Striking the right notes in challenging times
Following on from his reflection on the challenge of devising a strategy for the University in a time of great uncertainty, Professor Neal Juster, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, reflects on how to empower strategic change.
Empowering strategic change through creativity and collaboration
The multi-award-winning jazz singer and civil right activist Nina Simone said, “jazz is not just music, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking”. Similarly, the University of Glasgow vision of being The World-Changing University will not be achieved by words written in a strategy, but by ensuring all our people live and breathe this vision and are supported to deliver it.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote an article on the formulation of strategy during turbulent times and the need to provide a clear direction as we are buffeted by the storms and circumstances surrounding us: “A guiding star in stormy waters: plotting a path to success”.
"The University of Glasgow vision will not be achieved by words written in a strategy, but by ensuring all our people live and breathe this vision and are supported to deliver it."
In November 2020, the University’s governing body approved our new strategy, “World Changers Together” which plots our course towards our goal of being The World-Changing University through three interconnected and interdependent themes:
- Building a community of values led, civically engaged people in Glasgow and globally,
- Connecting our people physically and digitally through collaborative spaces and technologies, and then
- Unleashing the power of working together to discover solutions to the world’s grand challenges.
When setting strategic direction, leaders should provide a firm hand on the tiller. However, implementation of strategy requires our people to be supported by tools and mechanisms that can effectively harness their creativity, collaboration skills, and talents to deliver change. A world-changing university might be a way of being and thinking for us all, but effective delivery requires support. This is particularly true as we emerge from the pandemic and continue to navigate a period of uncertainty.
"Implementation of strategy requires our people to be supported by tools and mechanisms that can effectively harness their creativity, collaboration skills, and talents to deliver change."
It’s like being the band leader of the hottest jazz band in town: the leader names the melody and sets the key and tempo, but the impact comes from the talent of other band members working together. So how do make music together rather than noise?
Firstly, we must create a culture which fosters and builds on the creativity that exists right across the University. Just as jazz has renewed itself countless times throughout the decades, “World Changers Together” offers a revitalised vision of our purpose and an evolution of our organisational values, each developed through extensive consultation with our staff.
Living these values at all levels of our organisation instils a shared sense of belonging and brings our community together in common cause. More importantly, in demonstrating that we uphold these values and their implications – that we strive for excellence, we learn from our mistakes, and we work together as one Glasgow team – we reassure our people that it is safe to fail, to play the occasional wrong note, in the pursuit of better for our students, for each other, and for our partners. This provides the firm foundations required for the high-performance, purpose-driven culture we need to be a world-changing university with global reach and reputation.
Secondly, we must put in place the resourcing and organisational support to actively nurture bold new ideas into practical, tangible realities. All the musical talent in the world won’t matter if you can’t quickly learn to play in harmony with each other. Band leaders need to point out where things could be improved, how a change in emphasis, tone or tempo can make a real difference to the final recital. Similarly, in strategy, high performing organisations distinguish themselves through their ability to effectively execute their visions through effective coaching.
To bolster our own capability to execute, we have established a new cross-organisational Portfolio Delivery Unit (PDU) to provide project management expertise and resourcing to our colleagues, helping to plan activities, consult with colleagues, and keep projects on track to deliver – transforming ideas into viable, deliverable, and sustainable changes for our community.
Finally, we need to ensure that we are delegating decisions rather than outcomes. In our band, everyone gets a solo so long as they can bring the piece home together; we actively encourage our colleagues to interpret and implement our strategy in ways that work for their staff and students, but we won’t compromise on our overarching goals. We monitor our progress via a set of measures (Key Performance Indicators – KPIs) that track both our general organisational performance and progress in our specific strategic projects.
"We actively encourage our colleagues to interpret and implement our strategy in ways that work for their staff and students, but we won’t compromise on our overarching goals."
To further support this, we have established a second cross-organisational unit, the Strategy Delivery Unit (SDU). The SDU will oversee the major strands of our implementation work, ensuring vigilance around the pace and ambition of our strategic progress. By coupling the SDU with a policy of swift and supportive intervention by the PDU, we create the conditions for a rapid cycle of learning, refinement, and iteration in our pursuit of innovative new approaches to higher education.
Of course, we cannot do any of this without having great band members. During the last few months of uncertainty, they have shown what a rock-solid ensemble they are. Their values and behaviours have helped us continue to educate our students, conduct world leading research, and contribute to combating the pandemic. They have shown that they have the skills, the agility and the change readiness needed to read the music in front of them or to improvise as necessary.
Jazz legend Miles Davis once said, “when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad”, and we ourselves fully expect to hit some duff notes along the way. But we are above all a learning organisation, and if we approach the uncertainty ahead with open and enquiring minds, continuing to give our colleagues the space and permission to take risks, I believe that we will get much more right than we get wrong – and reinvent ourselves with a move into bold new territory, proving once and for all that in both strategy and music, the best performances are based on individual talent and collective passion.