Leading Change From the Middle

Ja'Wanda S. Grant provides advice for dealing with brick walls, passing the baton and surviving system crashes.

April 24, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Runeer

Leading change can be draining, especially when you are on the front lines. If you think about organizational change using the tug-of-war concept, imagine that one team pulls toward change and the other team completely resists change. Imagine the tension in the middle. This is where you find most middle managers and administrators like me.

Although I am not currently in a senior role where institutional vision is established, I do support the implementation of strategic plan initiatives, which often implies some level of change. A classic physics homework problem is to calculate the tension at the middle of the tug-of-war rope. I'm a bit rusty on the physics, but the idea of tension in the rope as a force that causes strain or stretching is where I want to draw your attention. Being in the middle allows you to see and hear both sides.

What follows are a few lessons I have learned leading change from the middle through a great deal of listening and slowing down.

Doors in Brick Walls

When colleagues discuss the challenges encountered when managing change, a common expression I hear is “I ran into a brick wall.” That usually means we went full speed ahead with some idea or plan and then confronted “walls” -- that is, silos, organizational politics or other resisting forces. You can try to run faster, or pole-vault over, but you will likely find that a wall is a wall is a wall. Since we are not invincible, penetrating walls is impossible.

What do you do? If you have the power, you just blast the whole thing down. When you don’t necessarily have this power, you must create doors.

The wall is there for a reason. Take some time to gather historical intelligence on why a particular wall exists. Are the builders still around? Was it built in self-defense? Have other people tried to penetrate the wall in the past? If so, what was the outcome?

The answers to these types of questions will give more grounding to your next steps. Without some foundational context, you don’t really have a fair chance for success. Remember, it took time to build the wall, so it will take time to create the door.

I suggest building a revolving door, which requires space to listen to the needs, fears, concerns and goals of those on the other side. We need to look for places of intersection to see how our efforts can support theirs. I do this by offering resources that meet mutual goals in a low-risk endeavor.

An example would be when I was tasked to centralize academic support in a new center. Some departments had their own tutoring structures and staff, and I spent a little time meeting with the chairs to understand what they did, how they selected students, what the scheduling options were and how they measured success. One low-risk solution was to invite department tutors to use our center for office hours. Another solution involved inviting departmental tutors to attend our annual tutor training.

Both solutions met my goal to centralize resources while also creating standardized tutor training, which ultimately supported our tracking and evaluation efforts. These solutions also met the department's needs by allowing them to select the tutors, providing the training they did not have time to manage and establishing metrics to inform future efforts.

In general, I do my best to capture both qualitative and quantitative data as well as making time to gather reflections on the process from both sides. After a round or two of this, a small hole in the wall becomes a revolving door.

The Writing on the Wall

If you are like me, you mostly embrace change, because it allows you to stretch your creative and innovative muscles. We see the task at hand, and we can be laser focused on the target. When change makers meet roadblocks (or brick walls), we want to run around them or jump over them.

But we should take a moment to read the writing on the wall. The wall here represents a sign and not just a barrier. In my lightning-speed race to change in the past, I have missed these signs.

For instance, I once inherited the role of principal investigator in a new position, just in time to submit a proposal revision. I had only been in the position for a month, and the revised proposal was due in a few weeks. I generally lead with a student-centric mission, aiming to include students in program design where possible, as well as providing opportunities for student professional development. I decided to include an option for student-initiated research proposals in a process that had only been available to faculty.

I sent the call to students and received one submission. My interpretation was that students were not taking the initiative because it was easier to join a project written by a faculty member. After reflection and a couple of key conversations with colleagues, I realized that the call for proposals could have been more effective if I’d asked faculty members to identify students who would be capable of submissions at this level. The writing on the wall was that faculty members had been the drivers of these proposals in the past, and I needed them to help with this cultural shift to include students.

The writing on the wall could be another common signal that others have made similar efforts in the past and failed. I am not saying to give up based on others’ prior failures, but instead, study their approaches, outcomes and lessons learned. If they solidly evaluated those efforts, those data can inform your strategy. If there was no evaluation, gather input from stakeholders to co-create a modified plan. The challenge with this process is that few people like to acknowledge error or holes in their strategy. Taking the time to listen genuinely to predecessors or those who participated in past efforts should help ease some of the tension around repeated attempts.

