Universities are not very agile

I’ve been in conversation with a number of colleagues about whether or not academics are “resistant to change”.  This claim was included quite casually in a document written to explain to external stakeholders the kinds of characteristics they would expect to see in a university community. Students are experimental, technical staff are skilled, and academics are … resistant to change.

Obviously, at one level this is just annoying. But it’s got me thinking about the ways in which change is positioned as a virtue in complex organisations, whereas risk is an entity that demands a precise and qualified response.  Risk activates our institutional intelligence and strategic thinking.  Is it a good risk? How big is it?  Do we have an appetite for it? How much of it can we tolerate? All these are standard and sensible reactions to the prospect of risk.

Change, on the other hand? Bring it on, by the bucket load.  And of course, any spark of scepticism will itself be the measure of our need for change, and the signal that change is good.  Because the most important thing about achieving organisational change in a decisive manner is to signpost it and press on with it, without hesitation, without a backward glance.

Some marching music often helps at this point.

But thanks to our colleagues in management there are some other vocabularies that can guide our navigation between the poles of change and risk. We can now become both agile and adaptive, for example. Essentially, these are ways of thinking about project management and team leadership that admit to the benefit of some reflective circularity in our forward progress. These models seem to encourage us to learn on the fly, modifying our plans as it becomes clear, for instance, that the complex three-year research project description was overcaffeinated, or that the curriculum mapped out in committee two years before the teaching staff were appointed couldn’t possibly keep its original promises, and can now make better ones.

Universities are not very agile institutions, however. In their strategic planning and reporting processes, they particularly dislike outcomes that evolve over time, or that demonstrate quick thinking in the face of new information or changing circumstances. Too often these changes are presented as failures to achieve set targets, that openly threaten future prospects of support.  As a result, many potentially agile and innovative project teams suffer from the fear of reporting negatively against promised outcomes, and resort to spin, cloaked as accountability.

Universities aren’t alone in their institutional resistance to change, of course. But what’s interesting is that most of their academic staff, technical staff and students are personally familiar with the double-backflip-and-twist nature of extreme project management: it’s the secret rhythm to our everyday experiences, both over the short term (who knows what will happen by the end of this week if you’re dealing with a class of 400 students with seven adjunct tutors?) and as we slouch towards the further horizon of our institutional futures (what will deregulation bring? will targets for growth in international enrolments be achieved, and what if they’re not? and what if they are?).

And in some ways, we thrive on this, because it’s how we chisel out small opportunities for craft and, yes, resistance—but not to change, so much as to the constant, drumming routine of evaluation, reporting against outcomes, and lining up of outcomes to targets.

So it turns out that we’re all pretty agile, adaptive and interested in risk. In fact, that’s what we’re doing here.

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