Simplifying Change in Higher Ed

In the not so distant past, I was responsible for online education within a traditional brick-and-mortar university. I would often joke with my staff that we weren’t really doing our jobs if the rest of the university – the brick and mortar – didn’t find us irritating from time to time. If you are truly meeting the unique needs of online students, you’re going to have to occasionally make the rest of the university bend in new and uncomfortable ways. The organizational structures and processes of colleges were long ago set up to serve the needs of classroom education; changing this embedded model is no small feat.

Of course, change is difficult in all kinds of organizations. This explains why a substantial industry of consultants, authors and assorted gurus exist to help organizations make changes more quickly and less painfully. Humans can be remarkably resistant to change. As Alan Deutschman pointed out in Change or Die, even recently recovered heart patients return to diets of cigarettes and Big Macs. Nevertheless, the current economic, technological and social conditions make the ability to change more important than ever.

From the vast literature on organizational change, one book stands out for me: Switch by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. It relies heavily on research conducted in multiple disciplines, yet it presents the findings in ways that are easy for us to pick up and make our own.

More importantly, the strategies presented in Switch seem especially well-suited to the unique conditions of higher education. Many books on change rely on charismatic leadership; others stress the importance of creating a sense of urgency – “burning the bridge” once you’ve decide to cross it and so forth. But in higher education the role of leaders in stimulating change is severely limited by the highly decentralized structure of the institutions. And it is very hard to create a sense of urgency in a sector that has seen growth decade after decade, and in which job security is relatively high.

Switch offers a different approach; one that is grounded in a deep understanding of how people actually change their behaviours. It’s a practical, methodical approach. The Heath brothers break it down into three overlapping concepts:

“Direct the rider”. Be crystal clear of what you are asking people to do differently. If you are trying to change people’s eating habits, don’t tell them to “make better food choices”. Tell them exactly which product to buy.

“Motivate the elephant.” Change takes a great deal of energy and focus, and these are limited resources. Therefore, we need to (a) stimulate the desire to change by appealing to the person’s emotions (“the elephant”) and limit the amount of change we are asking for. Divide big changes into small, incremental steps so as  to not exhaust their capacity for change.

“Shape the path.” There is a tendency in Western cultures to think of change solely as the result of “thinking differently”.That is, we change because we think we should change. And, of course, this is part of the story. But change often stems from changed circumstances. We tend to eat less cookies when there are less cookies in the house, not simply because we think we should eat less cookies. The task, then, is to structure the environment to meet our change objectives. If, for example, we want our team to share information with each other more liberally, then we may want to reorganize the office space so that they bump into one another more often.

You can download the first chapter from Switch for free by visiting the Heath brothers site.

Post by Group Founder, Keith Hampson

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5 responses to “Simplifying Change in Higher Ed

  1. Hi, Keith

    Have you read Nudge (2008) by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein? In this book, the authors use a “libertarian paternalistic” frame and “choice architecture” as a method to work through resistance and create change, whether it’s personal, social, or organization change. In the most basic terms, the authors are suggesting that people need freedom to make decisions but also sometimes need guidance, so create choices so that people pick the “best” option. I hope the authors aren’t reading this because that’s a really broad interpretation. :-)

    I have read both Nudge and Switch. I think both schools of thought have a place in higher education and change management. Which school of thought one chooses depends on organizational context right down to individual people.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Thought I would share.
    Andy Howe

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