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Upholding the laws


General references:


Law 22: Transform weakness into power:


Law 9: Win through your actions:


Law 45: Advocate change but never reform too much at once:


Law 47: In victory, learn when to stop


Categories: administrivia, higher ed.


Si non confectus non reficiat

Portrait of Lord Havelock Vetinari by Paul Kidby

Portrait of Lord Havelock Vetinari. Original art by Paul Kidby, copyright Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby.

It’s a surprisingly recent idiom in spoken English, but the sentiment has probably existed for millennia.

This attitude is the biggest barrier to your case for transformational change. In times of increasing accountability and constrained resources, senior decision-makers become even more reluctant to undertake potentially risky projects. Your case must be extraordinarily compelling if it is to win the right kind support.

Not broken, but needs attention

In 2008 I worked as a project officer on shaping a new strategy for a large-ish university department. This department’s client satisfaction rates were slipping; its funding had declined; its buildings and facilities were increasingly shabby; and it was struggling to adapt to the new demands of a university that had recently been through a profound strategic realignment. The department and its services were broken.

That was a transformational change project. It came with new money and strong political support from senior stakeholders. And in the last five years that department has improved many aspects of its operations. Buildings were renovated, technology upgraded, jobs redesigned, new services introduced. Satisfaction ratings among clients and stakeholders are high.

The momentum and energy of 2008 has settled into the operational reality of 2013. The university community has turned its attention to other, more urgent problems. In our transformed department the long-term staff are enthusiastic though somewhat change-weary. There’s still has plenty of room for improvement, both in the customer-facing arena and in the underlying systems and processes that support service delivery.

We’re now on an incremental change path. In the service improvement arena our high-level priorities are guided by nine long-term strategic goals — our equivalent of the desire to protect Florence.

Two years ago my team undertook a ‘listening tour’, visiting all workgroups and asking a list of five questions that exposed gaps in the department’s internal communication and document-sharing practices. We presented the results to our senior executives and secured a mandate to implement a formalised Service Management Framework across this 200-person department.

The framework is a hybrid of several off-the-shelf schemas. We’ve defined a multi-tier service delivery model, drafted individual management plans for each of 30-odd services, established regular analysis and reporting of performance metrics, done high-level process mapping of all our service lines, and introduced a customer service charter and related communication protocols.

There’s been no formal plan or project for this work. It’s happened by stealth, one small piece at a time, and not always with an explicit link between the task at hand and the larger Service Management Framework.

You’ve probably heard of Nicolo Machiavelli’s book, “The Prince” — a handbook about getting and keeping power — and his observation that “the end justifies the means.” That book is often identified as the start of the academic discipline of political science.

Our Vice-Chancellor, himself a political scientist, puts Machiavelli’s observation a bit differently: for the University of Melbourne to achieve its goals we must be firm on the ends, flexible on the means.

In Machiavelli’s world, the only worthwhile end was protecting his beloved city. In today’s case study, the end is less lofty but still worthwhile — it’s about doing public good by supporting the university’s teaching, research and community engagement efforts.

A few years ago the philosopher Robert Greene wrote an updated version of Machiavelli’s handbook. He called it The 48 Laws of Power and those are the rules I’ll refer to in this presentation.

(If you want to debate the ethics of this management approach, let’s do it in the bar later.)


Categories: administrivia, higher ed.


Big change, small change




When you have identified something that needs changing, generally there are two paths available to you.

Transformational change is usually needed when large-scale, far-reaching improvements are required: for example, when a system is failing, a new policy is enacted or a service is performing very badly.

Transformational change involves looking at the underlying assumptions and culture of an organisation, redesigning business processes, restructuring the organisation and employee roles, and possibly adopting a new long-term business strategy. To succeed, a transformational change project must be led by a senior team and planned in detail. It usually requires an investment of staff expertise, time, technology and a guarantee of continued operational funding.

To gain executive buy-in for a transformational change project you will need evidence that compellingly demonstrates:

  • the need for profound change
  • the likely cost
  • the projected benefits

Even then, in a constrained financial environment, you may find that an expression of support in principle is not always matched by the allocation of necessary resources.

Incremental change means making improvements without questioning the underlying assumptions or goals of the organisation. Adopting new technology, introducing quality assurance processes, cutting budgets by a small percentage, streamlining local procedures and retraining individual staff can bring about incremental change. A ‘stealth’ approach to change avoids announcing the project until the project is mostly completed.

Usually in organisations this type of change is low-risk, relatively local in scale and potentially reversible. Incremental change can build capability and adaptability, preparing people for more profound transformational change efforts. However, it can also lead to wasted time and effort if the change fails to deliver expected results or is not aligned with the organisation’s strategic goals.

