The Leadership Traps that Stop Transformative Change in Higher Ed

Note: This is the first of two posts that summarize the presentation Sue-Anne Sweeney and I made at the Higher Learning Commission annual conference 2016 in Chicago in April 2016.  The slides for the whole presentation are available at the original post Iterating Toward Disruption: The Paradox of Becoming Agile (HLC 2016).  The thoughts are our own based upon our research and our years of change management and consulting experience in both higher ed and many other organizations.  They do not necessarily reflect those of our respective institutions. 

4483120The message is clear. Higher education needs to change. We, the leaders of higher education – and although I’m only a teaching Professor, I consider myself one of those leaders – are constantly getting the message. Sometimes it’s delivered from outside by those politicians, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and self-appointed thought leaders who say we need to be “disrupted” or “unbundled” or just “fixed”. More often the message is from inside – the realization that student loan debt is sky-rocketing, costs are difficult to control, funding sources are drying up, grades are inflating, and enrollment is declining. While the nature of the needed changes may not always be clear, one thing is clear: We need to change. And not just small changes or small additions. We need large-scale, transformative change. We need to change everything.

Virtually all colleges and universities are in the midst of major change initiatives and have been for many years. Indeed, all the accreditation pathways of the HLC now focus entirely on Continuous Quality Improvement efforts of some kind – in other words accreditation depends on successfully changing.  Yet it often seems we’re running in place. Lots of action. Lots of effort. Not necessarily a lot of successful, positive change to show for it.

Change can be frustating and challenging.

Change can be frustrating and challenging.

For higher ed leaders, trying to trigger transformative change in their institutions is often challenging and frustrating.  Hanging out in the halls at any conference with higher ed leaders one will often hear that repeated refrain that “people don’t like change”, that “they” (whoever “they” are – I suspect it’s most often faculty) are just too resistant.  Caught between a “resistive” organization that seems stuck in place and  the increasing pain and complaints posed by finances, accreditors, regulators, and boards, we leaders often find ourselves in a stressful, discouraging position.

In this presentation, we want to take a closer look at how to lead change in higher education organizations.  We apply to higher ed the lesson learned from a variety of organizations and of the research on change management of the last 20-40 years.  Yes, most of the research and ideas we bring originated in “business”, that part of society that higher ed sometimes views with suspicion. However, the ideas have been applied, demonstrated, and proven in many non-business sectors including government, non-profits, NGO’s, healthcare, volunteer open source software communities, and even education.

We split our comments into two parts. In the first part, which I will summarize in this blog post, we will diagnose the change challenge as lying within ourselves. The reasons our institutions fail to complete the transformative changes we desire lies as much within ourselves as leaders as it does within the organization. Simply put, we get caught in the traps of leadership.

Why? Why Is Transformative Change So Difficult?

Leadership. It sounds so powerful, so romantic. The word conjures images of heroes saving the day with some brilliant, daring, or inspiring action. Or perhaps we imagine generals leading the troops to victory against the odds through their brilliance and strength of character. Yet our very expectations of ourselves as “leaders” set the trap of our own undoing.

Trap #1: Unquestioned Brilliance

uqbrillcoverThis is the biggest leadership trap. This is the phenomenon former Penn State and U. Washington management professor John Austin describes in his book of the same name Unquestioned Brilliance. This is the combination of urgency and expectations that feeds on confirmation bias. We charge off to lead the organization, sometimes with their blind support, fully confident of the brilliance of our solutions and diagnoses.

As academics we are often particularly vulnerable to the unquestioned brilliance trap.  The trap depends on the expectation, both our own and that of our people about us, that we are very smart people – that we know the answers.  Since nobody rises to any level of success or prominence in higher education without having demonstrated that they are indeed very smart persons, it’s a natural for us.  Nobody rises to increasing leadership roles in higher ed, be it in administration or in faculty, by adopting a constant persona of “I don’t know..” through out their career.  Yet this skill that gets us recognized as leaders is often our very own undoing.  We start to believe the press releases in our head.

