Change (n): an act or process through which something becomes different…
In a slide deck for a senior staff retreat I had an image, a screenshot, from An American Werewolf in London. In the image, the hero, David, (what a great name for a hero) is changing from human form to lycanthrope. As an aside I’m going to bet that this is the first VC blog in Australia to ever use that word in staff communications. While Rick Baker’s astonishing pre-CGI visual make-up effects made us gasp in horror at something never-before seen on screen, David the character undergoing change is obviously terrified, as his human form is being lost and he finds himself devoid of control.
I captioned the image with a fairly glib subtitle – ‘change can be frightening’.
Reflecting on the last two years, 2018 and 2019, I don’t think I’ll use that slide any more.
I won’t use it because it over-trivialises the impact of change, and change certainly does have impact.
While some of us might repress the memory, back in 2018 we went through an extended period of existential uncertainty as we contemplated The Merger. The potential for major change was everywhere and quite literally everyone was impacted. The universe/university as we know it could have ceased to be. Only with the passage of time and from a position outside the eye of the storm can we look back and realise just how stressful that prolonged uncertainty was, how paralysing and debilitating was the anticipation of potential imposed loss of control for our whole institution, impacting on our agility, our focus and our culture.
If you didn’t see that particular movie - spoiler alert – in the final act the engagement was called off, the assertion of independence won out, and the probability wave function collapsed from a number of possible futures, to one, Enterprise25. We segued from potential major change to our plan.
Our plan for change.
Frequently, I find that people refer to the academic structural change currently underway as Enterprise25.
Enterprise25 is the strategy which we will follow out to 2025. Programs. People. Precincts. Enhanced research capacity. Expanded participation. Excellence. The structural change we’re undergoing is essentially an enabler of that plan. Organisational transformation. Not undertaken to realise savings. Not undertaken lightly. Undertaken because we set our strategic course, Enterprise25, and building a program focused organisation is part of that course. Following that strategic course is why we constructed the new academic units together. It’s why we are removing a layer of management from our academic structure for the first time in two decades. It’s why we are creating wholly new roles in our Deans of Programs – a first for any university in Australia. It’s why we are also going to recruit 100 new level C and D academics. It’s all part of our strategy. Part of our co-created plan.
But to enact our plan for change requires change. And currently that change is manifest first and front of mind as the academic structure change. Moving from Divisions and Schools to seven Academic Units. No matter how many times we re-iterate the mantra ‘the minimum impact on the maximum number of people’, no matter how people-focused our principles are and our approach to change is, at the end of the day we are still enacting change.
Change is happening to people and for people. Outside of their control.
And for some, that can indeed, be frightening.
I’m not sure it helps that the cold, clinical, prescribed language of industrial instrument parses us into the ‘affected’ and ‘unaffected’ during this process. Of course, I can understand why, we need process and rigour and rules and mechanisms through which we can work to achieve outcomes that are fair and transparent and understood by all. Unfortunately, the language of industrial instruments doesn’t often allow for nuance. The instrument is, by its very nature, unfeeling.
We moderate this through our practice and compassion. The language we’ve used parses us into the ‘affected’ and ‘unaffected’, but the reality is that all of us are affected. We are affected by the impact of change on our sense of identity, on our sense of security, on our colleagues and friends and on what we have held familiar for so long. That doesn’t make the change a bad thing. In fact, not one piece of feedback received during the consultation period was contrary to the proposed change or the new structure or the goals behind its initiation. Collectively, we believe in what we are doing and why we are doing it. That doesn’t change how we feel while it’s being done. I think that’s because UniSA is so much more than a collection of people who work together. There’s a connection and familial thread that runs through our whole organisation. We have worked hard to become One Team. We value that attribute, and so, when a change affects some of us, it affects all of us. It’s felt at every level because of our culture of connection and collegiality. The very attribute that underpinned us in our making the brave choice for change is the attribute that means we feel the change so deeply.
That’s why I’m retiring the Werewolf slide. It’s no longer funny. It’s not respectful of the impact of change. We all have friends and colleagues who are affected and that affects us all. We also have friends and colleagues who are working incredibly diligently to minimise that impact to the best of their abilities and to make this process of change one which is realised with dignity and respect.
The champion track cyclist Anna Meares told our graduates on the day we conferred her honorary doctorate that ‘resilience is a muscle’. It certainly is. Our muscle has been well exercised over the last couple of years. As a consequence, we’ve grown stronger. Our institution, as this year draws to a close, and heading into only its 29th year next year, enters its prime positioned as one of the world’s very best young universities – a place where we work together as one proud team, collectively leaning into change, passing through it and emerging with renewed purpose, focus and ambition for the future.
Lastly, I want to remind you, at this the busiest of times, if you are feeling the strain of change, please do reach out directly to our colleagues in PTC or access the supports that are in place to help.
Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.