Out of the Traps: The Paradoxes of Successful Change

Note: This is the second of two three posts that summarize the presentation Sue-Anne Sweeney of Madonna University and I made at the Higher Learning Commission 2016 annual conference in Chicago in April 2016. The first post in this series is The Leadership Traps That Stop Transformative Change in Higher Ed. 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 over eight decades of change management experience as both leaders and consultants in both higher ed and many other organizations. They do not necessarily reflect those of our respective institutions.

shutterstock_201808379.jpg-550x0In this Part II, I we explain two of the paradoxes by which we can escape the six leadership traps we identified in Part I. These six leadership traps, while well-intentioned, actually prove self-defeating in our quest to achieve transformative change in higher education.  We labelled those traps as

  • Unquestioned Brilliance
  • Urgency
  • Vision Delusion
  • Technical Solutionism
  • “They just….”
  • Telling, Not Listening

man-solves-world-largest-and-hardest-3d-printed-rubiks-cube-1 (1)Solving the Puzzle With Paradox

These traps are largely of our own doing as leaders. We choose  how to react. The traps are made of our own values and perceptions.  The traps intertwine with each other. We choose to emphasize urgency and discount studied learning which in turn leads us to emphasize Grand Vision to the neglect of detailed context. We choose to make quick analyses and choices which lead to discounting contradictory information via confirmation bias, which in turn leads us to conclude “they just…don’t get it” or, worse, “they just…don’t want to change”.

But the reality is that people do embrace change. In fact, our very institutions of higher education are monuments to just how much people not only embrace life-altering change, they seek it out. Life-altering change is what we’re about. Everyday, students enroll and attend classes, often at great hardship or difficulty for themselves, simply because they want their lives to change. Our research faculty dedicate their lives and work extensive hours in search of information that will change lives and change how we all think. Our teaching faculty dedicate their lives to helping others learn so they can change lives.

Yet as institutions we often seem stuck. Trapped. Change as an institution is difficult and frustrating, often due to the leadership traps we’ve identified. The intertwining of the traps combine with the nature of higher education (if the confidence of unquestioned brilliance is a trap, then higher education is certainly a target-rich environment!) to make change seem intractable. It’s a giant puzzle – a kind of n-dimensional Rubik’s cube. The key to solving the institutional change puzzle lies in Paradox.

paradoxes-quotes-2So let’s revisit what a paradox is. We turn to Merriam-Webster:

something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible

How can a paradox help us? The seeming contradiction embedded in a paradox opens our thinking. The paradox acts as a siren to our reasoning mind.We want to “solve” the paradox, so we begin to question assumptions and terms and we open ourselves to new perspectives. It’s fun especially for intellectuals like us in higher education. Therein lie the solutions to our puzzles – and our puzzle of change leadership. Edward Teller, the famous theoretical physicist observed that

two paradoxes are better than one; they may even suggest a solution.

Well, if two paradoxes are better than one, we go even better. We are going to offer five paradoxes that can help unlock the transformative change puzzle and help us escape the traps. Each paradox takes the form of a simple directive or rule (I actually prefer guideline) that at first glance seems to be internally contradictory.

Paradox #1: To Move Faster, Start Slower

We feel the urgency. We know we need large-scale change and we need it as soon as possible. We want to move fast – the urgency trap. The key to moving fast though is to start slow. Traditionally, especially in the U.S., we stress and reward accomplishment, and tend to place less importance on the planning needed to effectively prepare for the implementation.  I recall many years ago back in the early 1980’s when I first began to learn and absorb Continuous Quality Improvement concepts and the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and William Ouchi. At that time Japanese industry, particularly electronics, precision machinery, and automotive, far exceeded their American counterparts in quality, both real and perceived. I remember an illustration of how the typical American firm at the time approached change. It looked like this. Americans were accomplishment-focused and in a hurry. They were proud of their “bias for action”. Traditionally, especially in the U.S., we stress and reward accomplishment, and tend to place less importance on the planning needed to effectively prepare for the implementation.
HLC2016-Iterating To Disruption-Change Mgt3The contrast was this diagram which illustrated the approach of high-quality, continuous improvement focused organizations. Many Japanese firms led the world in quality in the early (and in most any other metric of success) in the early 1980’s because they spent more time up front planning and studying. It was once they really knew and understood the whole system, as a system, that they could take decisive action. Organizations with successful change management reverse the traditional model and spend more time and energy in planning in order to be able to implement rapidly and efficiently.

HLC2016-Iterating To Disruption-Change Mgt4


It is indeed ironic that in higher education leadership there seems a real fear of “analysis paralysis” and a real desire to quickly move through the plan phase to the doing. We seem to measure leaders by their appearance of doing rather than their understanding. It is ironic because higher education is all about study and learning. Whether it’s research or teaching, that’s why we exist. Yet when it comes to our own affairs we skimp on the learning part. It’s the Unquestioned Brilliance trap in action.

