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To Adapt or Not to Adapt - Change Agility in Higher Education

By Hester Gudmunsen, Senior Consultant / 17 June 2024

Image of dice spelling the word change

Universities are facing significant and widespread challenges. The rapid integration of Generative AI in academia and work, greater expectations for personalised, inclusive education, and a heightened focus on wellbeing - all within a context of increasing financial difficulties - are forcing universities to think differently about how they operate, how they develop talent and how change is managed.  In the face of these challenges, universities must find new ways to innovate and adapt that do not compromise their fundamental principles or the distinct characteristics that make them so special. Navigating these changes effectively will become the new superpower in HE. 

Why a superpower? Many will have heard the infamous statistic from McKinsey & Company that 70% of change efforts fail. Traditional methods for managing change appear to be outdated because they are linear and sequential whereas we exist in an increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable world. The basic concepts of change management remain crucial; yet, universities increasingly need to move away from a control-based change model and towards a more agile approach better suited to an ever-changing landscape.  

The Barriers to Agility 

Shifting to a way of thinking that is adaptable and anticipates change does not come easily; there are many hurdles universities must address to support this shift in thinking: 

  • Entrenched habits: The deep-rooted habits in institutions, along with fixed ways of doing things, often result in resistance to the quick and adaptable nature needed for agility. 

  • Budget constraints: Limited budgets make it harder to put funds into necessary technology and skills, which increases the stress on resources that are already at capacity. 

  • Diverse stakeholder demands: Trying to satisfy the varying demands of stakeholders — students, academics, professional services as well as other key stakeholders — introduces complexities in managing change. 

So, what can universities do? 

Embrace Empathetic Leadership 

The first step is to recognise and reinforce leadership that shows empathy. This timeless skill has historically been undervalued, as captured in the wise words of the ancient philosopher Cicero, "If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words" (1). The era of commanding leadership is over. Being a leader with empathy means having a genuine conversation that goes both ways; it signifies active listening and appreciating what others say and think. Once a desirable soft skill, empathy has now become essential - it forms trust. Although this seems straightforward, universities struggle in practice because they have long-standing and ingrained ways of doing things, and managing a wide range of thoughts and concerns is complicated. Instead of embracing real empathy, they often opt for the easier path — holding lots of events that appear to promote engagement but lack real listening. However, to genuinely place people at the heart of change, universities must foster and reward empathetic leadership.  

Evolve University Operating Models 

For universities to effectively respond and withstand challenges, they need to make transformative changes in their operational approaches. This includes establishing a culture of strategic flexibility that enhances adaptability and resilience. Cumbersome administrative processes, such as prolonged approval times for budgets or programmes, along with siloed departments impeding efficient cross-functional cooperation, often hinder agility. To enhance adaptability and resilience, universities must remove these barriers by streamlining bureaucratic processes and promoting effective collaboration across teams. 

A well thought out target operating model (TOM) plays an important role in incorporating agility into the fabric of a university. It aligns operational activities with strategic goals, allowing for rapid and effective responses to change. If universities create suitable conditions by designing, implementing and evolving the TOM correctly, they can handle change more effectively and guarantee their long-term resilience and stability. 

Invest in Talent 

A study from Bain consultancy found that just 12% of business transformations achieve their initial goal, largely because there isn't enough investment in attracting, retaining and developing the right talent and capabilities (2). Mistakes include not focusing on the critical roles required for change, and giving too much transformation responsibility to star players who are often left overburdened. Additionally, the study highlights the importance of anticipating future needs by projecting the skills and talents that will be required in the next 5 to 10 years. 

These mistakes are frequently seen in universities too. Financial limitations make it difficult to invest properly in hiring and enhancing existing skills, as well as identifying and preparing for necessary capabilities in the future. Universities, without proper focus and investment in talent, can obstruct their capacity to change.  

To tackle these obstacles, universities must ensure their talent strategy corresponds with long-term strategic goals. Talent management must be given the same level of priority as investments in infrastructure, such as estate developments and digital upgrades. This also means implementing more flexible and competitive remuneration packages for specialist roles to attract and retain the right talent.  

A Call to Action  

As universities progress towards an uncertain future, their success will greatly depend on how swiftly they can adapt. The institutions that are likely to do well in this time of change are those that give importance to three significant things:

  1. encouraging empathetic leadership;

  2. creating agility in their operating model, and

  3. investing in ongoing talent development.

These elements are the new superpowers in HE, playing a crucial part in creating a strong structure that enables growth and includes the capacity to anticipate and manage change effectively.

At Strive Higher, we are experienced in partnering with universities to embrace these challenges, transforming potential obstacles into opportunities for innovation and sustained success. If you’re interested in having a conversation with us to discuss your needs, get in touch.  


(1) Marcus Tullius Cicero  (c. 106-43 B.C.), Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator 

(2) The Three Common Transformation Talent Mistakes and How to Avoid Them (April 2024). Peter Slagt, Melissa Burke, and Anna Cochemé. Bain & Company’s 2023 Transformation & Change Survey 




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