Category Archives: Management & OD

Time to change the way we do change?

Last week, I spend two days with colleagues from universities across the UK in similar operational management roles, reflecting on the key challenges facing us and the options for addressing those challenges. During the first session of the meeting, we heard about the range of things currently impacting on universities in the UK : the impact of the ‘market’ for undergraduate students that has been brought into starker relief by the removal of the cap on student numbers for the vast majority of programmes, and the removal of central funding support replaced entirely by student fee income; Brexit, and the impact on recruitment of students from the EU and internationally; Brexit, and the impact on staff recruitment and retention; the US presidential election outcome; the emergence of new players in the UK HE sector, adopting an aggressively market-driven approach to student recruitment and fee-setting; the research excellence framework (REF) process that is next due to report in 2020/21, and the new metric on the block, the teaching excellence framework (TEF) that is already threatening to cause major upheaval and some considerable embarrassment to institutions that have hitherto enjoyed high academic reputations, but perhaps more because of their research capability than the quality of their teaching.

What was striking about these developments was the extent to which many of them have only really come to the fore in the past six months. Certainly, in the spring, nobody was really planning on the basis that the UK would be leaving the European Union, and that Donald Trump would be the nominated successor to Barack Obama as President of the United States. Of course, neither of these things has yet actually reached a conclusion, and it would be a foolish even at this stage, to be too certain that either Brexit or a Trump presidency will actually happen. Nevertheless, the mere fact that either is a possibility is not something that was being contemplated with any seriousness only half a year ago.

There was, therefore, a degree of cognitive dissonance during the second day of the meeting when we were discussing approaches to the management of change in our organisations, that seemed for the most part to be grounded in the ancien regime of horizon scanning, identifying a compelling need for change, communication and engagement strategies, unfreezing structures and processes, implementing new approaches, and then reviewing and amending the new approach before re-freezing the organisation in its new form. All this, of course, taking place over a time-frame of many months.

It seems incongruous to be tied into an organisational approach to change that takes months to plan and implement, when the world in which organisations operate can change as radically as we have seen in something less than 150 days. Change management approaches have been designed for an organisational context where strategic threats and opportunities can be calmly and rationally spotted on the horizon, and the organisation’s direction and response to them can be equally calmly and rationally planned and implemented. When change is all around and happening at a speed that requires immediate responses, long periods of consultation and planning become at best tiresome, and at worst, threaten the survival of the organisation itself.

Universities, for the most part, are large and bureaucratic (in the technical sense) organisations that tend to have highly consultative and democratic decision-making processes. They also tend to be organisationally conservative and suspicious of proposals for radical change in the way that they are run (something of a paradox given the fleetness with which new academic research areas spring up and new courses are developed). It seems inevitable that we will need to change the way that we do change if we are to respond effectively to the choppy waters that we are currently navigating. Whether that is possible in time to prevent some institutions from ending up on the rocks remains to be seen.

One possible approach would be change the focus of Strategic Change teams from project managing specific change projects, to supporting the development of a culture of change and flexibility across the whole organisation. The obsession with job descriptions, lists of tasks, and multiple job gradings, that typifies so much of HR planning and management in the HE professional services context, needs to give way to recruitment on the basis of core competences and values. An institution that is capable of responding with sufficient rapidity to the pace of change in the environment within which it is now operating needs to be able to deploy and redeploy staff quickly and effectively in response to identified opportunities without the delay that comes from long periods of consultation on changes to the minutiae of job descriptions that seek to detail to the nth degree every aspect of a particular role. In parallel with this, consideration needs to be given to reducing the number and increasing the financial boundaries of the grading structure, allowing staff to develop and progress in role and reducing the extent of the disruption that occurs as a result of the turnover and dissatisfaction that arises when somebody reaches the top of the scale after four years and can only progress further by leaving their team or (even worse) the organisation as a whole.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the pace and extent of change is accelerating. There is little sign that this is a trend that will reverse in the short to medium term. The way that we do change itself needs to change if we are to flourish into the future.

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Best job in the world just got better!

