Volume 79 | Issue 2
March 2011

Implementing change in student affairs: Mid-level managers’ critical role

Eric Jessup-Anger

Leaders in colleges and universities are coming under increasing pressure to enhance the quality of programs and services on their campuses. In student affairs, this often translates into calls to boost retention, document student learning,  improve collaboration with colleagues in academic affairs, heighten efficiency, keep costs down, or simply augment services to students. The good news is that student affairs professionals have access to a large body of research and documented good practice to guide their decision making. The bad news is that even with this robust body of knowledge, the
majority of institutions struggle to put the myriad of innovative ideas available to them into action.

If professionals have access to more knowledge and better tools, what gets in the way of utilizing them to improve programs and services? Although student affairs is full of smart, dedicated colleagues committed to doing good work, they do not always work smarter or use theory, good practice, or innovative ideas effectively. Scholars have found that the “implementation challenge” is common not only in colleges and universities, but also across nearly all sectors and industries. In short, organizations frequently have access to an abundance of good ideas, but few are good at putting them to work. A study examining student affairs sought to understand what leaders and change agents could do, if anything, to help their organization be among the few that excelled at implementing innovative ideas. Lessons learned from the research project can be applied by professionals, regardless of their position, who are interested in driving innovative practice on their own campus.

The study
With the goal of providing administrators advice on how to put innovative ideas into practice, three mid-sized universities were examined that, to varying degrees of success, implemented Learning Reconsidered, a report calling for a series of innovative policies and practices. Qualitative methods were used, and 72 individual and small group interviews were conducted to capture the implementation process. At its core, the study sought to understand several central issues related to implementation:

  • What implementation process was undertaken on each campus?
  • What factors effected implementation? (Factors were defined as resources, collaborations, knowledge, skills, support, or additional variables that may have impacted each organization’s ability to implement Learning Reconsidered. Particular attention was paid to understanding factors that could be manipulated either directly or indirectly.)
  • Who influenced the implementation process and what role did they play?
  • What levers were helpful, or not, in moving the process forward?

To answer these questions, data were collected on each campus through document analysis and interviews with dozens of entry and mid-level professionals, senior student affairs officers, students, and key faculty and academic affairs staff. A foundational assumption that undergirded the study was that implementation is best understood by looking at the process from as many angles as possible, particularly from the perspective of those in front-line positions where new ideas are applied and put into practice.

After the data were collected and analyzed, three comprehensive case studies were developed to highlight the process as it unfolded in each unique campus context. Once the three case studies were completed, an extensive cross-case analysis was conducted that led to the emergence of three overarching findings.

The first finding was that the process by which Learning Reconsidered was initiated and subsequently adopted at the outset significantly affected how it unfolded, even months and years later. For example, on one campus the decision to implement Learning Reconsidered was made unilaterally by a newly hired senior student affairs officer. Although her intent was genuine, the lack of wide-scale participation among professionals in the adoption decision led to the majority of staff approaching the effort with skepticism and uncertainty. Compare this to a different campus where the decision to adopt occurred in a much more inclusive manner during a staff retreat. In this instance, staff members were engaged in facilitated reflection to determine their collective goals. Once division-wide goals were chosen, a series of innovative ideas—including Learning Reconsidered—were introduced and considered as a means to move the organization forward. The resultant decision to adopt occurred following a period of collective stocktaking that framed the context for implementation and was inclusive of the majority of division professionals. Although this highly consultative process took longer initially, the result was that a broader range of professionals “owned” the effort, and momentum increased substantially with few impediments as implementation unfolded. In short, implementation is more likely to be successful when the initial decision to adopt occurs with professionals, rather than to them.

Another finding was that the implementation process did not occur just once; it repeated itself time and again in a cascading pattern as it moved throughout the organization from the division level, through the middle of the organization, and finally to individual units. In practice, this meant that Learning Reconsidered was not adopted just once, but repeatedly over a number of weeks and months in a relatively decentralized manner.

Consequently, as the process unfolded, the roles of senior student affairs officers and mid-level professionals shifted significantly. At the outset, senior leaders played a central role in introducing the initiative and encouraging adoption. However, as implementation cascaded through the middle of the organization and into individual units, the roles of senior student affairs officers became increasingly symbolic and less overt while mid-level professionals led secondary adoption within units and then nurtured unit-level implementation efforts. On each campus, when broad-based implementation was successful, it was frequently the result of a small cadre of key mid-level professionals that shepherded the process by focusing staff attention on the effort, communicating effectively across the organization, encouraging hesitant colleagues, coaching entry-level staff, and allocating resources using a just-in-time approach. When exceptional mid-level leadership was absent, implementation floundered. Additionally, when mid-level leaders did not believe the innovation made good sense for their unit, they did not focus their time, attention, and resources on the effort.