(The idea of incrementalism came from the field of political science. Charles E Lindblom, now Sterling Professor Emeritus in Economics and Political Science at Yale University, regarded rational decision-making as an unattainable ideal in the public policy sphere. Too many competing interests and other factors were likely to influence a decision. Instead, Lindblom proposed incrementalism as an explanation for the realities of domestic, international and budgetary policy decisions.)

Author Scott Berkun proposes that the difference between incremental and transformative change is largely subjective: “From Swan’s perspective, Edison made some minor tweaks to light bulb design. To anyone who was ignorant of Swan’s work, Edison seemed Promethean.” Small changes can have disproportionately large effects.

The challenge for you, as a service improvement advocate, is in deciding which type of change is more likely to deliver the results you need.




Categories: administrivia, higher ed.


The university challenge

Photo of a hand squeezing a juicy orange

Photo by Flickr user capsicina, used under a Creative Commons licence. View the original at


Most of my professional career has happened in universities. They’re great places to work, full of opportunity and energy. By their very nature, universities are optimistic:

  • researchers are asking questions and solving problems that have never before been tackled;
  • teachers are fostering discipline knowledge, civic values and leadership qualities in their students;
  • and staff and students are engaged with business and community partners on an exciting array of ‘public good’ projects.

These are the broad areas of activity for any Australian university. However small or large your institution, wherever it sits in the landscape of the higher education sector, we all face similar tensions. It’s a bit like a game of tug o’ war.

At the ‘aspirational’ end of the rope are educational standards, research performance and community engagement.

Tugging at the other end of the rope are regulations, compliance regimes, increasing demands for measurement, accountability, efficiency and of course financial constraints.

And yet I’ve lost count of how many colleagues have looked at a new idea, shaken their heads regretfully and uttered these words: Yes, but we’re different. We’re special. That wouldn’t work here.

At last year’s conference we heard about several examples of university-wide change programs that were driven by a desire to improve services — services for students, services for research and business partners, internal administrative services that support the work of the university’s own staff.

Most of these service improvement initiatives followed a classic model, for example:

  1. Make a systematic analysis of the current situation
  2. Evaluate (and quantify) the need for change
  3. Estimate the organisation’s capability to change
  4. Define objectives (future state)
  5. Plan and implement the change program: design, test, communicate, launch, hand over
  6. Monitor and evaluate the new system

Six Sigma and similar methodologies repeat this general pattern to deliver improvements to individual services or processes. The Lean management model is based on two principles, continuous improvement and respect for people, and offers a toolkit that includes many techniques used in other process improvement models. Balzer and Emiliani have both adapted the Lean framework for academic administration processes.

Listening to last year’s presentations and conversations in Adelaide, it was clear to me that — really — none of us are entirely unique or special. True, each of our universities has its own strategic agenda, its own campus life and working style, its unique mix of people and cultures.

We also face similar challenges in balancing idealism with reality, and we have available a similar set of tools to address those challenges. Happily we work in an industry where collegiality and competition are equally important. Conferences like this one give us an opportunity to share experiences and to learn from each other’s failures and successes.


Categories: administrivia, higher ed.


The Florentine problem

Photo by Flickr user balise42, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Photo by Flickr user balise42, used under a Creative Commons licence. View the original at

My presentation at the second University Service Improvement Conference (May 2013) was inspired by an academic historian’s blog post about the Italian city of Florence, or Firenze, during the Renaissance.

There’s a link at the foot of this page. It’s a long post and I recommend setting aside about 20 minutes to give it your full attention. I’m no scholar, and what I’m presenting here is the tiniest, lightest of summaries.

Here’s the gist: once upon a time, the city of Florence was full of art, architecture, commerce, civic life and great riches. The Medici family was at the height of its powers. And all around Italy, spilling over into neighboring countries like France, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, there were local lords, tyrants, nobles and city councillors who looked at this centre of wealth and prosperity and thought, Want.

Surrounded by envious and greedy city-states, Firenze’s civic leaders had to do something to protect the republic they loved. They appointed an historian as a senior civil servant and assigned him an office in the Palazzo Vecchio. (I’m quoting Ex Urbe’s blog post now) This was the job brief:

  • Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
  • Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
  • Go!

(That’s the end of the quoted bits.)

In its essentials, this situation is similar to the one faced by many modern universities. Funding is constrained and competition for political power seems to overwhelm our ideals about higher education and the value of research. Yet, like Renaissance Italy, we are seeing a flourishing of new ideas, new academic practices, historically high levels of literacy and education in the populace, and new ways to tackle large, complex problems that were previously unsolvable.

And in the midst of all this, at each university the professional staff are increasingly competing against each other to secure resources and executive support for ‘their’ particular fields of activity. How, then, to put service improvement into practice?



Categories: administrivia, higher ed.