Regular readers will know that I feel really lucky to do the job that I do. I have the privilege of working with fantastic colleagues, world-leading clinicians and scientists, and I get to support some of the brightest and most enthusiastic students around. This term, I’ve taken on an additional role leading a team providing pastoral care to 500 first year students in halls of residence in Clifton and the city centre. It’s a whole new challenge and (in all probability) an absurd psychological over-reaction to the empty nest syndrome that Charlotte and I were facing up to. It’s also great fun.

Working with students, many of whom are experiencing life away from home for the first time, is hugely rewarding. And it’s humbling to see their care and concern for one another, and to feed off their enthusiasm for making their formative community as inclusive and supportive as possible.

It’s also fascinating to see the very different cultures that exist in the two halls that I have responsibility for. The city centre property is literally right in the heart of the city, and the overwhelming majority of residents there have chosen it precisely because of its proximity to the bars, clubs, theatres, and other venues that make Bristol a great place to be a student. Trying to generate enthusiasm for organised events here is difficult. There is little that we can offer at the hall level that competes with the bright lights and razzmatazz of the competing commercial offerings. But we have been able to gain some traction with relatively simple and straightforward events like a group booking for the newly opened ice rink.

At the Clifton residence, on the other hand, the students tend to be more community-oriented, planning events such as Bake-Off challenges between kitchens, film nights, and tenpin bowling. Ironically, the Clifton hall has far less ‘communal’ space than is available in the city centre residence, but this has almost spurred the students on to build the sense of community in spite of the shortage of facilities.

I was convinced that I had the best job in the world already, but the added satisfaction that comes from playing a very small role in helping our students make a successful transition into university life means that the best job has got even better!

So, what first attracted you to this position?

I’ve spent a large part of today interviewing for an administrative position in my team. Conducting interviews is, in my opinion, one of best things about being a manager. The opportunity to speak to a range of people from all sorts of different backgrounds about their knowledge, skills and experience, is a privilege that should never be taken for granted. Going through a selection process is emotionally and intellectually challenging for all candidates, and as interviewers we should never take the effort involved in putting yourself through that challenge for granted.

Today’s interviewees were generally of a very high standard, and I am left in the happy position of having two candidates to choose from for the position that I am seeking to fill. It’s too close to call at this stage, and I am going to be asking them to come in for a second interview with some colleagues to help me decide who will finally get the nod. Next week, I will also be meeting with the unsuccessful candidates to provide some feedback on things that they could potentially improve on and that will increase the impact of their performance at interviews for future roles. I see this as an essential part of the informal contract between me as the interviewer and unsuccessful candidates : they have opened themselves up to the interview process, and the least they deserve is the opportunity to discuss where they did well and where they might be able to improve in the future.

One of the things that always surprises me when doing interviews is the number of candidates who do little in the way of research into the role or organisation that they have applied for. As a matter of course, I would always recommend that applicants for a job seek to contact somebody in the recruiting team before the interview (and ideally, even before applying) to discuss with them what the role is really about (job descriptions and person specifications rarely tell the whole picture!) and what the particular issues facing the department, team or organisation are at the moment. This serves two useful purposes : firstly, it shows a level of interest in the job and organisation and a commitment to properly preparing for the application process; and secondly, it allows the candidate to tailor their application and interview responses to the real-time issues facing the recruiter. It also means that you progress your application with your eyes wide open about the organisation and the job that you’re applying for.

You wouldn’t book a holiday without checking out the brochure, reading the TripAdvisor comments, and referring to a travel guide or two. And you’ll spend much longer in work than on a typical holiday!

A little reminder of why I love my job

In many ways, this has been a pretty tough week, work-wise. There’s a lot of change going on at our University, and far too much of it seems to be focused on my Faculty. Of course, change can be exciting – creating new opportunities and allowing the opportunity to challenge accepted wisdom and find better ways of working. Sometimes, though, when you’re right in the midst of it, it can seem like a lot of hard work, and the medium term benefits can appear to be a long way over the horizon.

That’s why I try to build in diary commitments that remind me why I love my job. This afternoon, I had the privilege of visiting a large comprehensive school on the outskirts of Cardiff to do a mock interview for a seventeen year old A level student who is the only pupil in the school to have applied to study medicine this year. She was a delight, and has already received invitations to attend for interview at two medical schools in the UK. From what I’ve seen today, they would be incredibly lucky to have her, and I am sure that she will do well.

