5 cooperation tools leaders can use to manage change successfully

"How to get cooperation and agreement to move an institution forward is one of the trickiest parts of the higher ed leader’s job," one expert writes.

Question: Can you still move forward with change management in higher ed when you have varying levels of cooperation from within your institution? The answer is a resounding yes, and new research on innovation is offering presidents and other leaders the tools to achieve their goals.

Of course, institutions moving forward must overcome a host of modern-day obstacles—the aftermath of the pandemic, shrinking numbers of high school graduates, and culture war battles over what colleges can teach and what faculty can say. Leading a college or university is as difficult as it has ever been, which is one reason why the average tenure of a college president has been declining steadily, Michael B. Horn, chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute, writes in a new analysis on leading change management.

“How to get cooperation and agreement to move an institution forward is one of the trickiest parts of the higher ed leader’s job,” Horn writes. “Yet moving forward must be a priority as higher education copes with the emergence of technology-enabled learning solutions while maintaining an increasingly expensive traditional educational model.”

Change management checklist

Horn breaks down five sets of tools and conditions that allow leaders to chart their institution’s course for success. Some leaders may recognize their existing campus culture below and learn how to leverage it more effectively:

1. Leadership tools

The key here is to focus on results—rather than process—when there is strong campus consensus around the institution’s goals. Initially, visionary leaders can better rally support by emphasizing the why because there may be less agreement over the methods for achieving goals.

“Charismatic leaders who command respect often don’t address how to get things done,” Horn says. “Instead, they motivate people to just do the work.”

2. Management tools

These tools are more process-oriented and center on training and professional development, standard operating procedures, and measurement systems. For these tools to function, there needs to be agreement on “cause and effect” rather than what members of the organization want to get out of their involvement.

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“In these cases, a college leader can introduce a new program or set of procedures that faculty and other administrators agree will help the college, even if they differ markedly around the ‘why’ behind these or what they hope to get out of continuing to do research and teach at the school,” Horn says.

3. Culture tools

These tools are effective when individuals agree strongly about their priorities and how to achieve them. This type of environment is the “essence of a strong culture. “In organizations with strong cultures, people instinctively prioritize similar options, and their common view of how the world works means that little debate is necessary about the best way to achieve those priorities,” Horn explains.

4. Power tools

When there is little campus consensus, struggling leaders may resort to “fiat, force, coercion, and threats” in an effort to achieve their goals. These tactics, however, rarely work in higher ed, which, rather than being an autocratic government, is a world of shared governance, consensus-driven decision-making, and tenure.

Leaders who find themselves considering the use of “Power Tools” should instead try the next and final approach.

5. Tool of separation

When there are fundamental disagreements on campus, leaders can divide opposing parties into separate groups of faculty, staff, administrators, and students who share each other’s views. This tool is essential when schools face “disruptive innovation.” In business, for example, the companies that remain leaders in their industry when disruptions occur are those whose leaders have used the tool of separation to create independent business units. These teams are then free to develop new business models that capitalize on disruptions.

“If employees responsible for sustaining the established operation and disruptive solutions work in the same business unit, they are forever conflicted about
whether existing or new customers are most important, whether moving up-market or down offers more growth, and so on,” Horn writes. “Separation in instances such as these is the only viable course of action.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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