How does it work?  A typical cycle goes like this. It’s the cognitive path of least resistance.Trap meme 964556

  1. We feel an urgent need for solution.
    — People look to us for an answer partly because they think that’s our job, partly because they don’t know, and we’re eager to show why we’re the leader by providing the answer.
  2. We assert a solution based our limited experience or based on other authorities. Often these other authorities might be the funders/foundations or speakers at some conference we attended.
    —  People they expect us to know and we’re eager to prove why we’re the smart leader by giving them a solution. “here this one looks good!”
  3. Seek supporting evidence and confirmation bias sets in.  
    — We become more convinced of the rightness and brilliance of our proposals/ideas/initiatives because we collect confirming evidence. But we discount and ignore critical contrary information and data that might cause us to re-think or adjust our approach. In the interest of sounding positive and providing what we believe to be “leadership and direction” the meetings and efforts of the organization become exclusively focused on implementing this solution.  
  4. We see the organization as split into supporters and resisters.
    — Some people are eagerly following the leader’s direction and pushing for action in implementing this solution. But others, those who question the solution and want to look closer at the “problem” are marginalized and discounted as anti-change resisters. We don’t hear them.  We think we know what they’re feeling, but we’re wrong.
  5. Things stall or go awry.
    — Our solution peg turns out to have square corners and our institution’s hole has round corners. We either jam the solution in and damage either the solution or the organization, or we eventually abandon the attempt. That brings a new perception of a crisis begging for solution.
    Rinse and Repeat. 

Trap #2: Urgency

running-man-1149787_960_720We feel the need so powerfully for the change, that we feel we have to hurry. We, college leaders, are being bombarded with messages of how “unsustainable” our current models are, of how technology is going to “disrupt” our “industry”. We see enrollment declining. We see the debts being piled up by students. We see students taking entirely too long to complete. We feel either the institution or we personally are running out of time. We feel the pain.  We feel the tentativeness of our current situation. It feels as if we are running on cracked glass floor. We don’t when or how soon it might all collapse. So we run.

if-you-dont-have-time-to-do-it-right-when-will-you-have-the-time-to-do-it-over5We are again affected by our own expectations of what it means to be “leader”. This is particularly true in our Western and uniquely American culture. We believe leaders do things. Nobody ever imagines a leader in our culture as somebody who in response to a crisis says “hmm. Interesting. Let me think about this awhile and get back to you.”  No, leaders take action and they do it in a hurry. And being good leaders we want to take dramatic action. In particular we want to be seen as taking action. Being able to report that all our plans of study have been revised takes precedence over making sure that the revisions are really well-thought out. After awhile, organizations tune out. They come to see such crisis du jour action-oriented leadership for what it often is: theater.

Fundamentals have to be in place.   Doing it wrong, using ineffective process isn’t really any “faster”.  It’s just the appearance of action but without effective or positive change. It’s more theater.

In sports, where one might expect competitive dynamics to foster urgency one sees the opposite amongst champions. The winningest college basketball coach John Wooden (and countless Continuous Quality Improvement coaches ) asked “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” In my favorite sport, auto racing, two-time Formula One World Champion Graham Hill was quoted as saying the objective was to win the race at the slowest possible speed. His observation aligns with one of oldest aphorisms in racing. There are old drivers and bold drivers, but no old, bold drivers. When urgency is allowed to override following proper process and practice, the outcome usually not pretty.

Trap #3: Vision Delusion


The seriousness of the need for change and the urgency of that change causes us to describe, define, and envision larger, more dramatic change. We don’t want to tweak things and polish the edges. We want TRANSFORMATIVE change. It also appeals to our egos to be the author of a grand solution. Again, our expectations of what it is to be the “leader” come to play. We expect leaders to provide grand, inspiring vision.

