Fast Project, Slow Change
There is no switch for digital transformation. No one project, once completed, can bring your higher education institution from point A to point B. Digital transformation is the product of long term investment, a series of smaller successes that build upon each other and propel an institution into a rhythm of growth and progress.
Just as there is no switch for digital transformation, there’s no singular approach to it either. In a recent episode of our Higher Digital podcast transformed, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Butler, Director of Information & Library Services at University of Greenwich and Higher Digital Advisory Board Member, to discuss one approach that has proven successful at the University of Greenwich: Fast Project, Slow Change.
What is Fast Project, Slow Change?
Fast Project, Slow Change is a two speed strategy to digital transformation. In its simplest form, it’s the notion that true digital transformation takes time – that’s the slow change – and to get there, an institution must execute a series of fast-paced projects that build towards that transformative goal.
This approach helps institutions reach their directives – be that cultural change, improving the ability to work, learn and research, or evolving a university’s position within the sector – while simultaneously making the process appealing to the organization looking to evolve. Achieving the latter is often a major hurdle to reaching digital transformation. Change takes time and investment, and oftentimes the end outcomes aren’t realized for months, even years. With fast projects, leadership, faculty, staff, and the student body can see and often realize the benefits as these fast projects are successfully delivered.
As Butler noted in our podcast episode, “Delivery breeds confidence. Confidence breeds trust. Trust breeds investment.” Once this virtuous circle is created, that is when great things can happen.
What makes a successful two-speed strategy?
While the benefits are proven, implementing an effective two-speed strategy is easier said than done. Here are four elements to implementing Fast Project, Slow Change that are critical to success:
- Get the basics right. Before strategy can be developed and implemented, there is a lot of foundational work that needs to be completed – both within IT and the business as a whole. From an IT perspective, you need to make sure that you have the right infrastructure in place, and that your information systems are appropriate and integrated properly. Another increasingly critical component is ensuring that a strong security model is in place.
Just as important, you need to understand the university’s strategy and identify key stakeholders. A digital strategy must be authentic to the university; there is no one size fits all. Your strategy needs to be tailored and laddered up to the university’s overarching strategy, and that starts with understanding where the university is heading and ensuring the appropriate governance, decision making, and prioritization is in place.
- Don’t make the strategy about technology. Instead, make it about outcomes. The hard truth is that outside of IT personnel, few people truly care about technology. Rightfully so, their motivation lies in solutions that work and have institutional impact, that impart better experiences, skills, and capabilities. As Butler aptly described, “We don’t do tech for tech. We do tech for business outcomes, and that’s absolutely crucial.”
Therefore, you must wrap technology in business. The projects you execute are not IT projects, they are business projects with an IT component. By talking in business vs. technology terms, you can make digital transformation more embraceable by the broader organization, and in turn help them be better at embracing technology and change.
This can also come in the form of finding a sponsor outside of the IT department that is held responsible for the completion and success of a project. Unless the business works with you, it can be impossible to deliver.
- Establish trust. At their core, colleges and universities are people-based institutions. You need to build trust across all layers of an institution in order to foster success, and trust first begins with relationships.
Building relationships with leadership is critical and should be a core tenant in any digital strategy. But what can’t be overlooked is taking that same time and care in relationship-building with members of faculty, staff, and the student body. In business terms, this is simply “knowing your audience.” Only then do you have a shot at delivering a strategy which is in context, because you know the business and have relationships in place that will aid you in your quest for building consensus, buy-in, and investment.
- Be prepared to iterate. Strategies, environments, and needs shift overtime. While it’s important when following a Fast Project, Slow Change approach to execute projects that address immediate needs while also making sure that you are building towards your overarching objective, you must always be reflective and willing to iterate if circumstances change. A prime example is how institutions have needed to adapt as a result of the pandemic. What started as a set of precautions evolved into a rapid and dramatic shift in delivery models and has now evolved further into a necessarily sustained approach.
Iteration is also the best way to stay aligned with institution strategy, stakeholders, and other relevant projects. Each iteration represents an opportunity to pause, reflect, and re-calibrate, all while increasing the likelihood of demonstrating value and maximizing cumulative progress over time.
Fast projects demonstrate near-term value while building credibility and trust, which in turn translate to sustained political support and investment. Slow change is the practical target (think tortoise) that is quite achievable via a series of fast projects, whereas fast change is almost always too difficult to sustain (thus the folly of the hare). Higher Digital employs a Fast Project, Slow Change approach within its proven (SEA)change methodology, which has helped numerous higher education institutions accomplish strategic change in an increasingly digital world.
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