I am always humbled and amazed at the dedication, maturity, and commitment that sixth form pupils now need to display to secure a place at university. Good GCSE and A level results on their own are rarely enough. Extra-curricular activities (sport, music, drama, volunteering etc..) and ideally some form of paid or voluntary work experience are almost essential to secure an interview (let alone an offer) for a place on a popular course at a top institution.

It’s really good to be reminded occasionally that students are the reason for the job that I do, and it’s even better to get the chance to work with them directly from time to time.

There’s no “I” in team…

It’s been an inspiring day. I’ve had the privilege of listening to medical educators from Leeds, Sheffield, Keele and Cardiff sharing the exciting and innovative ways that they are helping medical students to develop the skills, knowledge, and attributes that will make them safe, effective and fit-for-purpose doctors, ready to serve their patients and help push back the boundaries of medical science and practice.

One of the key themes that’s been repeated throughout the day is the importance of team work and multi-disciplinary co-operation and respect in the modern healthcare environment. There is an enduring belief that health care is delivered by a hierarchy of practitioners, with the doctor sitting at the top. In practice, the lead person in the team will tend to change as the patient proceeds along a care pathway, with nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, pharmacists and a range of other professionals all coming to the fore at different points in the total treatment package.

It reminded me of a great poem attributed to Saxon White Kessinger called The Indispensible Man, that I hadn’t read for a long time, but which in some respects could serve as an anthem for team and interdisciplinary working in healthcare and many other settings.

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified man* in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man*.

* or woman!

An old one admittedly, but still makes me smile

I work in a fairly large University in the south west of England. In common with many institutions in the higher education sector in the UK, we are currently going through a pretty radical change process. This morning, the management team for my Faculty met together to discuss some of the ways that we could engage with our staff, students and other partners to ensure that they are aware of why the changes that we are making are necessary; and (in some ways more importantly) how they can help us to design and implement the changes that we need to make.

The discussions about engagement reminded me of the story of the change management consultant who was asked to explain the difference between involvement and commitment. “Well”, he said, after a moment’s pause for thought, “it’s like cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast”. Looking around at the puzzled faces of the management team he was supporting, he went on : “The chicken is involved, but the pig – well, he’s committed!”

Imposter Syndrome : At last I’ve found the link between me and Emma Watson!

I’ve badly neglected this blog recently. I could offer any number of platitudinous reasons seeking to explain why this has been the case. I’ve been busy in work; evenings have been taken up with family and other commitments; I’ve stepped up my refereeing commitments at weekends to make up for the long period between December and March when the weather made football impossible… All are true to a greater or lesser extent, but in fact none of them (individually or collectively) really explains why I’ve found it difficult to get back to writing contributions to post here. And then, quite by chance, I attended a workplace seminar delivered by Hugh Kearns from the University of Flinders, Australia, that probably explains much more precisely the reasons for my sudden cessation of activity here

The title of the seminar was The Imposter Syndrome, and it draws on an area of workplace psychology that Kearns has been researching for a number of years. In essence, Imposter Syndrome describes the feeling experienced by significant numbers of very successful people in all walks of life, that they are just one step away from being exposed as a complete fraud. Kearns quotes from an interview given by Emma Watson in which she describes the anxiety at the heart of the Imposter Syndrome : “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going : ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’.”

You can see the full seminar that Kearns has been delivering to academics and Faculty professional services staff at Universities all over the world on this Oregon State University recording (https://media.oregonstate.edu/media/The+Imposter+Syndrome+-+Hugh+Kearns+2014/0_g4uz2wsb). It’s important to grasp from the outset that the Imposter Syndrome is not about people who are actual frauds – who have lied on their CVs or made up qualifications in order to achieve positions that would otherwise have been denied to them. Rather, all of us are liable to experience occasions when we feel that what we have been asked to do in our lives – whether professionally, personally, or socially – is beyond us, that we simply aren’t equipped to meet the challenge, and that failure will expose us as not only being incompetent in that task, but also in everything else that we claim to be able to do