Don’t get us wrong. Vision is a good thing – but only in context and when grounded. A grand vision is often necessary. If the degree of change needed is great, then the vision also needs to offer corresponding grandness. Nobody wants to plunge forward tearing up things without an idea of what or how to replace them with something better. The problem is when we focus only on the grand vision.  A grand vision of how the major parts fit together is useful. It’s necessary. The big picture is needed. It provides clarity of purpose. It also helps motivate. But the 30,000 foot level “future picture” looks like this:

HLC2016-Iterating To Disruption-Change Mgt-final

The reality on the ground is different and more complex. The big picture abstracts and glosses over critical inter-relationships, parts, processes, and details.  The reality of the organization is more like this:

HLC2016-Iterating To Disruption-Change Mgt-final2

The larger the change, the bigger the transformation, the more foreign and overwhelming it is to the organization. There are more inter-related parts or details that aren’t understood. And uncertainty can lead to fear. And fear can lead to paralysis or even resistance. It’s likely not that the people in your institution are resisting your grand vision so much as it’s more likely the uncertainty and the incompleteness of your grand vision engenders fear and concern.

Trap #4: Technical Solutionism

best-practices-bart-simpsonIn order to flesh out the large-scale vision of how the organization will be different, we feel we need to “engineer” the details, the parts.  Working out project workplans becomes a technical exercise in designing the new. We feel like we have more control. We are designing the future. The problem of change seems to be one of implementing some kind of solution – a “technical solution”.  Technical solutions are not necessarily IT data systems, although they might be. If we think the solution(s) to our problems lie primarily in adopting/implementing a new data system or tool, in creating a new policy, or in making some structural change to the organization, we are likely pursuing a technical solution. Technical solutions are the things that we  already know how to do. We apply those solutions when there is disequilibrium  (their term) in the system. For those of us in education we would call those solutions best practice.

In higher ed technical solutions abound. Attend any conference and walk the show floor. An army of vendors will gladly tell you how this data system will transform your institution into a paragon of assessment or how student retention and completion is only a different data system away. All technical solutions. Now move away from the show floor and attend the sessions, especially the keynotes. Consultants and other higher ed leaders explain exactly how what they are doing or want you to do is the way. It’s a best practice. Best practices. It sounds like the solution. Who wouldn’t want to adopt the best practice? I mean we don’t seriously want to adopt worst practices do we?  Of course not. But the language deceives. No practice stands alone. Context and the institution matter. No two institutional contexts or exigencies are the same. But it’s a trap. We think all we have to do is follow and copy what they did. Adopt the best practice. But what worked for them might not (actually likely won’t) work the same way for our institution. We aren’t them. The best practice ignores all those detailed interrelationships we talked about in the vision delusion trap. We could try to learn from the best practices – identify what nugget of new insight is there and adapt it to our institution and our students. But typically we don’t. The best practice itself becomes the magic bullet – a technical solution. We ignore the evidence that perhaps what worked at one place might be the same situation as ours (that confirmation bias in unquestioned brilliance again). We’re in a hurry (urgency) and this solution seems to provide the promise (the grand vision).

14166E_500 Ronald Heifitz (and co-author Linksey) have written and researched this problem extensively in the past 20 years. Their work has led to the concept of adaptive leadership. It’s based on understanding the difference between challenges or needed changes that can be solved with a technical solution versus the adaptive challenges that face most organizations today. Heifitz and Linskey ask:

  • Is this a problem that an expert can fix? Or is this a problem that requires people …to change their values, behavior, or attitudes? If an expert can fix it, then it’s a technical problem. If it requires people to change, then it’s an adaptive challenge.
  • Do people have to learn new ways of doing business? If so, then it’s an adaptive challenge.

Why does it matter?  Because how we go about successfully inducing change – the role of the leader – is different in each context.

technicalvsadaptive-clergy-conference-2012-presentation-by-archbishop-colin-johnson-10-728“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure … is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.” – Ronald Heifitz

The problems we face in higher education, whether you think of retention, completion, finances, new technology, or whatever are generally adaptive challenges. We have to jointly, collaboratively develop solutions with all stakeholders in a way that we produce adaptive learning.  No matter how much Silicon Valley or the philanthropic foundations want it, there is no magic bullet technical solutions or policies that will get us out of our challenges.

