Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Pipes, platforms, public performances and backstage activity: a Change Masterclass

How a 'Change Masterclass' helped me to put things in perspective

On Tuesday 25th March I attended a Change Masterclass in Manchester concerned with implementing change. It was run by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and was very effectively facilitated by Helen May and Andrew Fleming. The fact that there was a fairly small group of delegates meant that there was plenty of useful discussion.

My particular interest in the event was as a result of my ongoing involvement with the Learning Futures Programme at the University of Westminster. I have recently been asked to take the lead on one of the projects in the Learning Futures Programme -  Transforming Learning and Teaching - which seeks to bring about genuine change within the university, with a focus on enhancing the learning and teaching experience for both students and staff. Originally, it was proposed that a Project Manager would lead the project but it has been decided that the Transforming Learning and Teaching Project should be led by an academic, and I am therefore going to be seconded to the project for 80% of my time. 

Whilst I am excited about taking on a new role I also feel a certain sense of trepidation at leading a project which will involve quite significant changes. The Change Masterclass helped me to put things in perspective and enabled me to view the role in a different light. 

Having reflected on the experience over the past week, here are the main points which I think were relevant for me:

Public performance and backstage activity
I had been thinking about my new role very much in project management terms, as that is how the job was originally envisaged. I was therefore expecting the role to be all about deliverables and Gantt charts and budgets and risks and so on. What I've realised is that programmes which seek to bring about genuine cultural change within an organisation cannot rely solely on project management approaches if they are to be successful. What really matters is change leadership. Buchanan and Boddy (1992) refer to the idea of 'public performance and backstage activity'. The 'public performance' of those responsible for bringing about change (change agents) may have to be one which follows the traditional project management approach, in which everything is presented rationally and logically. However, behind this public performance there is a lot of 'backstage activity' through which support is gained and resistance is dealt with. This backstage activity will typically involve a lot of listening, negotiating, selling ideas, and building relationships.  Being a change agent therefore involves following the script and presenting the traditional role of project manager to those who require evidence of formal progress within the system, but actually doing a lot of the 'political' work behind the scenes, backstage. 

Being positive
It is vitally important to focus on the positive. Change is too often presented as a solution to a problem rather than an opportunity. Of course there will be resistance to change, but rather than fearing this resistance we should embrace it as evidence of engagement.

Pipes and platforms
Good communication is critical but we need to think about how we communicate. The analogy of 'pipes and platforms' was used. In 'pipes' there is a linear flow: information is produced at one end and pushed out to be consumed at the other. With 'platforms' the information isn't just pushed out, but rather it is placed on a platform where users can engage with it and contribute to it. The best example to distinguish between pipes and platforms is to consider traditional TV channels as being 'pipes' whilst YouTube is a 'platform'. The internet has facilitated a shift towards the 'platform' model in many areas of our lives and enabled us to engage in more meaningful communication.

Goals and unintended consequences
We obviously have to be clear about our goal, even though we may not know exactly what the goal will look like, nor how we will actually get there. Nevertheless, we should at least be clear about why we are heading there. Having said that, the final outcomes of any change programme can be completely different to those envisaged, and may even be counter-intuitive, so it is unwise to plan everything in minute detail. We need to be flexible and agile, and capable of responding to emerging ideas and other factors as they arise.  We can never be absolutely certain about the impact which changes will have on an organisation, and it is not uncommon for unanticipated side-effects to emerge. These side-effects can be both positive and negative.

Buchanan, D., and Boddy D. (1992) The Expertise of the Change Agent: Public Performance and Backstage Activity. New York: Prentice Hall