The Imposter Syndrome is what happens when our unconscious feelings (our Automatic Negative Thoughts – ANTs) overwhelm the rational, thinking parts of our being; in a professional context, it might be when we are asked to take on a new project, or in the early days of a new job following  a promotion. Typical ANTs in this context might take the form of statements such as : who do you think you are to be taking on this challenge; what qualifies you to do this; you’re going to look really silly when this all comes crashing down around you. Rationally, we know that we have been asked to take on the project, or were successful in securing the promotion, because of our track record in successfully managing similar projects before, or because we have demonstrated the necessary competence to meet the person specification and job description. However, the Imposter Syndrome leads us to ignore or distort the evidence as we allow our feelings to overcome our reason. Thus, we seek to downplay the significance of previous success by attributing it to luck, or the contribution of other people, or to the fact that we worked so hard to achieve it (“if I was really qualified to do this job, I wouldn’t have to work so hard to be good at it”)

There are typically two responses to the Imposter Syndrome -neither of which is especially helpful. The first is simply to work even harder at the task/project/activity in order to compensate for the negative feelings. “It’ll be ok if I can just make it to the next milestone, deadline, submission date, examination etc…”. The problem with this, of course, is that the feelings of relief associated with successful achievement of the short-term goal are (by definition) short-term – and Imposter anxiety soon returns. Thus, undergraduate students feel that they’ll be ok once they’ve achieved their Bachelors degree, and then their Masters, and then their Doctorate, and then their first grant programme, and so on. For professional services staff, the track might focus on successful completion of probation, and then the first promotion, and then being asked to lead a multi-team project, and so on. The problem with ‘success’ inspired by the Imposter Syndrome is that it is driven by fear of failure, and consequently, even though goals may be achieved, the emotional cost is significant, and the individual never really has an opportunity to enjoy her/his achievements

Alternatively, the Imposter Syndrome can lead to all sorts of actions that serve simply to ‘protect’ the individual from being exposed as a fraud. Thus, we might seek to self-sabotage our performance – to create reasons why we might fail, or might fall short of expectations. So – we prevaricate and procrastinate, delaying completion of tasks until we have analysed every possible alternative, and collected all possible pieces of supporting evidence, such that by the time we come to actually do something, time is so short that it’s hardly surprising that we didn’t complete it very well. Alternatively, we hide behind ‘busy-ness’, taking on far more than we can ever hope to successfully manage, never saying no, and filling the diary with meetings, briefings, updates and visits, such that the time available to actually DO anything is reduced to a vanishingly small window. Kearns claims (with some justification) that ‘being busy’ is one of the very few acceptable reasons for poor performance in western society (“I know it’s rubbish – but I’ve been so busy recently!”)

Kearns suggests two more positive and productive ways of responding to Imposter Syndrome. The first – relevant to those for whom the Syndrome is less chronic, and who are able to manage its expression in their day-to-day lives – is simply to keep on doing what you’re doing. Whilst occasionally the ANTs may prompt feelings of discomfort or anxiety, most of us will be able to recognise them for what they are, set them to one side, and carry on with our lives more or less successfully, without allowing temporary crises of confidence to significantly impact on what we can achieve

However, if you find that feelings of inadequacy, or being an imposter, are seriously impacting on your ability to function at the level that you are capable of, then you may need to engage in a more structured approach to dealing with the ANTs. It’s crucial to recognise at this stage that Feelings are not Facts. To exemplify this, how many of us have left an exam hall FEELING that it was the worst paper that we have ever sat, that we are bound to have failed, that our whole lives will be scarred by the appalling experience, only to subsequently find that in FACT, we had passed it. All those feelings of shock, pain, failure, catastrophe are part of the Automatic Negative Thoughts that tumble into our consciousness unbidden and unlooked for. We can help to manage them through the application of conscious reason – by defining the More Accurate Thoughts (MAThs) that are the logical counterpoint to ANTs. It’s highly unlikely that any individual event in our personal, professional or social lives will go so catastrophically wrong that it will erase all of the successes that preceded it. When we find ourselves being over-run by ANTs, then coolly recalling the facts and concentrating on the More Accurate Thoughts that they inform, can help us keep from responding manically (working ever harder to prove our worth), or like rabbits in the headlights (stunned into inactivity as disaster looms)

So – that’s it. My prevarication and procrastination over what to write here has been a result of fears that sooner or later I’d be exposed as a fraud, with nothing of interest to say and nothing that anybody else would want to read. My ANTs were getting in the way, but (thanks to Kearns) MAThs has saved the day!