Have you ever encountered resistance to a new idea on your campus? Tried to get people in your department or other campus departments to cooperate and coordinate with each other? Pushed for a change that goes against the classic “that’s the way we’ve always done it” logic?
Given the way campuses operate, these are practically rhetorical questions. Of course you have run into resistance to change and new ideas. I’ve worked in higher education on campus and as a consultant for more than 20 years. Getting colleagues to take a risk on a new idea or trying to change an organization as big and diverse as a college can be very difficult.
At the same time, change is essential for colleges and universities, especially in light of the changes that are sweeping higher education. So how can you overcome resistance to change so that your institution can adapt and better serve your students?
I’d like to suggest the following five strategies that can help any planner or campus agent overcome resistance on campus. I’ve not only seen them work with the campuses I consult with, but I also used them when I served on campus as well.
Use data and communicate effectively about it
In a previous blog, I argued for the presentation of data within a narrative framework. The embedded concepts in that blog are two of the keys to overcoming resistance on campus: use data to justify your proposals and new programs, and communicate effectively about it. Data and communication are essential. During the preparation stage of every Strategic Enrollment Planning project I launch with a campus, we identify who is going to be responsible for data collection and who is going to be responsible for internal communications. Then we build a communications plan so that we know how we are going to keep the campus informed and engaged in the process. Communication cannot be an afterthought. Effective planners use open forums, email, and the web. They insert their messages into annual or semi-annual presentations by the president. They visit faculty and staff meetings and present the process; they are open to questions and they respond promptly and honestly.
Keep your processes transparent
Transparency is one of those trendy, overused words, but it represents an important planning element. To overcome resistance, campus planners must make their processes clear and open. This starts with the communication process, but is much more than just spreading a message. Do not attempt to hide any part of the planning process or to keep deliberations secret. If you know that new academic programs will be part of your growth strategy, then it is essential to have faculty involved in the process from the outset. If you plan to conduct program prioritization, and the potential for program elimination exists, make criteria and their weighting clear and public. Only those who have chosen to ignore all efforts at outreach should be uninformed, and there should be no surprises late in the process.
Consider your audience
I grew up in higher education teaching writing. We all learned the importance of audience in our college writing classes, but it is amazing how often we forget to consider audience in our day-to-day work. Writing a strategic enrollment plan requires careful consideration of audience: who will read which parts of the document, and what will those key audiences find persuasive? Yet our consideration of audience must be much broader than just during document preparation. Remember that communication point I mentioned earlier? One element in that communication plan must be the realization that different audiences at our institutions have different concerns and priorities. We must think about what matters to them as we prepare our messages. This does not mean we distort the truth to fit each audience (that would break the transparency ideal), but that we align the elements of the project with the audiences that want and need to hear about them.
I’m writing about broad participation last, but for any planning process—strategic, enrollment focused, or otherwise—to be successful, you must plan from day one to have the right people at the table, and the right groups represented. A caveat is in order, however. Broad participation does not mean that every group gets representation on the main planning working group. Generally I like to see planning groups no larger than 15, and I insist on strong faculty representation, as many as half of your primary planners, depending on the scope and focus of your project. For most campuses, that means that every campus constituent can not be represented. That’s OK. Good planning processes have additional working groups that will focus on specific areas of the planning project. It’s at this next level that you can insure representation. And, in truth, if you are communicating effectively and being transparent, equal representation will be less important because all at your institutions will know how they can learn about and provide input to the planning process.
These principles are not guaranteed to remove all resistance to your plans. They are not magic, and their effectiveness will vary depending on the quality of their implementation. However, they have worked for many campuses, and helped many campus leaders build an informed, systematic, and even enthusiastic momentum for change. I recommend embedding them within your own planning processes.
I also love to hear other suggestions for overcoming resistance to change and generating consensus for action. Please leave a comment about your own strategies, or email me if you would like to talk further about promoting change on your campus. There’s also still time to register for our Strategic Enrollment Planning Executive Forum, where we will discuss change management among many other key topics in enrollment management leadership.
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