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The Biggest Change I Ever Managed: A Cultural Tale

| December 6, 2022

by Susan Foster

The Biggest Change I Ever Managed: A Cultural Tale

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Susan Foster, IT Business Manager at Bowdoin College. She is a MOR program alum.  Susan may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.]
One sunny afternoon, during an average week, while doing average daily business, I got a call from my chair asking me to come to her office right away. I knew something big must have happened. She had just returned from a meeting with the provost, where she was told that we had to move out of one of our buildings (we were in 3) in one year.
Hmm. So, doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, right? I mean, move out of older building into a brand new, state of the art building—sounds good!? But it could not have been worse. This was the biology department at my prior college.  The faculty that had to move had been working in this space for many years and were in the middle of conducting important and complex research, had teaching responsibilities, were mentoring students and postdocs, had families, and had other plans. Typically designing and moving a laboratory takes at least a few years—but this request was not negotiable, had to happen, and happen fast.
The announcement, which we made to the faculty the next day, came as a shock, quickly followed by objection, outrage, fear and loathing. It was a politically charged decision and had an equally charged reaction. We understood and anticipated this—why do we have to move, put the new people in the new building, this is incredibly disruptive, this is unfair, this is frightening, this is the worst thing EVER. Having managed change for many years under various conditions and scenarios, I knew when I looked at their faces that this was, indeed, the worst thing they could imagine.
While this could be the recipe for a project that was a failure or didn’t complete on time or on budget, that didn’t happen here.  The teams rose to the challenge.  We successfully completed the move.  So, how did we manage to make this happen—successfully, on time and with limited damage? Well, as the story goes, it took a village. Here are some of the methods we used:

  1. Listen – First and foremost, we listened to every faculty member, every staff member, every affected person, continuously and intently for hundreds of hours. Often, I hardly said a word, just listened, took notes, and tried to reassure or ask clarifying questions. From threats of chaining oneself to the building, to just leaving the college altogether, we spoke and discussed their thoughts, feelings, fears, and ideas, and in time, they began to look ahead.
  2. Inspire the Team – Fortunately, in the previous year I had assembled an outstanding team of professionals to support this department, so I sat down with them immediately, and discussed our own ideas for ways we could support this massive operation, both technically and socially. Everyone was called upon to be patient and positive, provide helpful and creative advice, and no matter what, always follow through with any request no matter how small it may seem. We met as a group at least once a week, usually more, to troubleshoot and collectively discuss challenges and solutions.
  3. Build Confidence – Listening isn’t enough of course; it needs to translate into doing for people to begin to believe in the change. So, from the smallest details to the highest priorities, everything was documented, requested, and when necessary, advocated for with leadership. When necessary, specialists were called in to adjust and modify building plans, 2 or 3 options were presented when possible, so the faculty had choices and could visualize what the future looked like. Results talk and ultimately calm fears.
  4. Say Thank You – When any massive change takes place, the workload of every person involved increases dramatically, and I have found that the simple act of saying “thank you” does wonders. A thank you can be as small as a personal visit to an office or lab, just to say hello, how are you doing? Or it can be 4 dozen apple cider donuts on a cold winter morning to share with colleagues. Saying “thank you”, or “I am thinking of you”, or “I appreciate what you are doing” is priceless and can take many forms. It also makes people feel good and is never, ever wasted energy.
  5. Never Give Up – There are always a few in the crowd that resist, and at times it seems will never agree to change. But I’ve found with sustained attention and compassion, they will come around, not always happily, but with a resolve to move ahead. It is important not to leave people behind because they are more work or require more support—often these are people strongly committed to the institution, they want the best for it, and want to feel confident in decisions that are made.  It also sometimes helps them to see other people commit to the change before they do, making their own commitment easier.
  6. Review Results – Change is never quite finished, but there is a point at which a project ends and the next begins. It is always important to do a final check, a formal walk through so to speak, of the entire endeavor. Make sure there are no loose ends or tasks that have been overlooked. And most of all, learn what worked and what can be improved upon next time.

For me, this was a particularly unique and unusual change management project. Unlike starting up a new graduate school or edgy research center, it was more complex because it was so dependent on cultural change to succeed. There is no easy way to help cultural change happen.  It takes a deeply committed team and a soft touch that can sometimes be absent in higher education. It is important to remember: the people who take risks and think in leaps and bounds in their research and teaching always need to know they are on solid ground on the campus.


This Week’s Survey

How do you generally feel about change?


From Last Week
Last week we asked if you know what you want to be known for:

  • 41% said yes, and it is up to date.
  • 18% said yes, but I need to make some updates.
  • 30% said no, but it’s on my list to figure out.
  • 11% said no, and it’s not on my list to figure out.

For the more than 2 out of every 5 of us who have an up-to-date vision of who we are and what we want to be known for, congratulations!  Being intentional in this way is a strong guiding force to helping us achieve what we desire.  For the roughly half of us who are in some stage of updating or figuring out what we want to be known for, January is often a time of resolutions and goal setting for the year.  What a great foundation to refine what you want to be known for ahead of any goals or other resolutions.  Relating to today’s reading, how might change and how might stability each factor into what you want to be known for?  That balance is a question only you can answer.