8 Ways to Read ‘Leading Change’ as a Higher Ed Book

Seeing academic transformation through a learning / edtech lens.

March 27, 2016

Leading Change by John P. Kotter

First published in 1996. Audiobook, (how I read the book), published in 2012.

There are two big conversations going on in higher education - conversations that are largely separate, distinct, and siloed from each other.

The first conversation is about non-incremental postsecondary organizational change and institutional transformation.

The second conversation is about learning, learning design, and the potential of technology to transform education.

These two conversations, and the people having them, seldom merge. Why is that?

My hope in recommending Kotter’s Leading Change is that we can agree on a common text, and a shared framework, for a learning design / edtech informed discussion of postsecondary organizational change.

My sense is that if you asked any student of organizational change that Leading Change would make their short list of important books.  What other books are on that list?

It worries me that as someone who spends most of their time thinking about academic transformation through a learning lens, that I had never read this book.

My suspicion is that learning people spend too much time debating constructivist theory and Bloom’s Taxonomy, and too little time learning about organizational change.

Kotter puts forth an 8 step process for leading organizational change.  How would you apply each of these steps (using a learning / edtech lens) to academic transformation?

Step 1 - Establish A Sense of Urgency:

Our colleges and universities will not change unless there exists a shared belief on campus that change must happen.

What are the drivers of change at your school?

Are the big challenges around learning quality or long-term financial sustainability? 

Is the need for change driven by competitive forces that are challenging your institutions preeminence in core functions of teaching or research?

Or is a change agenda coming from those educators on campus, such as contingent, part-time, and non-tenure track faculty, that are marginalized by the current employment practices?

What is the outcome, operation, practice, structure, or service at your school that might generate a sense of urgency for change?

Step 2 - Create A Powerful Guiding Coalition:

Kotter makes the point that organizational change efforts fail when they are championed by too few people.  Change initiatives that are viewed as only top-down will stall, as there are limits to how much top leadership can influence day-to-day practices.

In the higher ed space, change coalitions must be as inclusive as possible.  The distributed nature of academic operations, as well traditions of shared governance, require that a broad group of campus actors buy into and then implement any change initiatives.

Who do you believe must be included on any organizational change guiding coalition?

How can investing time and social capital in organizational change be aligned with career incentives?

How can learning and edtech people get themselves a seat, or even lead, these guiding coalitions?

Step 3 - Create A Vision:

The vision aspect of organizational change seems to be where learning people can have a big impact.  Our learning community loves to think about the future.  We envision a time when challenges around access, costs, and quality are addressed by new methods, technologies, and organizational structures.

Academics (both faculty and non-faculty educators) working at the intersection of learning and technology are particularly enamored with the future.  We read lots of science fiction.  

We also think a great deal about the history of higher education, and we try to have a strong grounding in the economic, political, and sociological foundations of our industry.

Has the learning and learning technology community done enough to put forth a clear and compelling vision for the future of higher education?

Step 4 - Communicate the Vision:

Effective communication is the most important aspect of any university transformation - and also the place where learning / technology professionals usually fall short.

Kotter argues that the vision behind most organizational change initiatives gets under-communicated by a factor of ten.  In other words, if the transformation is actually going to be successful, that communications around the changes needs to be improved by tenfold.

This seems about right to me.  I think that I’m about 10 percent as effective at internal campus communications as I need to be.

It is extraordinarily difficult to communicate effectively in a higher education environment.  Faculty, staff, students, and alums are saturated with messages.  Constant communications streams, from e-mails to posters to events to websites, are constantly aimed towards members of the campus community.

Any learning person hoping to drive campus change efforts must get better at communications.

Maybe we should be spending less time learning about how people learn, as well as less time talking about the latest technologies and digital platforms, and more time learning about effective communication practices.

Step 5 - Empower Others to Act on the Vision:

Kotter’s conclusion is that most organizations are over managed and under-led.  This observation would seem to apply well to higher education.

Every organizational change book that I read is skeptical about the usefulness of middle management.  Kotter favors organizational structures that are lean, flexible, and that push decision making authority out to the edges.

Why hasn’t higher ed gotten the memo?

Rather than disappearing, hierarchies seem to be re-asserting themselves across the various units, centers, and schools of academia.  Ever more managers (and directors) manage ever fewer direct reports.

Everybody waits for direction from top leadership to make decisions.  We talk more than we act.  We play it safe, worried more about the cost of failure than the benefits of bold action.

Step 6 - Create Short-Term Wins:

How many wholesale organizational change efforts have you watched fail?  A new president, provost or dean has a big idea about a new direction for the institution.  Strategic planning groups convene.  New websites about the effort are created.  Lots of meetings ensue.  And then - the leader leaves or the external circumstances change - and things end up more or less where they started.

The way past this conundrum, according to Kotter, is to create short-term wins along the way.  Short-term wins can demonstrate the viability of the vision guiding the change.  Short-term wins can show that the investments in the change efforts are actually worth the time and resources that are being expended.

Step 7 - Don’t Declare Victory Too Soon:

Time horizons in higher ed are very long.  Many of us who have made our careers in higher education do so because we believe in the long-term mission of our institutions.

The long-term and future orientation of higher education means that change efforts are never really done.  We must constantly evolve how we run our campuses, while doing everything we can to stay true to the core values of our institution.

The fact that change is the new normal in higher ed means that we can never declare that a change effort is finished.  The postsecondary landscape will only grow more competitive, as existing and new entrants seek to displace incumbents for status, resources, and cultural impact.

Coming to terms with the fact that we will never “fix” higher education - or bring our colleges and universities to a place of abundance - will probably mean that we need to change how we think about higher ed leadership and higher ed change.

Step 8 - Anchor Changes in the Institutional Culture:

Big institutional change efforts that do not address institutional culture will fail.  The point Kotter makes in Leading Change is that cultural change efforts are the result, not the initiator, of successful organizational change.  Cultural change will come when the people in the organization see the benefits of the new methods, practices, and operations.

In the learning / learning technology world - I see the biggest cultural change coming out of an understanding of the benefits of investing resources in faculty, courses, and programs.

One of the main arguments that the learning community makes is that learning is difficult - that there are no shortcuts.  Investments in faculty, and the environments that they teach (both physical and digital), will be necessary to ensure long-term economic sustainability.

How do you think that discussions on learning and technology can integrate with discussions of academic transformation?

Where is the appropriate place on campus (or in our professional organizations) to have these discussions?

Could you imagine a book like Kotter’s Leading Change being discussed in your Center for Teaching and Learning?

What organizational change books do you think would be most relevant for our discussion of higher ed change?

What are you reading?



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