Albert 55So we need to start slow. But how does slow become faster? There are three reasons why starting slow can actually lead to a faster overall implementation of change.

  • First we need to thoroughly understand the phenomenon and how it affects everyone involved with it. Once we know and really understand, we can identify the right actions to take. Study, planning, and learning is vastly cheaper and less disruptive than implementing actions. It’s better to be less efficient at planning & studying and be more efficient at doing. Planning helps set better priorities. Precision helps when defining the destination.
  • Second, a more in-depth planning and study phase enables us to not only identify the change we want to have happen, but also to identify the best method of making that change happen.  There may be many routes to our destination. Planning enables us to consider the most efficient and efficacious.
  • Finally, starting slow allows us to practice and refine our skills, new processes, and new tools. What we do in practice, even when slow, determines how we react when we speed up. Again I turn to a lesson learned from my adventures in auto racing. When I first started racing I attended a race-drivers’ school.  I was so excited. Real race cars. A real race track (sports car road course). I was geeked to prove how fast I could go. But the order of the first day was to lap the track in these 150 mph cars at 40-50 mph. We were scrutinized in incredible detail for the lines and approaches we made to each turn on each lap – when it was so slow. But that practice at slow speed built the habits and reactions that enabled us to go really fast a few days later. What we do slowly, we will  attempt to do fast. So we need to practice the right way first.

Paradox #2: To Achieve Big Change, Rapidly Iterate Small Changes

9099796942_c4a9ce1d2e_bHigher education is in love with the Grand Initiative. That is perhaps why higher education leaders have been so taken by Christiansen’s “disruptive innovation” hype, despite the Christiansen’s own revisions and clarifications or the many criticisms of it. It sounds so good – so attractive to how we think in higher ed. A single “innovation”, a single initiative that conquers all. What greater legacy could a college president or university provost ask for? It seems so plausible too. After all we see what appear to be dramatic change in many industries led by some significant change in some organization, right? So, despite the evidence that the theory really doesn’t work that way and the evidence that it really isn’t applicable to higher education, we embrace the rhetoric. It sounds so exciting. But rhetoric has consequences and may get misled by our own rhetoric. (Confession: I, Jim, have used the term “disruption” in titles of presentations at conferences a few times – mostly as a blatant attempt to use the latest buzzword to attract attendees so I could evangelize what I knew better. Sue is innocent of this charge).

We want BIG change, but we can get there by biting off small little pieces, making small changes, and then rapidly repeating.  Change one aspect of a system quickly, then repeat on other parts. Change one unit and then repeat on the other units.  Learn from experience and practice.

The big bang concept very rarely works. What does work is iteration. he easiest way to achieve dramatic change, so-called “innovative disruption” or transformative change, is to focus on smaller changes and to rapidly iterate or cycle through them. Change, by definition is doing things differently. We need practice. As we practice, the changed behavior becomes  second-nature. It enters procedural memory. Iteration is how some of most successful organizations have accomplished dramatic change. The core of Deming-inspired Continuous Quality Improvement processes is a cycling of small, incremental improvements made an a relentless schedule with the result that a small organization such as Honda or Toyota eventually conquer their world industry.

IHLC2016-Iterating To Disruption-Change Mgt5n a more modern context, the software package WordPress has largely conquered the World Wide Web in less than a decade. Over 25% of all websites now are powered by WordPress. Yet WordPress doesn’t produce new dramatic versions. Instead, the entire open source WordPress community – it’s not even a single company, but rather a community of ‘000’s of volunteers – creates powerful software by adhering to a philosophy of releasing updated versions every 4 months. Sometimes the changes are big and sometimes small. But the key is to relentlessly keep making modest changes. Eventually the changes accumulate like a snowball rolling down hill conquering.  Web browsers work the same way. Remember the old days when there were major updates with dramatic changes at long intervals? Nowadays, Firefox and Chrome get updated regularly at frequent intervals with small changes each time. Gradually the experience changes dramatically, but without the drama of the big bang.

How does iteration work its magic? One way is because small changes also allow people to manage the amount of distress and extra energy involved in doing things differently.  As the changes are iterated, they develop some “change stamina” and skills, such as collaboration across silos and routinely engaging in debrief and lessons learned to improve the process for the next go-round. Practice makes perfect.

