An Organisational Change dilemma: When is change acceptable and desirable?

Two days ago, I attended our eldest child’s university graduation together with the rest of the family. It was a great and dignified affair. As I observed other equally excited families and friends filled with undeniable pride, I couldn’t help but wonder why we felt excited and honoured to have been involved in this significant transformational change exercise to divest ourselves of huge amounts of money, time and energy over the past years so that our children could one day participate in a ceremony such as this. For let’s face it, University education isn’t cheap – either on the pockets or on the emotions. The former is obvious, the later, not so. There have for example, been so many significant upheavals on my emotions since our daughter left home, aged 18, to travel away and live apart from us for the first time and, as a family, we have made a few sacrifices. So looking at the parents and families at the graduation ceremony, I was fascinated that in spite of all the changes and sacrifices (financial, emotion and physical) that they had endured continuously for the past three years, there was a sense that they would do this all over again if the opportunity presented itself. Indeed for some, their kids had already enrolled on the Post-Graduation programmes whilst others, like us, still had other dependents at university.

If popular perceptions are to be believed, people hate change and will do anything to avoid this and maintain the status quo. So why on earth do many parents and family organisations willingly choose to embark on the transformational change programme that is higher education? And why does this change programme succeed time and time again, across my university organisations, many countries and in many cultures when so many other transformation change initiatives fall prey to persistent strong resistance to change?

The answer is simple – a sense of compelling need, compelling urgency and limited complacency – as the bedrock of the transformational change. Without a sense of urgency, people won’t give that extra effort and make that extra sacrifice that is needed to move from the status quo to a new state. In organisations with high complacency, the transformation projects stall and fail. Typical causes of complacency are: (a) A lack of a burning platform or the “Why” for the change; (b) a lack of compelling and regular measurement mechanisms for monitoring the successes from the transformation. People need to see that all the pains and sacrifices are yielding gradual results to the Promised Land and (c) a lack of a compelling belief in the vision itself – i.e. how do we know that the Promised Land will be a significantly better place than where we are now?

The University Higher Education change programme, by its very nature, has a high urgency level that minimises any complacency. The vision is clear – get a university qualification and significantly increase your career prospects for the rest of your life. Progress on this journey is monitored through the annual exams and assessments. In a sense, change managers and change leaders of these university organisational change programmes are lucky that they don’t need to do the hard sell on this as external influences such as globalisation, economic (most job advertisements now require a university degree as a basic requirement) and technological advancements have conspired to market the urgent need for their services. They can, in the main, afford to sit back and do as little as possible in this area as students (alias customers/ clients) will still pour in. In normal organisations, employing change management models and change management tools which place significant emphasis on creating a strong sense of urgency (either in the proactive identification, or communication, of a crisis) is challenging and normally demand bold, risky or unpopular actions (e.g. the UK coalition government austerity initiatives) from very bold leaders to make it work. Some of these bold leaders choose to engage outside change resources who can see possibilities and opportunities beyond individual’s personal comfort zones.

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