Managing Change and the Problem of More

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Finding an enduring approach to the problems of unbounded demand and emergent change can start with a simple shift of narrative.

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Credit: NB_Factory / Shutterstock © 2018

Recently a colleague and I were discussing how organizational change occurs. Referencing my management approach, she asked if I was new to higher education. I laughed in surprise because I have only worked in higher education, and I wondered why she had that impression. It seems a bit of campus oral history had developed that, prior to joining UC Merced in Spring 2014, I had worked at Apple; we speculated that the source of the tale was possibly my use of Apple products. Her inference, however, was that the reason I have been able to successfully change organizational behavior within higher education is because I was not of higher education. This got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves of how things come to be. There is always some truth to our stories, but if we oversimplify, we can easily come to believe those stories uncritically and thereby perpetuate illusions that ultimately hold us back.

During my time at UC Merced, the Office of Information Technology has successfully pivoted from a reactive organization to one that is more systematic and strategic in its functioning. Since UC Merced opened, the university has had to forge a path as a fledgling but rapidly expanding campus and manage change as an almost daily constant. As a young campus, we face economic and demographic conditions that our sister UC campuses—which came of age in a time when higher education benefited from a greater degree of public support—did not face when they were emerging institutions. The sense of urgency and the relentless emergence of competing priorities we face can be overwhelming. We often attribute our reactivity to a lack of resources, but this is simply a story we tell ourselves. I have studied and worked in higher education for over 30 years, and this is one thing I know: Even wealthy institutions do not believe they have sufficient resources.

Finite resources were not the cause of OIT's reactive nature. The demands for technology had simply become too unbounded and our way of working too sclerotic in response to a need to control burgeoning complexities. Limited resources appeared to exacerbate this. Asked to do more with less, we were simply out of "less." However, while limited resources constrained what we could do, we were able to pivot by making strategic decisions regarding how we used our available resources. We needed to make choices about how to ensure operational effectiveness, how to deliver value to the campus, and how to do this as a human system rather than a loose collective of individuals tossing hot potatoes around to each other.

When I joined the campus in 2014, UC Merced had a hand-crafted approach to technology service and resource management. This made sense when the campus was small, and the necessity of a can-do attitude meant that everybody did a little bit of everything. However, with growth and increasing organizational complexity, we have had to reshape ourselves to provide sustainable and scalable services. We faced what Bob Sutton, author of Scaling Up Excellence, describes as the problem of more, the central challenge organizations face when scaling. Scaling isn't solely about growth, expansion, or increase. It is about distributing in greater proportion the good things—the things that work—and eliminating the bad things—the habits, behaviors, and ideas that no longer serve the mission and vision. And it is about choices.

I believe that leadership is the ability to catalyze change toward a desired outcome and impact. As such, leadership can enable culture change. OIT had been fighting a culture of scarcity, and it was time we yielded to the facts that we live in a world of technology abundance and that using technology is an endless process of adaptation and experimentation. This is the interesting thing about culture: Too often we think of it as something we need to change rather than recognizing it is something we build. And building a new culture is not a prescriptive task. Often, it is about telling new stories. Here are three of ours.

We Took the Long View and Sought Small Wins

We tend to tell ourselves a lot of stories about change. Change is hard. Change is constant. The truth is, everybody wants change except when it happens to them directly—and even then, it just depends what change is going on. For the OIT organization to successfully pivot, it was essential for us to slow down. This seemed counterintuitive, given our long list of needs. But it was necessary as a way to clarify what change would happen now and what might not get done for a while. Karl Weick refers to this as the strategy of small wins because it allows large messy problems to be broken into smaller, achievable outcomes. In addition, small wins create order in unpredictable environments characterized by emergent change, reducing stress and improving performance. Providing the big picture is essential—it's the vision "out there"—but prioritizing the details and sequence of events facilitates incremental wins that staff can reflect on, build on, and learn from only if the stress of uncertainty is modulated.

We Prioritized Information Flow and Transparency

Another reason that we needed to slow down is because it takes time for a large number of people to build sufficiently shared experiences that they understand each other. As an executive leader, I have the responsibility to provide sufficient transparency to prioritize information flow. It is also a practical leadership approach, since—while we are IT—none of us has mastered the Vulcan Mind Meld. For OIT, prioritizing the information flow meant that everyone had a role in communicating what was learned or what might have been shared in a meeting or announcement. Just as critically, each had a responsibility for comprehending the significance of what was communicated.

Initially, this required enormous amounts of my time as I wrote biweekly Monday Memes summarizing campus announcements and shared meeting minutes explaining how, when, where, and why decisions were made. In turn, I expected the team to register awareness, Often, I used this forum to explain why I was insisting on things that seemed tedious and tactical, such as the use of a standardized auto-reply when out of office or establishing a monthly deadline for mileage reimbursements. Standardizing and routinizing these tasks saved time by allowing others to quickly find information or plan work tasks in reliable and predictable ways. In this way, we could reduce cognitive overhead for ourselves (and possibly for colleagues across campus, as we all face information overload).

We Linked Operational Dexterity with Strategy

When OIT was a smaller team of colleagues deeply invested in launching UC Merced—as one building became two and then three—a shared vision through a single lens allowed for uncontested solutions and common toolsets. With campus growth came complexity and specialization. As our objectives evolved, we needed to rearrange and reassign job tasks and areas of functional responsibility, and we needed to design new processes to simplify—and sometimes to mask—complexity. Standardizing process helped us convert informal habits into disciplined (and repeatable) approaches to solving problems. It also allowed us to spend less time on routine, low-return efforts so that we can now spend more time solving bigger, thornier, and far more interesting problems.

However, we have embarked on this process iteratively because once we found time to focus on these bigger and more interesting problems, we saw still more need for change. The only solution was to recognize that, as an organization, we needed to remain flexible and recalibrate as change happened around us. Operational dexterity is our strategy.

The culture shift we needed to make required all of us in OIT to roll up our sleeves and dive into operational issues; these were the levers we pulled to guide change toward a strategic outcome. This has also been essential to modeling expectations for staff who have the operational responsibility to deliver day-to-day outcomes. When undertaking organizational change, the job of leadership is not simply to wave our hands and "make it so" but to demonstrate how to make it so. This is how new organizational habits are built.

My role as a leader includes ensuring that we have the multiple conversations necessary to iterate and recalibrate as our operational model evolves. It is a bit of a ground war, requiring that I be present and understand a broad scope of operational details, sometimes requiring me to ask members of my team to spend time educating me and to "draw me a picture."

This is how we spread out the good that allows us to scale. It's how we solve the problem of more under conditions of constrained resources. Today, the stories we tell are the measure of our success. More and more, they are about strategic achievements and operational effectiveness—a narrative, and a culture, that we hope to nurture and build upon going forward.

This is one of a collection of resources related to how colleges and universities can take advantage of business process redesign efforts to become more agile. For the full set of resources and tools on this topic, go to Continually Improving Business Process Redesign Efforts.

Ann Kovalchick is Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer of University of California, Merced.

© 2018 Ann Kovalchick. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.