The Importance of Communication in Change Projects

The Importance of Communication in Change Projects

Sriram Mohan
Associate Professor

Communication is often an underutilized asset in academic change projects. Most change agents are enthusiastic about the project they are working on, the new vision they are casting, and the technical details they might encounter during the project. While these are valid issues for all of us to focus attention on, communicating our ideas and process beyond our immediate change team is key to success.  In fact, effective communication from the start of the project can often be the difference between success or failure in a change initiative. Successful change depends on how the outside world perceives it. When a project is announced and gets started, many people on campus—faculty, students, staff—are curious about the project, wondering how the effort will impact them.  Their desire for information is natural, since the project may require changes in the tasks they must complete for their own jobs.

My experience with change projects has shown me that change agents are quite enthusiastic about beginning their project but are averse to sharing information during the ideation phase of a project. The lack of information can be damaging. In the absence of information flowing from the change team, rumors, misleading information, and damaging inaccuracies rise to prominence. Stakeholders outside the change e team can get the wrong vision or perception of the project.  For that point on, the change team is fighting an uphill battle to make their project a reality.

The solution then is to start any new change project with a communication strategy.  An effective communication strategy can create awareness about the project early on and facilitate understanding about the project during the later stages of change implementation.  This can help persuade stakeholders, improve buy-in, and create commitment to the change idea. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has produced a roadmap for creating an effective communication strategy. This strategy identifies that “Good communication should never be an afterthought, but rather a significant part of the program’’ [1]. PMI has identified the following key ideas behind a good communication strategy:

  • Clearly communicate the change vision early
  • Outline the benefits and importance of change
  • Ensure that the leaders actively communicate throughout the change process
  • Use multiple methods and channels to communicate
  • Provide opportunities for dialogue and true representation
  • Repeat the change message often
  • Monitor and measure the effectiveness of the communication

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Retooling for the Future

Retooling for the Future

Craig Downing
Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Professor of Engineering Management

In the article The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed, authors Amit Mrig and Patrick Sanaghan observe, “The playbook of the past does not offer a sustainable path forward for all institutions.” [1] They further suggest that academic challenges are too complex and dynamic for senior-level leadership to resolve on their own.  The path forward, they argue, is characterized by multi-level, internal and external, collaboration:

“These [issues] are whole-campus challenges, and they require whole-campus solutions.  Identifying and actually implementing appropriate responses requires the engagement and participation of the whole campus.” [1]

I find this last statement both encouraging and concerning.  Seeking a whole-campus solution will require contributions from a new array of individuals, including individuals who do not consider themselves as change agents or influential.  Additionally, the array may contain individuals who are against changing the status quo.    From my perspective as a change agent on a tight-knit college campus, I am always seeking out tools that can help me persuade faculty to look at themselves from a very different perspective.

For those who have the opportunity to influence possible changes, Mrig and Sanaghan suggest we consider the adoption of a refined skill set.  More specifically, they believe leaders (agents of change) should be:

  • Anticipatory thinkers
  • Risk-tolerant and supportive of creativity and innovation
  • Effective conveners/brokers/facilitators
  • Courageous decision makers
  • Resilient and able to “bounce forward” after a crisis or setback

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Cognitive biases that impact your team performance

Cognitive biases that impact your team performance

By Eva Andrijcic
Assistant Professor
Engineering Management

Cognitive biases that impact your team’s performance

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has become the favorite of many of us who are interested in how cognitive biases impact our ability to make decisions, especially under constrained and uncertain conditions [1, 2]. According to Kahneman, cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow us to simplify our complex thought processes and come to a decision faster and with less mental investment.  Cognitive biases are the resulting effects of taking such shortcuts. It may be surprising to learn that cognitive biases are not always bad, but they often lead to poor decision making. Research has shown both laypeople and experts are prone to using them. Why do we use them, you may wonder, when many of us have been trained to carefully process data and information, clearly state and test our assumptions, and consider problems from a holistic perspective?

