Published on 2014/10/16

Patience and Understanding Critical to Successful Transitions

AUDIO | Patience and Understanding Critical to Successful Transitions
Resistance to change around major efficiency-creating projects is to be expected, but leaders need to be patient and understanding if they hope to gain buy-in from staff.

The following interview is with Michael Stearney, dean of enrollment services at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Green Bay. Several years ago, Stearney spearheaded a project that saw UW-Green Bay reengineer its services, staffing and space — a process that involved achieving buy-in from stakeholders across the institution. In this interview, Stearney reflects on his experience and shares some of the strategies and tactics institutional leaders can use to help convince staff of the value of major changes.

1. Why do institutional leaders look to reengineering organizations as a mechanism to improve operational efficiency?

There are several reasons for this. External forces sometimes drive reengineering. In higher education, we’re facing increasing pressure to achieve operational and cost efficiencies through automation, better integration of services, more sharing of resources — which includes people, data and information — and so on. We simply have to find ways to do things more efficiently within a static or shrinking resource space.

Additionally, new technology can be a driver. There is an opportunity within integrated information systems, sophisticated CRM tools, software that incorporates automated workflow — for example, document imaging or curriculum catalog software and such.

Finally, it’s sometimes just about timing. In our experience, a major facilities upgrade in our student services building presented this moment to rethink … how we were structured and how we were staffed and, physically, how things were housed or could be housed. An institutional leader who’s attuned to external forces, aware of technology and software solutions that have the potential to improve efficiency and sensitive to the right moments is well positioned to reengineer within their organization.

2. What are some of the biggest issues that arise when a staff undergoes a significant organizational shakeup?

First, it’s really important to acknowledge that change is hard. As human beings, most of us find a certain comfort and familiarity in our routines, even if in the workplace some of those routines are dated, inefficient and frustrating on a daily basis.

Also, there’s a sense of confidence staff have about their own competence. That can get disrupted in an organizational shakeup. Some of the issues that arrive also include a basic distrust of motive. Staff would say, “Is this really about improvement or is this really about outsourcing or phasing out my job?”From a line staff perspective, there’s often an attitude that, “The leader doesn’t really know what I do every day, so who are they to come in and change everything?”

There are also new relationships that have to be built. That is, personal relationships from the line workers’ perspectives, things like, “Who am I working with, who am I working around, who am I reporting to, who is directing my work?” There’s also new organizational relationships: “Who do I go to with ideas or questions or when I have need for approval?”

Finally, the work itself inevitably changes. If the work isn’t going to change, why do this? There are always those concerns about competence. The technology can be particularly stressful on more senior employees who may not be as tech savvy.

A leader has to acknowledge the legitimacy of all of this, even if some of this stress is baseless. It requires a lot of patience to explain and re-explain.

3. In your reengineering plan at UW-Green Bay, there were significant changes on the books to help take your services team to “best in class.” How did your team go about upgrading their support capacity?

The very best thing we did was take the necessary time to think through this reengineering plan and build support for it conceptually. We did a lot of reading; we attended conferences, we visited other institutions that were ahead of us and we learned from them. We were trying to be inclusive of staff from all the affected offices.

Once we agreed on a shared vision, and that’s everything from philosophy to how our services were going to be delivered to the physical space to the technology dimensions, we then hired a great leader from our first services team and she in turn hired a great crew. It was so important in the first year to get everything right, to get the right people who were committed to this new vision. In our case, we hired the whole team from outside the current employee base. We didn’t transfer people into these newly created positions, into this new service model.

4. In your presentation discussing these changes, you mentioned a few of the challenges you encountered were in helping staff accept and adjust to changes. What advice can you share with leaders considering similar changes when it comes to convincing staff of the value of the proposed changes?

The word I would just emphasize over and over and over is patience. You have to acknowledge the legitimacy of staff concerns, give staff a say in the things that matter to them and give them sufficient time to prepare for the change. No matter how many times I told the staff their jobs were secure and that our motivation was not to reduce the workforce, they still had doubts.

In our case, virtually everything changed: physical location, a new workplace, the business processes, the work teams; everything changed at once. Where possible, you want to try to give people change at a rate they can handle. I would advise leaders who are thinking of undertaking something like this to take the time to read some of the literature out there about change management. Managing it from a budgetary level or a resource allocation level, that’s what I do as a manager, but I really had to constantly remind myself about being attentive to the human and personal dimensions of change.

The last thing is that a thick skin and a sense of humor really go a long way in projects like this.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of being communicative and open with staff when entering into a reengineering project, and what leaders need to be aware of when going through streamlining efficiency or creating projects like this?

Your motives should be pure and they should be honest. If one of the motives is workforce reduction, you need to say that and not pretend that’s not the reason. [You also need to] accept that not everyone is going to get to the change at the same rate. Begin with this vision so that people really do believe that when all this is done, things will be better.

This interview has been edited for length.


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Key Takeaways

  • Leaders need to be aware and accepting of staff concerns about major changes and be ready to explain and re-explain their process and motivations.
  • Leaders need to be upfront and honest about the nature of the changes, particularly if they include staff reductions.
  • Getting a sense of best practice and becoming familiar with change management are critical steps leaders need to take to ensure efficiency-creating projects are successful.

Readers Comments

Nancy Rodriguez 2014/10/16 at 1:06 pm

It was interesting to read about UW-Green Bay’s journey of organizational renewal and the process of getting staff on board with the changes. One helpful point Stearney makes is focusing on shared goals to drive change. When staff can see the direct, positive impact of the change on their work and outcomes, they will be more receptive to change.

Melissa 2014/10/16 at 3:10 pm

I think it’s human nature to want to stay with a routine that’s familiar, even if it’s not the most efficient way of doing something. The best way to introduce change, then, seems to be incrementally. To do this, senior leadership needs to provide clear and constant communication as changes are rolled out so that staff don’t feel blindsided by what’s going on.

    Commenter 2014/10/17 at 3:42 pm

    How realistic is it, though, to make change an incremental process? After all, sometimes operations need to shift; they’re not streamlined or sensible and ultimately costing the business. Isn’t ripping a bandaid off the best way?

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