by Tom Irvine

Bowie Opening Shot The Breakfast Club

I’m a closet Bowie fan and old enough to have worn 4-inch platform heels with super-wide flared trousers (what were they called?) that had four-inch waistbands with loads of buttons. Bottle green they were – uugh! Probably nothing to do with Bowie but it’s my blog and I can toddle off in random directions if I like!

I had a bit of a surreal Bowie experience at an event that the Leadership Foundation ran just before the summer – a bit random really. The event was a consultation event with about 40 organisational development, HR & staff development folk who had helped us shape our new range of services that we now call “Supporting Change”. The event was a ‘thank you’ to those who had given of their time to help us think this through during the development phase. Towards the end of the event we rearranged the room by moving the tables out of the way and creating a large circle of chairs so we could all see each other. The topic we were discussing was examples of ‘change’ from other sectors. The question was asked “How many of you have experience of supporting or leading change in other sectors?” The response was astonishing – almost everybody put their hand up! People were asked to talk about their experiences of change – and we heard from colleagues who had worked in financial services, retail, and many other private sector and public sector organisations.

My ‘Bowie’ moment came as we were sharing experiences. Here we were consulting about change and the words (above) of ch-ch (you know the rest – sing along!) came flooding back to me.

It was quite clear that colleagues were in their own ways seeking to find methods of supporting change in this most complex of change environments – higher education. And quite aware of what they are ‘going through’. (Don’t know who was doing the spitting, but I’ll have a word).

As the discussion went on colleagues began talking about the challenges they face when trying to support change in the own institutions. Some spoke passionately about how close they felt to the ‘change agenda’ but others felt under-valued and found it difficult to have their skills and experiences of supporting change ‘heard’ or recognised. We spoke about ways of using the expertise from another institution – recognising how difficult it is to be a ‘prophet in your own land’ – but also accepted the practical challenges this posed to the group.

I left the day feeling that we had touched upon a really important issue – how we support those in OD, HR and staff development roles to be agents of change in their own (and possibly other) institutions. What is clear to me is that many leaders in higher education – and I think this is perhaps even more true for academic leaders – have not been trained or developed to lead complex change. The Leadership Foundation has its part to play in making a difference. We have refreshed the Top Management Programme so that it has an even stronger focus on personal and organisational change and we have developed a range of new consultancy services that can be accessed from our web site (visit LF Consulting tab). We can even help train in-house change agents.

The Leadership Foundation has a deep understanding of what makes higher education tick. We have used this knowledge and utilised our expertise to develop consultancy interventions to support the community of professionals who are supporting change in their own institutions. I know there is still more to be done to continuously support the sector during this time of turbulent change. We aim to develop our bespoke offering through regular consultations with the higher education community. I can see this more clearly from my vantage point on my four-inch high platform shoes, but the trousers don’t fit me any more.

Tom Irvine is leads the LF’s Consulting team

The Dance of Strangers: leading research teams

by Tom Irvine

1tmobile_flashmob_1At the end of July I attended our bi-annual event for our programme directors where I got talking to the inspirational leader of our Research Team Leadership programme – Dr David Faraday. This evolving and changing programme continues to be astonishing – we have run this 2-day programme more than 50 times now, mainly as an in-house leadership programme for early career research leaders. The feedback from the Research Team Leaders is just amazing.

David and I got talking about the many challenges that leaders of research projects face in a world where inter-agency, inter-disciplinary and often inter-national research projects hope to thrive. We mused that research projects rarely fail for want of the necessary technical expertise, knowledge or application. The funding review processes are generally excellent at establishing that these elements are in place and the competition drives up the quality of the applications in these areas. However, there are many examples of projects which do fail, or are less successful than they should be.

David recalled two projects in which he was involved that under-delivered due to failures in management, leadership and/or communication. The first, a major EU grant which included 10 partners – 2 academic and 8 industrial – spread over 5 nations; one of the industrial partners was the lead organisation. The first problem was clarifying the leadership. Although the lead organisation was one of the industrial partners, the individual in charge changed more than once. But, even more problematic, it become clear early on in the project that the lead organisation was not really prepared to (or capable of) taking on that role and was expecting one of the academic institutions to do it. This wasn’t allowed under the funding rules, but the industrial partner had the purse strings and the institution was committed having recruited a team of three post docs for two years to work on the project. This resulted in a complex and very ineffective leadership structure for the project and real problems arose when it came to decision- making, especially when all the partners were involved. In the end, despite all of this, there was some high research output and most of the industrial partners were very happy. However, the delivery could have been much more impactful. Issues similar to this are frequently discussed on the Research Team Leadership programme, where academics describe how they are grappling with leading multi-partner/institution projects

The second case concerned a principal investigator. The nub of the problem here was – in David’s words – simply based on the PI’s inability to effectively lead and manage a very talented, but highly independent post doc. David said: “The post doc was young and enthusiastic, as was the PI. But the PI was inexperienced at the time, particularly in being able to keep their post doc focussed on the core task specified in the proposal. His boundary setting was good, but his ability to maintain those boundaries and have the ‘difficult conversations’ was poor – needless to say the PI learnt a lot!”

This particular issue comes up in one form or another on almost every Research Team Leadership we do. Often we find that researchers spread themselves too thinly as they have too many concurrent research commitments. Ultimately, the research output from these projects can be much less than planned for, even if the technical quality remains high.

If these cases resonate with you then you may find it useful to talk these issues through with David Faraday. He’s great at tailoring the RTL programme to the needs of an institution – and has run a whole series of programmes at institutions such as Cardiff and Birmingham.

Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s consulting team, full details on all the Leadership Foundation’s research programmes can be found here: Research Programmes.