The Magazine for Leaders in Education: Limited engagements: exploring ideas and practices that lie between fields such as planning and theater, organizational change and campaigns, traditional and corporate universities, and other managerial inter

Limited engagements: exploring ideas and practices that lie between fields such as planning and theater, organizational change and campaigns, traditional and corporate universities, and other managerial intersections – On the boundary – Brief Article

Mario Moussa

Last summer, industry leaders and management theorists gathered in Toronto for three days of intense debate. Their topic: Why do organizations stumble in adapting to change? A noted thinker announced the group’s conclusion: People resist change because it makes them anxious.

Campus leaders and planners take heed. Voluminous analyses and sweeping recommendations may induce paralysis. The unknown–in the form of a thick plan–is too frightening to look at. Thus, the familiar paradox: Constituents lobby for change even as they shun it. Students complain. Department chairs battle for dollars. Star professors plump for expanded privileges. Everyone clamors for less bureaucracy. Scrap the entire system and start over? Impossible. Even if you could, few volunteers would be willing to help with the task. The prospect is too unnerving.

So, you launch a strategic review. Ensuing plans produce a few modest improvements. Meanwhile, stakeholders press for speedy change. Gridlock intensifies.

Action vs. Analysis Paralysis

Step back and consider the traditional planning model. It boils down to three steps: analyze, plan, implement … or, think, think some more, then act.

As implementation approaches, anxiety is running so high that most of your energy is devoted to managing resistance. Every flaw in a plan has been revealed. Education professionals love to think–and excel at critical thinking. It’s second nature to focus on shortcomings.

Fortunately, you have an alternative. By directing a “limited engagement,” you inspire people to act while they plan.

“Change” is drafted, rehearsed, and performed, like a dramatic production. The “actors” improvise, learning and rewriting their lines as they experience new roles. The pace is swift and exciting.

“Line — Action — Line” captures the spirit of a limited engagement. A line is spoken, an actor responds with an action, another line is spoken, a scene emerges, then another … the drama takes shape. Then it’s over. The result: a “civilizing arena where people find a common ground,” in the words of playwright David Ives.

A “change director” makes new structures vivid and tangible. Even the best plans lose steam if people cannot imagine how they will adapt to new roles. Change directors describe a compelling vision and invite “actors” to weave their “stories” around it. Inspired participants create an environment of collaboration and creativity.

Two Stories Of Change

Administrators at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown do not fancy themselves directors. Yet they used drama to implement restructurings that nay-sayers had written off as doomed. IT services were fragmented and ineffective. The executive vice presidents–or “directors”–posed a contrasting vision, “in its barest bones,” of a highly effective, centralized IT organization.

Groups of “actors”–faculty, administrators, and students–came together in teams whose structure outlined the “draft” organization. They not only met regularly, they role-played and launched small-scale pilot projects. “Organizational stories” evolved during extended retreats. Plots revealed how alternative structures and systems handled problems like exploding demand for IT services or recruiting scarce high-tech professionals. The hard data, gathered by participants, provided the “stage” on which actors performed the future.

The EVPs coached leading players on how to perform their roles. In turn, these players enacted new IT organizations. When planning was completed, everyone knew how it felt to work in a restructured system. The future was not a frightening unknown–far from it. People had been living it.

My advice: Act your way through change. Think “live in,” not “buy in.” The results promise to be dramatic.

Mario Moussa is a principal with CFAR, Inc., a management-consulting firm with offices in Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass. Mario specializes in the areas of strategy, strategy implementation, organizational design, cross-functional teams, and change management. Mario received his MBA from the Wharton School and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He is co-director of the Essentials of Management Program at the Aresty Institute of the Wharton School.

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