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How to lead change when the change requires buying a new technology

a step-by-step guide for change champions

December 18, 2023, By Matt Hagerty, Director

Leading change in any context is hard. Add technology to the mix and it becomes even harder, especially in higher ed, an industry with analogue roots in which institutions are de-centralized by nature and habits favor consensus-driven decision-making. These realities, paired with recent initiative fatigue, mean that any change that involves bringing in a new technology can feel impossible.

The good news is that it’s possible—and often the right move for today’s colleges and universities. Popular buzz words like “digital transformation” and “data-informed decision-making” might make some (justifiably!) groan, but they point to an underlining need for newer and better technologies to scale our efforts and provide a modern student experience. Let’s dig into what steps you can take as a change leader to prepare for the hard but doable task of championing a new technology.

What does “leading change” mean?

Leading change is targeting a specific behavior change or outcome, garnering enough support for it, and then communicating about it persuasively throughout. It is not being a project manager, or instilling comfort with uncertainty, or gaining universal acceptance of the change. Change leadership and project management are a Venn diagram, not one overlapping circle. So, while project management is a useful skillset, what I’m addressing in this post is leadership beyond execution.

4 steps to leading change

  1. Accept the challenge
  2. Know your stakeholders
  3. Maximize stakeholder action
  4. Secure commitment

Accept the challenge

Don’t read past this one! Too often I’ve spoken with individuals who aren’t able to answer the question “Why do you care about this initiative?” without resorting to some canned line or worse, “My boss told me to.” If you are on the hook for leading a change that requires new technology, you need an answer to that basic question—one that you believe. Many people on campus are already skeptical of the promises made by a new technology or underestimate what it will take to work. You will likely need to deal with people in both camps, and this requires commitment to see the change through. If you’re uncertain about it (or even at a “maybe”), you should not be leading the charge. Saying “yes” without being committed could lead to numerous challenges and even put your role in jeopardy; saying “no” with a principled reason will ensure your future efforts are taken more seriously and protect your reputation from the harms that come with half-hearted effort.

Practical tip

If you’re asked to take on a big project, never say yes or no in the moment. Ask for a day or a week to think it over. Talk about it with your trusted advisors. Even if you have no choice this will help you make the appropriate asks or set needed safeguards in place with your boss before you officially commit.

Use page 6 of the toolkit to assess your commitment.

What are the risks of legacy tech “lock-in”? Check out this infographic.

Know your stakeholders

If you’ve accepted the challenge the next step is to reflect on who else is involved. Think about individuals in terms of their stake in the initiative, their stance, and how strongly they feel about it. Does the person have veto power? Are they impacted by the change? Do you need their work or knowledge to implement the technology? The two most common mistakes I’ve seen people make at this stage are thinking about stakeholders in a way that is either too narrow or too vague.

  • Too narrow: People tend to limit stakeholders to those with power or those that are the most impacted. So, while it’s obvious to consider the stance of the CFO or Board of Trustees, it’s just as important to understand how your call center is impacted or how the budget director will feel about the proposed change.
  • Too vague: Try as much as possible to reflect on individuals, not groups. Faculty might directionally think similarly but they are not a monolith. A CIO might hold one point of view but that doesn’t guarantee their Director of Enterprise Applications feels the same way.

You should end this phase with a lengthy list of stakeholders that are grouped according to their stance and type of stake.

Practical tip

It’s okay to have some groups of people listed, like IT or the faculty senate. But for every group you should have at least a few key individuals mapped out. Similarly, if every person in the group has the same stance it’s a sign you might need to approach them cautiously because it’s not likely everyone in a group holds the same opinion about a new technology.

Use page 7 of the toolkit to map out your stakeholders.

Maximize stakeholder actions

“What’s in it for me?” That’s the question you want to answer for every stakeholder you identified. Prioritize those with power and be extra careful about dissenters with veto power. The best-case scenario is that there are intrinsic motivations you can leverage to secure their commitment to take action. But you may also need to think creatively about extrinsic rewards or penalties for participation. At minimum, you need to have some real incentives you can communicate to undecided stakeholders that sway them towards your point of view. For example, as a faculty member I might not care that using the LMS more will make IR’s life easier. But if you demonstrate that it helps students succeed, maybe I’ll give it a try.

This particular step often feels uncomfortable. Penalties in particular go against the consensus-driven nature of higher education, and we’ve all witnessed times where rewards or penalties were handed out in ways that exacerbated historical harms to marginalized groups. These types of risks make it all the more important that you take whatever time available to answer the question of what the new technology can do for your stakeholders, so you can incentivize undecided stakeholders to take positive action and avoid causing significant negative externalities. If you’re new to the institution, consider asking a more tenured peer of yours to review your communication plan and look for potential missteps.

Practical tip

One key benefit of spending time on this question is that if a stakeholder with veto power is unmovable in their opposition, you don’t have to proceed. Spending limited time and energy on a project that is doomed to fail is a bad idea (for example, because your CIO must sign off on new technology investments and they’ve made it clear they will never sign off). Do not optimistically assume that holdouts will get on board if everyone else does unless you have concrete evidence that your optimism is warranted. You could consider the risky move of asking someone higher up to force their hand, but that decision will heavily depend on your context. It is okay to wait to make a technology change until the right attitudes are in place at the institution; there’s no shortage of important work to do.

Use page 8 of the toolkit to brainstorm how to approach stakeholders depending on their stance.

Watch the webinar: Be the Change Champion Your Campus Needs

Secure commitment

Now that you understand who the stakeholders are and what’s in it for them, you need to figure out how they each think about new technologies so you can tailor your messaging. Are they a visionary who needs to understand how the technology advances your strategic plan? Or perhaps they are a process-oriented person who needs to understand the who, when, what, where, why, and how before they say yes. Still others need to hear that you’ve done your homework to make sure as many people as possible are aware and on board.

Leading change requires a lot of one-on-one or one-on-a-few meetings to get done. There’s no way for you to address the needs of a diverse audience in a large setting like a Cabinet meeting. Mass emails and large meetings have a place in building support, but if you aren’t following up with specific groups or individuals you are missing an opportunity to persuade more undecideds to commit to your cause.

New technologies will stir complicated feelings even among supporters. If it isn’t worth the time to make sure they understand why their commitment is important, you might be leading the wrong change or have picked the wrong technology to support it.

Practical tip

As the change leader you don’t need to host every meeting. Delegate the task to key supporters who you equip with the right message to evangelize the benefits of the new technology. This tactic is especially important if you aren’t the favorite person of a particular stakeholder on campus.

Use page 9 of the toolkit to plan your communication.

You’re ready to get started!

From scaling student support to powering informed decisions, technology has a role to play in a lot of necessary and exciting work on campus. If you find yourself in the position of leading the charge to find and implement a new technology, these steps are a great place to start securing commitment—yours and others’—to make the change successful and sustainable.

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