Category Archives: Management & OD

Thoughts from my virtual notice board

improve the silence

It’s been two days of back-to-back meetings. Most of them have been productive and interesting, but not all. Some decisions have been taken, lots of information has been shared. Data has been pored over and questions raised. Projects have progressed – not always to the extent hoped, but they’ve moved on a little. I’m not one for talking a lot in meetings unless I have something worthwhile to contribute to the subject under discussion. In general, if I have nothing to add, I’m very happy to add nothing. It’s a function of my introverted thinking style and preference – I don’t need to think out loud and generally I’m not comfortable externalizing my thought processes. The Borges quote sits very comfortably with me, although I acknowledge that it infuriates those extroverts who work (and live!) with me. I do try to adapt my style sometimes, but I’m very happy with the silence.

achieve great thingsThe university that I work for is in the midst of a lot of change. Having spent much of the last two years working out where we want to be in the next five years, the pressure is now on to do the things that will get us there. There are some very large projects under way. A £300m plus new campus in the city centre; a £90m new library and learning commons building in the existing Clifton Campus; and new information systems to better manage student and financial data across the institution. Beneath these, there is a host of smaller initiatives running : new teaching programmes; small-scale improvements to existing buildings and facilities; process improvements to improve the service to students and academic staff.

All of this generates a significant additional workload for many of us alongside the ‘business as usual’ day job (which has to be done in addition to the sexy, project stuff). There are often days and weeks where there are simply not enough hours to get it all done, and this is where the Italian proverb comes in handy. It’s always worth remembering that a good plan well executed is always more effective than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf. Implementation done well enough is always preferable to perfect intentions.

dalai lamaAnd finally, there’s this quote from the Dalai Lama. It’s a timely and necessary reminder that however busy things get, you must always make the time to live. When busy-ness gets in the way of life, then it’s time to review what really matters and to re-focus on what’s important.




Working from home : an informal guide

In common with many people, I occasionally choose to work from home rather than going into the office. Admittedly, the distinction between home and work had become more blurred for me in the past 15 months. ‘Home’ during the week has been a University hall of residence less than 15 minutes walk from the office. Nevertheless, I do occasionally still choose to stay in my apartment and work there, and this raises some interesting questions that may have a wider resonance with the reader of this blog.

What to wear?

There is a whole world of advice available to the modern man on what to wear in the office. But there is very little on what is appropriate attire for working from home. Historically, this would not have been a problem. However, we now have Skype (other video-conferencing services are available). This is a nightmare for the home-worker. Whereas I’d prefer to be sitting there in pyjama bottoms and a T shirt, there is the outside chance that my boss will call me up on screen at any moment. It’s a kind of sartorial Russian roulette – smart casual or full-on slob?


It is beyond debate that productivity soars for those working at home compared to those working in the office. I’ve conducted extensive research with all of the people who I know who work from home occasionally, and we all agree that : “Gosh! I get so much more done when I don’t have all the – you know – interruptions of the office.” So there’s no doubt that my employer gets their full value from each hour that I spend slaving at my dining table. In fact, because my work intensity goes up, I need to take longer breaks to avoid burn-out. This presents a major headache : is it best to time your break to coincide with Homes Under the Hammer, or should you wait until Bargain Hunt? (Non-UK readers may need to substitute alternative daytime TV shows here, but I promise that the dilemma will be the same). I have now adopted a contingency approach. Thanks to the frequency with which daytime television programmes are repeated, it’s possible to take a micro-break at the start of HUTH, and then convert it into a full break if it’s one  haven’t seen before.


I’ll confess that this blog post was prompted by a tweet from a colleague who is herself working from home today. She wrote simply : “How many mince pies is acceptable when working from home? #askingforafriend”. Amongst a stream of replies from people who were ‘working’ in the office at the time (I’ve taken all their names for future reference) was my personal favourite : “They come in boxes of six for a reason”. Nothing more needs to be said. Working at high intensity all day burns enormous amounts of calories that only cake, sweets and fizzy drinks can ever hope to replenish.


In addition to the perils of Skype, home workers must also balance the demands that will be placed on them by all manner of other communications devices and routes when working from home. Instant messenger software, e-mail, landline telephone and mobile phone will all be used by resentful colleagues as a means to try to ‘catch you out’. Fortunately, the rapid expansion of free, high quality wifi in most major coffee shop chains means that – with judicious selection of your seat – it’s possible to replicate the home ambience whilst enjoying a cappuccino and slice of carrot cake (which must be kept out of view of the video camera at all costs!). Whatever you do, make sure you select the same seat each time you visit though. Trying to explain away the regular changes in your living room wallpaper will raise the suspicion that your ‘work’ from home is actually interior design!

I hope that these few words of advice will prove helpful for both novice and more experienced home-workers. And if you’re reading this while ‘working from home’, then you have my utmost respect.

You have to smile…

One of the things that I enjoy most about Twitter and Facebook are the cartoons that occasionally get shared that are painfully funny. To explain that oxymoron, they’re usually images or situations that are laugh out loud humorous, but also highlight a painful reality. For today’s post, I thought I’d share some of my recent favourites.

This one is a great example of why equality (treating everyone the same) is often less fair than equity (responding to individual needs in a way that addresses each person’s particular requirements).

This one is a reminder to myself that whingeing and complaining about how hard things might be serves no useful purpose and may even be a barrier to those who simply want to get on with the job. When there’s too much to do, you can only make progress by doing one thing at a time.

Finally for now – this one sums up so much of what I seem to spend my time doing. It’s a kind of picture definition of bureaucracy. When recording the problem on the correct form is more important than fixing the problem, then – Houston, we have a problem!

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.

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.