Sustaining change is as easy as A, B, C

This post is a summary of the presentation I gave at BETT in January 2013 but liked so much (even though I say it myself!) that I have recycled it, or perhaps I should say, incorporated it into a few other presentations I have given as I like it as an easy way to outline some useful activities to embed change.

The brief for BETT was “raising awareness of what you have implemented” in relation to systems, but it occurred to me it is not about the technology, as ever, but about the people. And liking the number 3 as I do, I thought that there are 3 key things you can do to engage people in the long change game. Hence “its as easy as A, B, C”.

A … is for Associate

Associating with existing initiatives avoids change “fatigue” and enables people to see the further benefits of  your implementation.

In my experience many organisations suffer from initiative overload, my own being no exception. We all love the buzz and hype of new projects and the potential they contain for change but after a few days or weeks we often become jaded and just start something else when the change gets too hard.  By looking around you when you start an initiative and seeing what else is happening you can actually get more buy-in to your own project, even if it means perhaps you don’t get the same amount of glory.  This was brought home to us when we embarked on a four year curriculum design institution wide project funded by JISC. We soon realised that we couldn’t engage people by “launching” the project and talking about it a lot. There was just too much going on.  Instead we looked at other areas where the University was engaging in change, such as our undergraduate review, rewriting of programme and module specs and piggy backed or “associated” our work with these initiatives. It was launching our project by stealth.  Although this meant that did not have the hype or prestige perhaps of launching and running our project publicly I do think we our change was more sustained.  5 years on people talk about curriculum design in a way that they never did before.  We were able to engage people in the key issues that the project was trying to address rather than the project itself. And this, in turn, made change more embedded and sustained.

In the session I then asked people the following:

Which existing initiatives/events could you piggy back on in your own institution.

B …. is for ban

Creating a compelling vision can enable people to imagine and feel involved in the change.

In this case ban the ‘T’ word ie “technology”.  Similarly to the idea of associating your project with existing initiatives, by not talking about technology you can engage people in a discussion about their real problems and challenges, then see how and where technology can help.  This is important as it is usually not technology that is the problem but the application of technology.  By talking to people about challenges they may face then you can see if they can use technology appropriately.  An example of this is the use of electronic submission of coursework.  Our Vice Chancellor introduced a three week turnaround time on feedback on coursework.  For most staff the only practical way to implement this was to move to electronic submission of coursework.  By engaging staff in a discussion about their “problem” of receiving and marking coursework in three weeks we were able to introduce electronic submission solutions as well as talking to staff about redesign of assessment to make their task more manageable.  A further example of this was when we created the Strategic Learning Environment vision which was about changing our approach to educational technologies. Our vision doesn’t talk about technology, instead it talks about educational activities that need the support of technology and considers areas of the institution that need improvement. None of this was about technology.

In the session, participants were then asked to reflect on the following:

What non-technological problem does your implementation address?

C … is for create

Get people to speak for  your initiative and explain the change in their own words.

This doesn’t have to be about money, but about creating a buzz around what you do.  So, yes, money does help, if you wish to “reward” people for engaging with the work you are doing, but you can create champions and advocates without cash.  Often the people who have resisted your change the most can be the most useful advocates.  Be careful to chose your advocates with care, I used to use one particular, very dedicated academic member of staff to talk about the benefits of online learning but when they said that they spent every weekend writing course materials to put on the VLE it put most staff off! With the SLE initiative we had a member of senior management who consistently called it the “student learning environment” when it actually stood for the “strategic learning environment”. At first this really bothered me then I realised that actually it didn’t matter, the key thing was that they had taken ownership of the initiative, identified it with improving the student experience and where championing it in their own way.  This was more important than the semantics! By actively engaging others in creative ways – creating launch parties, wakes for system closures, champions, awards and so on – you can get people talking about the changes you are making and celebrating their achievements, no matter how small.  We’ve created a Student Voice Award scheme which is entirely run by our Students Union where students nominate staff who have exhibited in their opinion excellent and motivational teaching.  There are regularly over 250 student nominations of staff received each year and the criteria are qualitative only, you can get nominated whether you teach 1 phd student or 250 undergraduates.  Everyone who gets nominated receives a letter which an extract from the nominations and this often means more to the staff than the award itself.  This has helped to celebrate teaching and remind staff of the importance of what they are doing.  It is a small step to improving the recognition of teaching and creating a culture that respects our educational achievements.

In the session, participants were then asked:

What resources (not necessarily monetary) do you have to create advocates and champions?

So that’s it, change, see it is as easy as A, B, C. If only, but you have to start somewhere.

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