental Principles

1. Change strategies should align with an institution’s culture.
  • Change projects are more likely to be successful when aligned with culture.
  • Participants complete targeted reflections, explorations, and group exercises to situate their project in their institution’s culture(s) and learn from others.
2. Change agents should use multiframe thinking to anticipate resistance and cultivate partnerships.
  • Deliberately viewing organizations through structural, political, human resources, and symbolic frames is a proven leadership strategy.
  • Participants map their project onto these frames, identifying barriers and strategies for overcoming barriers.
3. Change agents should be prepared to communicate with multiple constituencies in multiple ways.
  • Participants practice communicating about their project persuasively, to gain support, and in a respectful, deflective manner, to minimize opposition.
  • Participants also work on ‘elevator pitches,’ identifying pain points, core actions needed, desired effects on stakeholders, and milestones of success.
4. As with most things, practice is key to learning.
  • Participants apply the change strategies/skills that are presented to their specific project through reflection, small-group work, discussion, and active role-playing.
  • Participants receive immediate feedback from facilitators and peers, developing a community of practice.

The Power of Practice

No one likes to get caught without a response in a challenging situation. Change agents know challenging situations are coming. One strategy for managing these scenarios is to practice ahead of known events. Practicing is supported by conversational models. Many conversation models exist; the trick is knowing how to deploy and practicing in advance.

A typical exchange might be…

Angry Colleague: Serious attack that contains no specific points but predicts disaster.
Change Agent: Neutral response.
Angry Colleague: Escalating attack that makes further dire claims.
Change Agent: Heated response.
Angry Colleague: Character assassination.
Other Colleague: Calming and embarrassed intervention.

A positive conversational model might be…

Angry Colleague: Serious attack that contains no specific points but predicts disaster.
Change Agent: Acknowledgement and invitation to discuss in private.
Angry Colleague: Escalating attack that makes further dire claims.
Change Agent: Repeated acknowledgement, invitation to discuss in private, and close to further discussion.

With actual words, this conversation might be…

Angry Colleague: Your project contains so many flaws it is doomed to failure, and is going to take down this program with it.
Change Agent: Wow, perhaps you are seeing things I don’t see. I hope we can discuss your concerns privately soon.
Angry Colleague: I don’t think you understand. The Board of this institution is going to fire us all if we go forward with your plan.
Change Agent: I can tell you have strong feelings about this project. Let’s plan to review those in private when I can give you my full attention. I will make an appointment with you after the meeting. Right now, I’d like to move on to the next point of discussion.

Thinking through and ultimately practicing such scenarios takes the emotion out of potentially charged exchanges. Change agents will regularly be having such exchanges. Developing this skill serves change agents well. It allows one to use what Meggin McIntosh calls the “pass the salt” voice (that completely neutral tone that implies neither support nor opposition) in the most challenging situations.

Some resources for guiding your responses include the Perfect Phrases series, Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, and Conversation Tactics. Final note: practice includes saying the words out loud. Change agents have to hear themselves say these phrases to deploy them effectively.

When to Seek An Outside Perspective

Change agents are individuals who see a need and take action to meet that need. They are also individuals who appreciate the perspective of dispassionate observers. But, when to request outside perspectives isn’t always clear – keeping in mind that the majority of the change agent’s work is deep inside the project, it is hard to remember to step aside and take the long view. Consider the signals below as indicators that another perspective might be beneficial for revealing simmering challenges.

  1. Meetings are vaguely unsatisfying, even if “the work” gets done. Conflicts can smolder, interpersonal dissonance can be subtle, and disagreement with the strategic direction can lie just below the surface. There’s something tickling the back of the brain, but it isn’t quite clear what it is
  2. Team members miss low stakes deadlines. Moving the project forward via the day to day activities is critical for success. If the minor commitments aren’t being accomplished, change agents might work to resolve the immediate issue without considering why.
  3. Team members volunteer for outside projects. Time is finite, despite beliefs to the contrary. Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism notes that the word “priority” didn’t have a plural form until the 20th century. Volunteering suggests greater interest in a different opportunity. Why?
  4. The change agent is getting a lot of “no”. The immediate supervisor says no to a minor request, the dean says no to an equipment purchase, the administrative assistant says no to providing help. The string of “no” might indicate a change in institutional priority, an ineffective request strategy, or something else entirely (think hurt feelings – yes feelings exist in academia too!).
  5. The philosophy transitions to “we got this”. High confidence in future performance based on past performance is a positive feature of teams, but transitioning this confidence to reduced preparation or planning is problematic.

Change agents often are insightful and perceptive professionals. However, this insight isn’t always so clear when applied to oneself. The prompting questions of a dispassionate observer may cause the revelation that turns things around.