Finally, although myriad factors influenced each organization’s capability to implement Learning Reconsidered, one consistently influential variable was the division’s ability to bolster the technical and leadership capacity of its professional staff. Technical capacity refers to division staff’s ability to actually do what was being asked of them. In the case of Learning Reconsidered, this equated to professionals being able to write learning outcomes and develop appropriate assessment tools to measure organizational effectiveness. Leadership capacity—too often a forgotten focus—is individuals’ ability to facilitate the implementation process to its desired end point. Leadership capacity includes an awareness of how change occurs from a theoretical standpoint, having well-developed leadership skills, and possessing a deft understanding of the specific organizational culture and context in which one is operating. Regardless of the technical and leadership capacity that existed, the key finding was that attention needed to be paid to enhancing both the technical and leadership skills of staff throughout the division with specific focus on mid-level professionals who were often called upon to lead efforts at the unit level.

How to implement innovative ideas
Student affairs professionals can use these overarching findings to guide the implementation of innovative ideas on their own campus. It is important to reiterate that implementation is difficult. Change leaders should expect a messy process that is fluid, iterative, and often ends up askew of the initial intent. On each campus in the study, implementation unfolded in unexpected ways that frequently took even the most seasoned professionals by surprise. Time and again, the most successful leaders were those who remained open to adapting their initial plan by listening to staff and using this information to adjust their approach as the situation dictated. Consequently, using a strict checklist approach is ill-advised as it leads to a false sense of linearity that is inconsistent with how organizational change actually occurs. Instead, change leaders across the campuses each articulated that successful efforts were most often the result of them maintaining a sense of humor, being committed to learning, adjusting their tactics as necessary, paying careful attention to what their staff was communicating to them, being persistent and patient, encouraging an ethic of teamwork, and letting go of the belief that controlling the effort was possible or even desirable.

Often change leaders are hoping to find a silver bullet, a set of behaviors or a collection of actions that, if taken, will ensure success. One of the most consistent findings in the study was that the specific actions change leaders took were less important than how and when these actions were taken. For example, although the availability of professional development was cited as important on all of the campuses, it was the timing of the experiences that emerged as the most important factor. On one campus, a high-quality professional development experience sponsored by a leading national organization was described in retrospect as detrimental to the effort because it overwhelmed the staff. The takeaway is that change leaders are encouraged from the beginning to focus ample time and attention on understanding the unique needs of professionals in their organization and the culture and context in which implementation will occur. Performing an organizational audit can provide a roadmap to guide implementation efforts. Once an audit is completed, the following areas should be considered:

  1. Change leaders are encouraged to begin by leading their organization in a period of collective stocktaking that is inclusive of all personnel’s ideas and perspectives. They might begin by asking questions such as: Who are we? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Such questions can begin the often difficult process of focusing the organization’s attention inward by reflecting on collective purpose and mission. The final component of this reflective process is the adoption of innovative ideas that might be used as tools to support the achievement of these agreed upon goals. By first taking stock of the mission and goals, the innovation can be viewed not as the outcome itself, but instead as a useful tool to support the organization’s achievement of its mission and goals. The key thing to remember is that the goal when putting a new idea into practice should never be to implement something just as it was initially imagined. Instead, the goal should be to improve the program, service, or outcomes as the result of putting the innovative idea into practice. Maintaining this mindset will allow space for flexibility, customization, and creative problem solving as the process unfolds.
  2. Throughout the process, senior leaders and champions must recognize the symbolic impact of their language and actions on the energy and attention that mid- and entry-level staff give to the effort. In short, if implementation is not perceived as a priority of key leaders, it is not likely to be a focus of professionals throughout the organization. Therefore, change leaders should provide persistent and consistent communication that goes beyond grand proclamations to include everyday conversations and ongoing discussions of the effort during staff meetings, as an example. Maintaining the dialogue in formal and informal settings is essential to preserving momentum. In this study, simply having reminders on staff agendas and providing space for directors to discuss unit-level efforts kept innovations on the staff’s radar screen. When this did not occur, the initiative was easily dismissed as the “next great idea” and was never actualized.
  3. Beyond communicating that implementation is indeed a priority, senior leaders would be wise to foster an environment that encourages and supports creativity in putting innovative ideas into practice. Campuses in the study achieved this by granting permission to staff to try new things, promoting a culture of reasonable risk taking, creating the time and space for staff to plan for and then engage in the implementation process, and publicly recognizing that implementation is likely to occur in different ways across different units.
  4. Attention must be given to the development of communication systems that encourage, not merely allow, multidirectional information sharing throughout the organization. As implementation unfolds, senior leaders benefit from maintaining a ground view perspective that informs where they direct their attention and how they might adjust their allocation of resources. Likewise, mid- and entry-level professionals in the study expressed that they were more apt to maintain a sense of agency and engagement in the effort if they could communicate emergent challenges, provide recommendations for resource allocation, and receive timely responses to their requests.
  5. Professionals’ technical and leadership capacity must be bolstered. In regard to technical capacity, senior leaders must carefully consider the appropriate timing and pacing of professional development. For instance, one campus in the study found that too much, too early without appropriately scaffolding the interventions quickly overwhelmed staff. However, insufficient attention to developing the technical capacity initially may lead to heightened frustration among professionals ill-prepared to put the innovation into practice. Consequently, incorporating a just-in-time training and development strategy that is responsive to emergent staff needs is encouraged.
  6. With regard to leadership capacity, because of mid-level professionals’ significant role in guiding implementation in individual units, incorporating strategies for enhancing their understanding of and ability to lead implementation is absolutely essential. Ideally, the effort to enhance leadership capacity should be ongoing, responsive, tailored to the staff’s specific needs, appropriate for the organizational context and culture, occur one on one or in small groups, and be developed and carried out by experts from within the institution.

Maintaining the proper mindset
A resounding implication from the study is the importance of possessing an appropriate mindset when implementing an innovation. Consequently, several recommendations emerged from the research.

First, change leaders are encouraged to recognize their limitations and the opportunities they have to influence the process. Doing so will allow them to focus attention on key phases such as the initiation and adoption decision where their influence is likely to be most significant. Additionally, as the process moves forward, senior leaders and champions must recognize and embrace their symbolic and behind-the-scenes role. They may be called upon to encourage risk taking, communicate consistently, listen carefully, respond appropriately, marshal resources when necessary, coach and mentor, celebrate successes, and continuously frame the utility of the innovation. However, it is how and when they act that is of utmost importance. In short, change leaders’ behaviors must be congruent with the environment in which they operate and they need to recognize the needs of the organization and staff. Having a multidirectional communication system in place that allows them to keep abreast of the needs and challenges facing staff is essential.

Also within this mindset, change leaders should refrain from conceptualizing successful implementation as putting a specific idea into practice in a certain way. Rarely do administrators have the necessary influence to ensure such an outcome. Instead, innovative ideas should be viewed as tools to help the organization achieve its mission and goals. In most organizations, how the innovation is perceived will shift over time as the process cascades into departments with different cultures and priorities. Change leaders need to provide mid-level professionals with significant autonomy and adequate time and space to move forward in ways that make sense in the context of their specific unit. Of all the resources and levers that emerged from the research, entry, mid-level, and senior student affairs officers all cited that having ample time and space to implement change was the most significant resource they needed if they were going to be successful.

Additionally, change leaders should strive to view themselves as part of, not apart from, their organization. When leaders believe they are combating resistive colleagues rather than perceiving them as partners, it is difficult to lead a collaborative, inclusive, and team-based effort. Implementation is too hard, student affairs units are too independent, and professionals operate with too much autonomy for a change leader to ensure implementation on his or her own. As one senior student affairs officer noted, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”

n closing, it is important to keep in mind that as a leader and change agent, the most valuable role you play might be in preparing others to lead the implementation effort as it cascades throughout your organization. The reality on most campuses is that the majority of the heavy lifting during implementation is done within units by mid- and entry-level professionals and not at the top of the organization by the senior leaders. The result is that the success or failure of the innovation likely depends on the preparation and coaching of the mid-level professionals who will be asked to guide implementation efforts in the relatively autonomous departments. Wise leaders will recognize early on who the key mid-level professionals are in their organization and spend time throughout the process developing their leadership skills, nurturing their understanding of the innovation, and providing them the time and space to lead efforts on the ground.