Passing the Baton

The race toward sustainable change is a relay. A common misstep in change management is racing toward the change -- or the finish line -- as a solo runner. The solo race leads to temporary change, possibly with little or no buy-in, and the solo runner is the controlling variable. Without this runner, there is no race -- which means no progress.

I approach most of my work with a succession plan: in acknowledgment of the inevitable nature of change in life and organizations, I try to create processes and maps that other people can follow if I am not around. That could be as simple as being out for work travel or a more significant transition to a completely different role, whether internal or external to the institution.

In the relay race, each runner has a leg or distance in which they give it all they have, and then they pass the baton to the next runner. First, you must determine your lane. Each team or runner is usually assigned a lane, and the rule of the race is to stay in that lane. When you are eager to get to the finish line, you may inadvertently veer into another lane. For the sake of the lesson here, let’s agree that when someone gets in the wrong lane, they don’t have bad intention. I’ve done that, too. I want to see the success of the project or idea, and in my excitement, I start doing work or making plans that belong in someone else’s lane.

To correct this, I have taken a step back and asked explicit questions around roles and responsibilities on the project. This made me acknowledge where I may have gotten ahead of the baton and shift back to my lane.

For example, I inherited an event in a new role and initially was completely lost and did not know where to begin. It was a collaborative effort with another unit, but I wasn’t clear on my role. Given the timeline, I began making plans and pulling together what seemed to be a solid plan.

But then I stopped and reviewed old emails and realized I may have taken on more responsibility than was necessary. So I made a phone call and asked, “What exactly do I need to do for this event?” I got the clarity I needed, stepped back over into my lane and eventually passed the baton when my part was completed. It was that simple.

A healthy team has members who all know their positions and who also know how and when to let go. To pass the baton signifies that you trust that your teammate will continue the work you started. I acknowledge that all teams are not always cohesive, but this is where the coach is responsible. When you are the coach and you see the baton dropping or team dysfunction, you must address those issues. When you are not the coach, your primary energy should focus on your leg of the race and staying in your lane.

If you are passing the baton to someone who is dropping it, I suggest taking a pause to chat with the teammate. The primary goal here is exploratory and not accusatory -- showing the teammate that you want the team to succeed starts by finding out what that teammate needs to do. Of course, creating sustainable change is far more complex, but these are a few points to consider as you relay race toward it.

Refresh Screen. Force Quit.

I have been told that I have some weird magnetic field that provokes mayhem in electronic devices. That has involved computer screens going black, monitors making strange and mysterious noises, or systems crashing, never to be restored. It seems that my magnetism has changed in recent years, as I have not had any major electronic catastrophes. But I have made up for it with a bad habit of leaving devices on with multiple applications or windows open.

On my computer, for example, I may have to refresh the screen to reconnect. This works most of the time. But on occasion, the system gets overwhelmed (which probably has a technical term), and refresh doesn’t work. The only resort at that stage is to force quit. Thankfully, my computer usually recovers documents and browsers that were open prior to this forced change, but the major risk is that all that is not saved or backed up would be lost.

As I stated in the beginning, leading change on the front lines can be draining. Just as the computer gets stuck on a screen at times, so do we, as we sometimes have too many variables working against our processes. Without an occasional “refresh screen,” we do reach a point of no return, which on the Mac is the spinning rainbow wheel, and the only resort is to force quit. Ideally, we schedule time to just shut the computer down completely.

I know I need to shut down when I’ve been thinking deep and hard about something and I am starting to get frustrated, confused or stuck. I then revisit written strategic plans when I find myself questioning my direction with a project or idea. That reminds me what the priorities should be as well as the objectives or aims. I have a great group of colleagues I can count on for grounded perspectives on ideas or issues I am grappling with. I also take breaks that include moments of deep breathing to center my mind, listening to spiritual and inspirational podcasts or audiobooks, taking walks, and having tea or snacks with students and other guests in our lounge.

I will admit that I have experienced burnout a few times as a change leader. As counterintuitive as it sounds, one of my biggest lessons has been the importance of strategic breaks to refuel and refresh for the next leg of the relay.

Bio

Ja’Wanda S. Grant is special assistant to the provost for scholar development and institutional alliances at Xavier University of Louisiana and has held faculty and administration positions at various other public, private and for-profit institutions. A 2017 HERS Institute graduate, she served as an associate director for the LUCE Program at the HERS Institute in June 2018. For more information on HERS, visit HERSNetwork.org.

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