Kahneman (who has won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) and his collaborator Amos Tversky (now deceased; had been a psychologist) hypothesized and proved that people unconsciously employ a variety of cognitive heuristics in specific situations:

  • When they have too much information to process, or conflicting information;
  • When they lack meaning/context;
  • When they have to operate under time constraints;
  • Or because they don’t have enough mental capacity to process all information.

Consequently, humans remember “representative” examples and extremes, they generalize, make assumptions, and create patterns, all of which allows them to make decisions faster. While, from an evolutionary perspective, this ability to react fast was needed for the human species to survive, it often causes us to make sub-optimal decisions which can have significant strategic implications.

When people learn about cognitive biases, their typical response is, “Yes, I know others are prone to these biases, but I am not, or not to the same degree,” which is a bias in itself (blind spot bias). In fact, most biases occur subconsciously so people don’t even know that they are using them, unless they have been trained to notice them.

A few months ago, while teaching a professional development seminar on cognitive biases to graduate students and working professionals, I decided to illustrate the degree to which we all (even experts!) fall prey to these cognitive biases.

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When Change Means Loss

When Change Means Loss

By Julia Williams
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities

Writing for the Mind/Shift website (where the focus is on K-12 education), Katrina Schwartz takes up the issue of how school principals and administrators can help teachers and staff deal with change. In summarizing the work of psychologist Robert Evans, Schwartz suggests that change for many people isn’t about “growth or capacity-building or learning; it’s about loss.” Evans has written extensively about change, but his observations are somewhat surprising: “Resistance to change is normal and necessary . . . If you are part of some big change in your school and you aren’t expecting resistance, there’s something wrong with your plan.”

How often do we as change agents expect a positive, enthusiastic reaction to our plans for change? Working on our own or with a team, we devise a new approach, program, or initiative, and we expect others to be as excited about it as we are. Then we are surprised when we encounter initial resistance. We may dismiss the concerns of others with phrases like “They just don’t get it!,” or “They hate change!”, or “They will appreciate all of our hard work once they see the change in action!” The tendency of many change agents is to drive on, discounting this resistance, maintaining focus on the change itself and disregarding the associated interpersonal issues that surround it. In the end, the change might be in place, but the price paid by the change agents can impact any future effort.

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The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Keeping Score

The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Keeping Score

By Kay C Dee
Associate Dean for Learning & Technology

This post is the second in a two-part series on executing strategic initiatives. Read the first one here.

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors claim that “People give less than their best and finest effort if no one is keeping score — it’s just human nature” (pg 155). I may be revealing too much about myself when I confess that I had a small fit of impotent fury over this (to be honest, brief fits of impotent fury are not uncommon events for me), but the claim in question sounded like an evidence-free assertion at best, and ‘begging the question’ at worst. While constructing fierce internal philosophical arguments on the question of whether one’s best and finest efforts can be intrinsically inspired, I began to mentally challenge the assertion that people “play differently when they are keeping score” (pg. 155).

I am mildly chagrined to report that it does appear that people play differently when they are keeping score. For example, a meta-analysis by Harkin et al., published in Psychological Bulletin and freely downloadable, found that monitoring progress toward a goal promoted the attainment of that goal. Furthermore, “…monitoring progress in public and physically recording progress had larger effects on goal attainment than monitoring that was done in private and not recorded” (pg. 219).

This aligns with suggestions in The 4 Disciplines of Execution about keeping a compelling scoreboard. The authors suggest that the individuals working toward a goal should be the ones who design and use the scoreboard to record/monitor progress (instead of, for example, the person to whom these individuals report). The authors also suggest that these individuals should all be able to see the scoreboard change quickly as measures of progress change.

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Do the Right Things

Do the Right Things

By: Ella Ingram,
Associate Dean for Professional Development

This post is the first in a two-part series on executing strategic initiatives.