Trap #5: “They just…”

theyjustPushing a technical solution on an institution facing an adaptive challenge is a recipe for what appears to us to be resistance. The people in the organization itself, the staff, the faculty, and perhaps even students don’t seem to perceive the brilliance of our technical solution and grand vision. They just …. don’t get it. They just … don’t want to change.  They just…are adversarial. They just…don’t care.

That’s what we tell ourselves when the initiatives bog down. We find ourselves frustrated and saying “they just…..” They just don’t want to cooperate. They just don’t get it. They just don’t want change. That’s an indication that we don’t understand the root cause of the change problem. It’s easier to fall back on a stereotype than to do the hard investigative work of root cause analysis. It’s true that change takes an extra effort. The trick is finding out why people aren’t willing or able to invest the extra energy to make the change happen.

45c8d6428387dcb206a391d752abd9eaPeople fear what they don’t understand. Remember all those detailed relationships we glossed over with the Grand Vision? Those details which seem like “stuff down in the weeds” to those in the corner C-suite or Dean’s office are reality for the people of the organization.  It’s necessary to get into the weeds. If you don’t you’ll never know where the poisonous snakes are or whether you’re actually standing in a swamp. But your people know. Fear, and distress.  And additional effort.  It takes a lot of energy to adopt new changes and processes – at least until the new becomes old habit.  Example: when they ask you to change your password, don’t you keep re-typing the old one for a while?

To us, the leaders with the urgent Grand Vision and our beautiful technical solution (it must beautiful, it looks so good in the brochure!), we think we’re the Agents of Change. We too easily discount what our people say (after all we’re unquestionably brilliant!) and assume they are simply recalcitrant or slow. Either way we push harder. Big mistake. We can easily appear to be Angel of Death.

agent-of-changeTo overcome the apparent resistance, we need to first back off our own assumption that it’s resistance. We need to understand why people aren’t doing what we want right away. To do that, we need to respect them, listen, and ask questions. We need to borrow a practice from Continuous Quality Improvement: Ask 5 Why’s.  Why are they saying or doing that? And why again and again. We need to keep investigating what is happening, asking “why”, until we understand the underlying root cause of the reluctance to get on board.



Trap #6: Telling, Not Listening

Leader_thumbWe all acknowledge that communications is critical to successful change. But what do we really mean or do?  As leaders we too often feel that people look to us for direction.  We feel like we have to “have something to say, have a strategy, have an answer, have a solution”. So communication too often becomes one of the last tasks in the change initiative. Indeed, how can we do the communication until we know what we need to tell them?  Communication with stakeholders then comes as part of implementation which is seen as a separate activity that follows planning and design.

It’s communications, right? We’re supposed to be the knowledgeable leader with the answers, right? So we wait till late in the project to begin to “communicate” TO the faculty, TO the staff, TO the students, what the changes are. But sending a message out isn’t listening. We miss the listening half of communication.  By not listening, we reinforce our confirmation bias. By not listening, we miss the details and critical relationships that could put the Grand Vision in context. By not listening, we miss the opportunity to engage in the adaptive leadership needed to change habits, beliefs, processes, and norms. 

news_09_11_2015We want to reassure people. We want to have the whole solution in a nice package. And that’s part of the reason why we wait so late to communicate the change. It also helps, sometimes, that it can feed our own need, and theirs, for us to appear like the leader who’s got the answer, who’s in charge. The leader who is unquestionably brilliant.

But it’s all a trap. It’s theater.  It won’t really produce the transformative change we wanted and needed.  Now if you’re suitably discouraged or depressed, take heart.  In the next post we propose some ways out of the traps. They may seem paradoxical at first, but they work.


2 thoughts on “The Leadership Traps that Stop Transformative Change in Higher Ed

  1. Really helpful post, Jim. THANK YOU. My university is currently working on some large scale structural changes, and we are finding ourselves falling into a number of these traps, I think. This gave me a clearer understanding of what might be happening. Looking forward to reading the next one. Thanks again for sharing.

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