Why Transformational Change is So Rare

I have had significant visibility into hundreds of organizations over my career, both as a leader and as an external partner. In just the last year, I’ve had access to dozens of entities as they work their way through what, for many of them, is the greatest set of challenges they have ever faced. Even when it appears fairly obvious that traditional solutions will be inadequate for what, in many situations, are existential challenges, very few organizations have committed to transformative solutions. Why is that?

First of all, very few executive leaders or even leadership teams have the bandwidth or ability to run the daily operation, manage through disruption, and build for the future all at the same time, let alone build for a transformed future. It just demands more than most leaders have ever done or experienced. On the other hand, there are many recent examples of leaders who have managed to implement very effective, short-term responses to crisis, while keeping some form of the legacy business operating. Unfortunately, many of those solutions, as effective as they are, have a very short shelf-life and are primarily transactions to solve an immediate problem. They are rarely transformative in nature.

Moreover, in many cases, particularly in higher education, institutions misunderstand what their challenges actually are. Because they are structurally built and have been refined over centuries to preserve the status quo, rather than to engage in transformative change, they perceive their challenges—and solutions—to be within the framework of what’s always been. For example, many institutions see their declining enrollment as a problem with marketing or admissions or pricing, rather than the fact that the value proposition for a growing number of students is not compelling enough and/or the ROI is so dubious, that many potential customers are choosing other providers—including those outside of higher education. Even if a school figures that out, they are highly unlikely to question the role that credit bearing courses and degrees play in the disconnect between what they do and what the market needs. Some things are just off limits–either overtly or covertly.

Similarly, because the supply and demand ratio has fundamentally shifted in higher education the same way of doing things simply won’t work. In order to grow or even preserve enrollment, most traditional colleges and universities must behave as retailers, taking market share from other institutions in the short term and generating greater demand in the longer term. For now, there is simply not enough demand for the current supply. And the COVID pandemic has exacerbated an already exacerbated an existing ten-year decline in enrollment and revenue.

In short, a majority of colleges and universities must re-evaluate even the most basic and long standing elements of what they do such as delivering content over academic terms, credit-bearing courses, grades, degrees, faculty control of curriculum, tuition as the primary revenue model, credit transfer policies, accreditation as an imprimatur of “quality,” the “one and done” relationship with graduates, and a host of other examples. In this context, it becomes clear that most institutions cannot solve their problems with status quo solutions. It’s also clear that doing the kinds of things enumerated above is miles outside of the typical college or university comfort zone!

To be fair, there are also many elements of the transformational change process that are just really, really difficult. Because it’s so rare, most organizations have little or no core competency in what is a really complex process and they likely have a culture that mitigates against change as well! That’s a tough leadership challenge!

Some additional reasons that reinvention is so uncommon include:

  • It requires people to go against their natural tendencies.
  • It requires a level of transparency, honesty, and compromise foreign to most organizations.
  • It requires a level of leadership commitment that most leaders have not experienced.
  • It takes a longer-term commitment than most of organizations are used to.
  • It’s high risk (although no higher than continuing to operate under the status quo!)

Fortunately, at Idea Pathway, we have led multiple organizations through transformative change. We are able to support institutions who are up to the very hard work of reinvention using a proven process. For a select few who have the resources and exclusivity, transformation is a choice. For most, it is required in order to survive through the current challenges and thrive into the next normal. If you’d like to learn more about the state of your own institution, please fill out the form here and we’ll get back to you soon! Alternatively, you can email us at wkp@wallacekpond.com or call 719-344-8195.

Leave a Reply