1280px-San_Antonio_DerailmentA second way iteration works magic is because it lowers risk. Regardless of whether you measure risk as “the potential damage done by an error” or “the probability of making an error”, risk slows change efforts. A higher perceived risk means people proceed cautiously and slowly. When we have the grand initiative approach, risk is higher. We can’t risk any mistakes. So we use “proven solution” even though it doesn’t really produce the transformative change we want or need, but it’s safe and predictable. The big bang or Grand Initiative approach is like having the organization take the train together. All parts of the organization are going to go through the same journey at the same time and are expected to arrive at the same central station even if their real destination is a few blocks or a mile away from that station. To move the entire organization safely down the same path at the same time requires us to build a railroad to get to our destination. That takes time and investment. We could use somebody else’s railroad, but then we won’t get to our destination, we’ll arrive at theirs. If we rush the track building process, the result can ugly. The whole organization derails and fails.

Transformative change necessarily involves innovation & creativity. And creativity & innovation require the ability to make mistakes and then correct and learn from them. If you’ve got all the eggs in that one basket, you’re not going to run with it. Iteration lowers risk. We can move faster. We can try different approaches or tools. If one doesn’t work we can easily regroup and the damage, if any, is limited. Instead of sending the entire organization down the same track at the same time and same speed (which by the way is too slow for some and too fast for others in our institution), we could use fleets of cars or trucks that communicate. They can follow similar paths and learn from each other. They can deviate slightly to better fit their circumstance. And, if one fails, the others survive and thrive.

The great inventor aBiggest-mistakend innovator Charles Kettering knew that iteration, repeated attempts, was key to innovation and creativity. He knew that to minimize risk we need to learn from each attempt so that the next attempt had a greater chance of success.  He said:

We often say that the biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently.

Unfortunately “failure” is too often a 4-letter work in higher education. Again it is ironic. Our researchers know that learning from failure in the labs is how science advances, but we don’t apply the concept to our own institutions.

A word on “pilots” is appropriate here. Doing a “pilot” of some initiative is not iterating. Pilot projects can be useful. They can be great laboratories to learn and explore. But too often they are treated as “let’s do a small version of the concept first and when we show some evidence that it works, we’ll turn around and ‘roll it out’ to the whole organization”. Pilots have many issues. One is that the real purpose often isn’t to learn or explore – we’re convinced with unquestioned brilliance that it’s the right or best solution, so what’s to learn? Instead the real purpose is often to simply demonstrate that it will work. We’re trying to demonstrate that our idea is as brilliant as we think. Never mind that we’re likely to fall prey to confirmation bias in our judgement that it works. The pilot cannot be allowed to fail. So additional resources, energy, and attention are given the pilot – resources that cannot be scaled or applied to the larger organization. Further, doing a pilot really is just a slight postponement in the big bang. Iteration doesn’t work that way.

Let’s consider an example that many institutions are pursuing today. In the name of increasing student completion rates, the assumption is that students have too many options and choices in the curriculum. The favoured idea is that if we reduce the choices and provide a clearer pathway to a degree that has no options for getting “off-track”, then students will arrive at the destination (degree) in larger numbers. I don’t want to discuss the relative merits of the concept here – that’s a topic for other future posts. What we want to consider is how an institution goes about changing all of its degree plans of study to conform with the pathway idea. A common approach is to do a pilot first. Pick one or maybe two degree programs and redesign them. Often the pilot programs are either smaller, already more coherent, or just staffed by true believers. The pilot is deemed a success because the degree pathways have been redesigned. Note that success has already been redefined. Success is now actually doing the idea, not achieving the transformative goal the idea is supposed to accomplish. The pilot succeeded because we have proof of a redesigned plan of study, not because we have proof of higher completion rates. With the success of the pilot, the institution’s leadership is eager to “roll out” the innovation to all programs and all degrees. Phase II begins with a massive simultaneous effort to redesign all degree pathways. It takes time. Conflicts arise. Questions and issues not seen in the pilot arise. It seems each program has its own problem fitting the template. That’s not iteration. That’s big bang Grand Initiative.

Iteration approaches the challenge differently. Iteration appears more like a series of “pilots”. It might start with a pilot too, but the purpose of the first pilot is different. It’s to learn and to see what’s involved in doing this. A second pilot can be rapidly dispatched with some modification based on lessons of the first pilot. Then a third and fourth “pilot” might be started in parallel. Rather than doing all programs at the same time, iteration calls for repeatedly taking each program individually but learning the whole way. Early efforts are used to create tools to accelerate and simplify the next program. Rather than emphasizing all programs doing the same thing simultaneously, each program is urged to make it fit to their needs, pass along lessons to the next program, and complete the change rapidly.

That should bring us to the third paradox, but this post is already getting quite long. So in the interest of iteration, we’ll stop here and pick up the story with paradoxes 3-5 in another post soon. I hope to get the next post up this weekend.