Developing the right capability to lead and manage change

Universities are emerging from the pause on transformation enforced by the pandemic with a sense of real desire to make major, sustainable change happen. Change and improvement teams that have spent most of the past two years acting as a vital point of coordination for ongoing emergency response (including plenty of short-term innovation) are now being tasked by university leaders with pressing ahead with the job of delivering on longer-term strategic ambitions. It’s an important moment to reflect on what kind of capability universities need and benefit from in order to make change happen and make it stick.

Capacity counts

It may seem an obvious point, but large-scale change requires commensurate capacity. Whether transforming the student experience or making a step change in digital infrastructure, the complexity and emphasis of the typical change programme means that an institution just won’t succeed if hoping to get by with a skeleton crew.

In this context, it is really surprising that change capacity at universities varies as much as it does. Data from the UniForum benchmarking programme shows that universities in the UK and Canada have, on average, half as much capacity devoted to transformation (as a ratio of total professional staff) as do universities in Australia and New Zealand.

Part of the explanation for this is likely historic – universities in Australia have much-longer faced competitive pressures and needed a more customer-oriented, efficient set of services. How can universities in Canada and the UK make the case for higher levels of investment in dedicated change capacity?

Specialised but not isolated

Pure heft is one factor for sure, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Another key driver of success in such a specialised activity as change and transformation is the ability to devote a decent proportion of one’s time to this work. And here again the benchmarking data suggest levels of specialisation vary widely: with some change teams made up almost entirely of specialists whilst others making do with up to two-fifths of staff who spend as little as 10% of their time on the transformation work.

At the same time having a major focus on change shouldn’t come at the expense of isolation away from the service teams responsible for day-in day-out delivery. Best practice from some of the leading UniForum member universities points strongly towards a democratising emphasis: with change specialists clearly focusing on training, developing tools and templated approaches and putting data in the hands of those closest to the needs of service users, rather than trying to ‘take over’.

Making change sustainable

The final headline consideration in terms of having the right overall capability to lead and manage sustainable change is around making it stick, and a natural part of ‘how things are done around here’ rather than being time-limited or a special initiative. In this regard a number of key factors stand out:

  • Having the consistent, visible backing of senior university leaders – there’s nothing more dispiriting for a change team than doing the hard graft only to see difficult but necessary decisions shied-away from
  • Creating a culture of continuous improvement – the teams that have actively fostered a sense of permission to innovate, learn together and be allowed to fail with the support of managers and fit-for-purpose systems are the ones that thrive over time
  • Routinising the process of change – sustainable change is, by its nature, something that needs to happen again and again, and to reflect this the most successful change-oriented institutions have templated the pattern and steps involved in diagnosis through to implementation

Having enough change capability, with sufficient levels of specialisation and a focus on embedded change processes are all key overall, but it’s far from the full picture. We’d love to hear from you about your own experiences of delivering change in universities: please get in touch via