Unpicking the Gordian Knot of Change

A complex, gordian knot. Image used under creative commons from t_buchtele at http://www.flickr.com/photos/t_buchtele/3121498540/

Change? Change is difficult. Change is messy. Change, it can seem, never lasts. If you are enmeshed in trying to bring about change, it can feel like a constant challenge to unpick the Gordian Knot. There are innumerable methods to manage change, but even when following those formulae it’s often that it feels like the end results isn’t quite what had been planned for.

I find the process of change inherently interesting, even if trying to bring it about can be deeply frustrating. Why do changes ‘stick’ sometimes, and not others, when you have seemingly done the same things in each instance? I’ve long seen change as a type of alchemy (and I’m clearly not alone in this thinking) , rather than a hard and fast science. Change management requires mixing together different elements of practice, shifting their proportions depending on the situation, taking a reading of the project to see what is needed at a given time, and hoping (though not always managing) to strike gold at the end with lasting, positive change.

For the past 18 months at the University, our educational technology group has been working to bring about several changes to both our educational technology systems and our learning spaces, in order to positively impact learning and the student experience. We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time: full of ideas and user feedback when the University was granting strategic funding for key educational projects. As part of this strategic investment, we have undergone an upgrade to Moodle 2 (made more complicated since we had to change our database structure on which it rested); brought in both a new video streaming platform and lecture capture service; and helped create the first ‘flexible’ large lecture theatres and next-generation computer labs. We have blogged about our process along the way on Educational Vignettes, as a means of documenting our work and keeping our users up to speed with all that was happening.

A big influence on my approach to change (introduced to me by my Director, Susannah Quinsee) is Point B: A Short Guide to a Big Change, by Peter Bregman. The distilled lesson that I took from it is that change won’t stick unless you have people willing to adopt that change, and the best way to get co-operative buy-in from others is to let them determine some (many) of the parametres of the change itself. You should know the end point that you are trying to reach, but, more or less, the middle portions are negotiable. For me, operating in this fashion has been a tremendous lesson in letting go of control, but this is now a method I am more comfortable with than any other. It also means that I am wholly unable to see change as anything other than a complex, mutli-faceted puzzle, only made possible through the contributing efforts of a wide group of people.

So in this particular alchemical process of helping to bring about the changes we’ve achieved, what have been the main elements of our success? I’d describe them as:

  • Building relationships. In my opinion, all relationships are valuable, whether it’s for the different ideas they bring to you, the feedback you are given, or the connections you are then connected to. I don’t prioritise relationships based on status or hierarchy; all relationships are important. It is due to relationships that we first set into motion all our projects, and the relationships among our educational technology team is what allowed everyone to band together in an extraordinary way (when there were no line managers in common and no compulsion other than our desire to enact the changes we pitched for).
  • Being open. I have a very strong personal belief in being open and honest in my dealings with others, and consciously practice this in my work since I believe it is crucial to building strong relationships. Many pieces of research (including a recent study that hit the headlines) have shown how honesty breeds trust, and trust facilitates social cohesion and allows social groups to function more freely. My code of openess has helped me negotiate difficult situations that often arise in projects, when two groups are pulling against each other; keeping conversations open and honest, and and airing information so that secrets become less possible, has helped ward off tensions and political ructions many times.
  • Using committee structures to ratify ideas. We were lucky to have in place a good mix of committees around educational technology, with the high level strategic committee comprising Associate Deans for Education, Professional Service Directors, and the Pro Vice Chancellor. By bringing ideas for discussion to the committee (and doing thorough document preparation in advance of discussions), ideas could be ratified by senior members of the University, allowing the educational technology team to then put these ideas into motion. Big decisions could not be taken outside of the committee, otherwise the structure would be undermined and the power of this collective decision making would be eroded.
  • Going for both the head and the heart.  Some people are persuaded by the emotional argument for change; some are more swayed by the logical argument. By combining statistics with persuasion, you create a powerful argument on both sides of the emotional vs logic continuum. William Bratten famously did this when turning around the New York City police force, and the Harvard Business Review’s article on Tipping Point Leadership tells this tale very well.
  • Collaboration takes you further. The result of building strong relationships is the ability to work collaboratively.  These projects were delivered through some very hard work by a large group of people, working across various working groups (more than 20, initially) to pull together and project manage the different strands of what we were doing.
  • Don’t forget to sing your own praises. Communications are often a forgotten lynchpin of projects. Communicating too late (or not at all) can result in something failing when it would have otherwise been a success. In this instance, we bundled the project communications and promotions into the Educational Vignettes blog, planning the weekly posts a month in advance (based around the anticipated changes we knew were coming up) and scaling up the number of blog posts as the project neared completion.  These posts could then be linked to or emailed to anyone who was interested in a particular topic or in the progress of our work.
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