Rearranging the Academic Furniture: When is the Best Time to Implement Change?

At the start of a new position, it’s natural to wonder how many new initiatives you should get under way quickly and which are better left for the future. There are, after all, two conflicting principles at work:

  • the window of opportunity that suggests it’s easier for new administrators to make significant changes early in their positions, when the community’s excitement is at its highest and people most expect innovations to occur; and
  • the notion that “you shouldn’t start to rearrange the furniture until you understand the décor,” which suggests that academic leaders are better off waiting until their learning curve is a little less steep before they start implementing significant changes.

Certainly, most administrators would agree that there’s a desirable midpoint between trying to change everything in the first year or two of a position and refusing to alter anything until after several years have passed. The trick, of course, is identifying precisely where that midpoint lies and understanding the factors that tend to make each administrative challenge unique.

If you’re about to embark on a new administrative assignment, the following factors are worth keeping in mind as you consider how extensively to begin rearranging the academic furniture in the programs under your supervision.

  • What were you hired to do? If you were brought to your position specifically to be a change agent, or if it is clear that the areas you will lead are likely to face an imminent disaster on their present course, then significant change as quickly as possible is probably in order. By waiting to see the lay of the land, you may inadvertently be sending a message to the supervisor or board that hired you that you’re not prepared to make the extensive changes you appeared to sanction during the interview process. Make it clear that you regard making mistakes as less problematic than taking no action whatsoever, and be aggressive in pursuing a plan of rapid change. But if you were hired primarily to build on an area’s past successes, then trying to change too much too soon is likely to send precisely the wrong message to both your supervisor(s) and your employees. By not waiting to understand all the issues involved in your programs’ strengths, you may end up making changes that inadvertently undermine the very factors that allowed the institution to succeed in the past.
  • Were you hired into the institution from the outside? If your new position involves becoming a chair of a department where you’ve long served as a faculty member, provost of an institution where you’ve worked for five or more years as dean, or something similar, it is probably best for you to proceed with changes that you believe to be necessary in a relatively short time frame. You’ve already had an opportunity to identify the major issues, the causes of the various problems you’re trying to solve, and the most important stakeholders who need to be consulted as your proposals are put into place. But if you’re hired into a new institution from the outside, you will need to be far more circumspect about implementing changes quickly. No matter how similar your new institution is to your former college or university, it is likely to be far more different than you initially believe. Even if some of the challenges are similar, the school’s history and the principal players involved in the decisions that are made will probably be quite different. You will need time to determine whose perspective and advice you can really trust.
  • Where are the alliances that you’ll need in order to succeed? One of the great contributions that Lee Bolman and Terry Deal have made to the understanding of how organizations work is their analysis that there’s only so much we can learn from the policy manuals, organizational charts, and committee minutes of the programs we supervise. In addition to the structural frame of each organization, Bolman and Deal also talk about the importance of the political frame: alliances, coalitions, partnerships, and conflicts. In other words, sometimes people in any organization support or oppose an idea at least as much because of the person in favor of it as because of the idea’s inherent merits. In every situation, it’s important to ask: Who are the most important constituents for this initiative to move forward? If you are entering your position with their support already in place, then you can begin rearranging the academic furniture rather quickly. If you need time to build alliances or to understand the political relationships of the various players in your program, it’s preferable to proceed slowly.

In this way, there’s no one single answer for chancellors, provosts, deans, and chairs who are wondering how quickly to implement changes after they start a new position. But by considering the three questions outlined above, you’ll develop a better understanding of just how quickly you should begin to press your agenda for major initiatives.

References: Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2003). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. His latest book is Academic Leadership Day by Day: Small Steps That Lead to Great Success (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Excerpted from “Rearranging the Academic Furniture.” Academic Leader, 26.8 (2010): 3, 8.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Carol Lever

    Thank you Jeffery. These comments and observations make perfect sense, and will help me in my future considerations

Comments are closed.