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How to develop an infrastructure for change that stands the test of time

“Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is ‘time telling’; building a company that can prosper far beyond the tenure of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is ‘clock building.’ Those who build visionary companies tend to be clock builders.”

Jim Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

When talking about strategic vision, the conversation often centers around forward-thinking leaders and bold, out-of-the-box ideas. But while performing under the pressure of producing such a vision, many neglect the ingredients for impactful, sustained change.

High-performing institutions build an infrastructure that supports all strategic initiatives. Laying this foundation is an investment in the future of the institution that opens time and energy for leadership to focus on high-level activities and ensures progress during periods of leadership transition.

Here are the three most important parts to create an infrastructure that supports strategic change:

1. Make strategic action automatic

The first step in creating an infrastructure that promotes long-term strategic change is embedding elements of strategic goals in the daily lives of all stakeholders. For example, create a line item on every committee meeting agenda that focuses on that units’ strategic goals, include accountability measures related to those goals on every staff evaluation, or schedule regular progress communication. By making strategic action automatic rather than effortful, you ensure that progress and improvement is self-sustaining and doesn’t rely on the actions of a single leader or team.

The provost’s office at Southern Utah University (SUU) automates strategic action through annual self-review reports tied to a small set of strategic performance metrics. Departments provide write-ups of their mission and strategy, how their own strategy connects with institutional strategic goals, and all high-impact practices they’ve implemented. Departments next select action steps based on whether their performance is meeting goals. They can choose which metrics to prioritize and plan actions around or use the data to support the continuance of existing successful practices.

Departments also set a timeline to complete their action steps—typically by the next year’s review—and use the review to reflect on whether they were successful or there were any unforeseen barriers to completion. This locally driven direction creates automatic, continuous improvement toward strategic goals that is tied to the review process, not a specific leader.

2. Create a shared reality

Arguments about data, personal interpretation of events, or tangential goals take time and energy from all stakeholders, but especially leadership. Getting everyone on the same page with a single, agreed-upon version of what’s happening (e.g., standardized central data set, key performance indicators, specific goals) strengthens any strategic initiative. It also eliminates a large burden to building consensus, providing leadership more time to focus on other tasks.

To get everyone on the same page for annual reviews, SUU begins with a standard set of performance trends provided by institutional research (IR) staff each spring. This single IR resource—which includes the same data for all departments—creates a “single version of the truth” regarding departmental performance. Additionally, rather than burden IR staff and departments with an additional reporting requirement, this annual review process redirects time and effort for both groups from one-off, uncoordinated reporting requests to reports directly aligned with the needs of institutional strategy.

3. Establish the foundation for a culture of continuous improvement

Some initiatives may be developed by a single leader or team; however, long-term improvement across the institution depends on the day-to-day actions of stakeholders throughout the organization. Process improvement is a proven method of redesigning and transforming sub-optimal workflows and is a key component of successful, sustained initiatives.

The most impactful, and accessible step to building a culture of continuous improvement is embedding process improvement experts across campus. Embedding these capabilities empowers staff to improve the efficiency and quality of daily workflows in their home units—providing a system by which leaders can count on staff to fix problems as they arise. Most notably, this practice demands few central staff. Instead of increasing process improvement FTEs in a central office, staff throughout the institution are trained to contribute to improvement projects.

The chart below highlights institutions with robust, campus-wide process improvement initiatives and how they established their process improvement capabilities.

InstitutionCentral FTEs at StartCurrent Central FTEsPI-Trained StaffSource of Training
University of Wisconsin-Madison26713 staff have completed lean trainingTraining courses offered for free, but in return participants must be willing to participate in future PI projects
University of Alaska, Anchorage11300 lean white belts; 60 green beltsGreen belts initially trained at U. of Washington and now provide free monthly white belt training to UAA staff
Clemson University218 embedded lean facilitators; 300 with white belt trainingAll training delivered in-house, including a three-hour white belt course and purple and senior orange belt training
Carleton University12.566 staffExcellence Canada Process Management Certification
British Columbia Institute of Technology5874 white, green, and black belts; 300+ with basic lean trainingVancouver-based Lean Sensei trains black belts that teach Lean 101 and white belt courses on campus

Build an infrastructure for organizational change at your institution

Use EAB’s From Strategic Vision to Organizational Change Playbook to prepare your institution to create bold, long-lasting change. This playbook from the Community College Executive Forum helps deliver a specific change from assessing barriers and risks to developing next steps that monitor success and embed the change for a new culture.

Under the pressure of achieving a strategic vision, many higher ed leaders neglect the ingredients for impactful, sustained change. Read our insight for three of the most important parts to create an infrastructure that supports all strategic initiatives.