Change agents are faced with endless options for what to do next. Draft that strategic plan? Plan a team meeting? Read that new national report? All are important, and all are relevant to achieving the desired change, but it’s hard to decide where time is best spent. McChesney, Covey, and Huling’s Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX) gives us some guidance in answering this question. Lasting change – the kind change agents aspire to – must occur during the whirlwind, the authors’ term for the daily press of work centered on keeping the organization operational. The 4DX model addresses how to make change occur as the whirlwind continues. Although 4DX comes from the business world, it has been used successfully by academic organizations (see the 4DX website for examples).

The first discipline of 4DX is an easy one for change agents: focus on the wildly important, meaning the one strategic goal that matters more than all the others. In 4DX lingo, the Wildly Important Goal (WIG) is the outcome that everyone has bought into. Professionals driven to accomplish the hard work of change know where they are and where they want to be, what 4DX frames as “from X to Y by when” when defining the WIG. With a solid WIG in place, the second discipline – act on lead measures – is where the work of change agents really begins.

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What’s Wrong with the Status Quo?

An oft-heard claim is that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I disagree. With apologies to the physicists, in my opinion, the most powerful force in the universe is inertia. The tendency to stay on course, regardless of the direction or pace (even if zero), provides comfort and protection. Defenders of the status quo say “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” or “We’re already great!”. Those sentiments reinforce systems and their convoluted and capricious rules, conservative procedures, and complaisant improvement processes.

So, beyond that indictment, what’s wrong with the status quo?

The status quo has winners and losers that have been winners and losers for a long time. Often there’s no logical or defensible reason why certain people should be winners and others losers. It just is, and that situation is one that we shouldn’t accept. I contend that we should seek change that creates more winners and fewer losers. This change will almost necessary make former winners feel like losers even if they aren’t really losing, but that’s OK. Change-competent leaders find strategies to celebrate new winners and affirm previous winners.

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Should we “systems-think” about academic change?

Wisdom on academic change seems founded on seeing your desired shift from varying perspectives. For example, Bolman and Deal’s “Four frames,” which we use in our MACH workshops — that’s seeing a change from Political, Symbolic, Human Resource and Structural dimensions. Stopping to consider each of these points of view can generate ideas about how one’s hoped-for change will impact your organization, and ideas about what approaches are likely to be successful.

Categorizing DimensionsLeft — Participants at the 2015 MACH Workshop categorize their problems in different dimensions. What perspective will turn out to be the most productive, in guiding change?So, you may be thinking, for the most sweeping changes, perhaps the broadest possible perspectives can be useful? Well, what are those?

It turns out we have already wrestled with that question in engineering — especially on large, multi-disciplinary projects which could affect people or things that aren’t in our direct line of sight. The field of “systems engineering” is the generic name for this area of work. Systems engineers love wicked, open-ended problems which seem almost impossible to solve, and they have developed ideas and methods to deal with these. They try to see these conundrums and their alternative solutions over time, via different angles, and from the eyes of many people.
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The Paradox of Organizational Change

In her 2003 book “The Paradox of Organizational Change,” Dr. Maria Malott challenges our conventional assumptions about the nature of organizational change. Change, Malott suggests, is not something unusual, but is a constant part of what we do as members of organizations. Our organizations are always adapting, constantly in the process of blending what is new into what is established, that is, the underlying values and processes of the organization. In this way, our organizations feel stable and consistent while they are, in reality, constantly dealing with changing customers, staff, regulations, technologies, and other elements.

Dr. Maria Malott How is it possible, given that change is the “constant,” that at times change in our organizations is disruptive, appearing to be at odds with organizational culture? Malott adopts the concept of “victim blaming” to explaining this aspect of organizational behaviors. In this case, if an organizational suffers from less than optimal performance or results, there is a tendency to blame those individuals who suffer the most from a poor performing organization, as if they are the culprits. Malott argues that almost everyone in an organization is trying to do a good job, so it is the underlying system that creates successes and failures. And organizations frequently reward individuals who possess perfect track records, rather than recognizing those who try new things with the intent to move the organization forward and perhaps fail. Continue reading “The Paradox of Organizational Change”

A Workshop to Develop Change Agents in Higher Education

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.

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