See the human factor as an opportunity: five ideas for leading transformation


As universities seek innovative approaches to delivering services, there’s a vital role for leadership in successful engagement and change, says Mark Pegg of the Leadership Foundation who offers five ideas for leading transformation.

Although some argue strongly otherwise, I see a growing pressure on resources, where universities must explore innovative service delivery and support services: increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve quality. They must ensure every available penny is directed to the university’s core purpose: high quality teaching and research, and enhancing the student experience.

People are at the heart of this.

Key stakeholders, including HM Treasury and BIS, look for hard projects with clear, measurable outputs. Yet experience shows nearly always that the main barriers to change are not a lack of clarity or logic in a project, but human barriers to change. Soft skills are actually the hardest to do. Part of the change process is the difficult task of developing leaders who can attend to the human factor, engage with their staff, and develop the capability to lead transformational change.

I’ll have 15 minutes for my talk next Tuesday which gives time for five points:

Create a positive proposition for change.  A periodic ‘make or buy’ strategic review helps people see the case for change, informs decision making and raises service levels. Well-designed, re-engineered support services improve quality, because good design strips out waste and provides delivery by those best able to do it. It means staff are better deployed to serve the core purpose; funds are liberated for people to deliver teaching and research.

Universities are creative places – why should services be excluded? A culture that hates form filling and bureaucracy really ought to commit to finding new approaches, in a spirit of enquiry that all university staff are surely pre-programmed to possess. I hope your institution has a built-in mind-set to search restlessly, for ways to do things more ingeniously, embrace new technology and do things much better than before.

The human factor is vital – I hope your university is a human place. There is a familiar litany here. Surveys over many years show at best a 40% success rate for change projects. They look good intellectually and logically – plenty of IQ, but insufficient attention to EQ – emotional intelligence, which is vital to bringing people with them. Understand this and don’t let your projects crash on the rock of human resistance to change.

Be a leader who ‘gets it’ – Employee engagement is about leaders who ‘get it’, who share their vision and direction, aim to co-create, work with their staff, provide a strong employee voice and see change as part of what your people do – that they generate the best ideas and they actually ‘do’ the change.

The value of ‘nudge’ – if you start with a negative proposition that things will be unpopular with staff, with unions and with students and get your retaliation in early, then you will have a hard life – a line is crossed, barricades go up and buildings get occupied. Instead, behavioural economics or ‘nudge’ can help. University staff value autonomy and independence above all. They like to see the evidence and make their own minds up: nudge techniques encourage positive decision-making, creating an image of what desired outcomes look like and then doing it without ever having to be told.

See the human factor as an opportunity, tap into the innovative thinking your university does well and your strategic sourcing projects might really deliver your desired results.

Mark Pegg is chief executive of the Leadership Foundation.