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Being a Change Lead: Dealing in Trust, Transparency and Lots of Feelings

As a Change Lead for the Student Information System (SIS) Project, much of what I do boils down to communication. A significant part of that communication is disseminating information to others, but the most important part is listening—listening to colleagues' hopes, fears, concerns and suggestions for and about our project. Throughout the course of all that listening, I have developed a theory that there are two kinds of thinkers in the world, those who think out loud and those who don’t.

I am an out-loud thinker. I do my best processing and get the most out of my own thoughts if I speak them aloud and, preferably, to someone else. In order for me to make a complex decision, I need to talk through all the options before arriving at a solution. It’s important for others to know this about me and other out-loud thinkers, because otherwise all our talking could be misinterpreted as indecision, complaining, rambling or self-absorption.

I have noticed that we have at least a few other out-loud thinkers on the SIS Project team, which means we often have meetings where there is a whole lot of talking happening even when there are only a few decisions to be made. As an out-loud thinker myself, I see this as healthy and positive because it shows we’re really, deeply considering the issues at hand. But we out-loud thinkers must actively make room for the contributions of those who don’t think quite like us.

Cindy Lyons, the University Registrar and a fellow Change Lead for the SIS Project, is definitely not an out-loud thinker. If you ask her a question, she will think in total silence, and often total stillness, before voicing her complete and well-considered response. In those thoughtful pauses, she commands a subtle kind of power, and the rest of the team often goes quiet in anticipation of her response; it is clear then that she is deeply respected by her peers and her input highly valued.

Cindy Lyons, ESR SIS Change Lead

In our time working together, I have come to greatly admire her levelheaded and honest leadership, her kind but firm straightforwardness and her unwavering advocacy for those most affected by ongoing change at the university, be they students, faculty or staff. Cindy is proof that you do not need to speak the loudest or the most to make an incredible impact.

Cindy’s quiet style of thinking provides a welcome balance to our team meetings, even when, for an out-loud thinker like me, her silences sometimes stretch on long enough to become mildly uncomfortable. As I join her in Zoom to discuss her role on the project, I know there will be many such moments of quiet in our conversation and I welcome the opportunity to share those in moments with Cindy.

The Struggle Between the Head and the Heart

To begin our discussion, I ask her what it means to her to be a change lead. I have my own thoughts on the role, being a change lead myself, but I am curious how she conceptualizes it. She considers my question before responding. “Sometimes it’s being a cheerleader,” she says. “But, it’s always being the person that listens and that helps ensure everyone is going to be okay as we go through transitions.”

Change comes in many shapes and sizes. There are changes to systems, processes, practices and policies; there are changes that affect all of those at once. There are transformational changes, moderate changes and small nudges of change. A change lead (or change manager), ideally, is an active participant in all of these in some capacity.  “A change lead is someone who helps facilitate organizational change for whatever it is that we may be trying to change,” explains Cindy.

As she continues to describe her role, she hits on the most important aspect of change management: people. “We are trying to make sure that people are aware of the change, that people have time to ask questions about the change and that people have time to process whatever it is they need to process, in their own way, to ensure that they successfully adapt to the change.”

If a project were a person, project management would be the brain and change management would be the heart. Both are necessary to survive and to thrive, but, as it often is with people, it isn’t unusual for there to be struggles or tussles between the head and the heart. If project management is focused on meeting the project’s goals while staying on schedule and within budget, change management is focused on ensuring that the people who will be affected by the change aren’t forgotten amidst the push to meet the deadlines and deliverables. Change management is advocating for the people who will be party to the change while building the spaces for them to actively participate in the process and the structures to support listening and responding to their questions and concerns.

“We also help individuals process their feelings around the change,” says Cindy, “and there are always a lot of feelings related to change.”

The Role of Managers in Navigating Change

While serving as a Change Lead on the SIS Project, Cindy also still occupies her role of University Registrar. I ask her if there is any overlap between the two roles, and this time she doesn’t even need to stop to think before responding. “Oh, yes,” she says with a quiet laugh. “They have essentially morphed into the same role, and as a manager, it’s my responsibility to help my own staff to move through change.” 

It’s clear from how she speaks that she takes very seriously her own role as a manager looking out for a team experiencing a lot of change. Of everyone on the SIS Project team, it’s Cindy who is most often calling attention to the fact that our project will need the input of the same subject matter experts who have been tapped time and time again to participate in ongoing Enterprise Systems Renewal (ESR) and non-ESR projects. “As a manager, I have to protect my team,” she says. “I have to find ways to make their participation in these projects sustainable.”

Since taking on her change lead role Cindy has come to realize the critical importance of managers in the process of change. Managers have a unique role to play in change management because they not only have to move through the stages of change themselves, but they also have to help their staff do the same. Managers are also key in helping to share information with their teams. “We can’t speak to every person on campus,” says Cindy, “so we have to rely on others to be able to speak to their teams and explain the change to them.” 

To help with the sharing of information, the SIS Project team will soon be working to reform the project’s change coalition. The change coalition is a group of individuals from varying levels across the university that is charged with helping support and advocate for the change, sharing updates about the project with their divisions, departments, schools or units and collecting feedback from their colleagues to share with the SIS Project change team. 

A change coalition is essentially an extension of the change team itself, designed to ensure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time via the right channels, including back to the change team itself. “The change coalition is critical to our success because, through it, we can make sure we are connecting to and receiving feedback from various levels of the university,” Cindy explains. “We can’t have our ears everywhere all at once,” she says. “So, we need help listening and gathering feedback.”

Without feedback, the project cannot make the adjustments needed to be successful. “Silence is not helpful for us,” she says. Nor is only knowing when individuals are excited about the change. We, of course, want to hear what people are excited about, but just as much we want to hear what they are scared about, confused about, wary about or uncertain about. The more the change team knows about and understands how people are feeling, the better we can do our job of taking care of them. 

The Truth About Change Fatigue

I ask Cindy, if she could share anything at all with the university community, what would it be? There is another long moment of silence, perhaps longer than the other silences in our conversation thus far, as she considers her response. “In our process, in what we’ve gone through with the first and second RFPs, we have been doing our due diligence. We have gone through a significant amount of work and effort to evaluate each of the vendors and to make decisions that have not been easy.” She pauses again, before continuing, “Ultimately, we’re keeping the best interest of the university and our students in mind.”

The project team, project governance and our executive sponsor have all kept the student, faculty and staff experience top of mind throughout all the decision-making processes. A significant part of that experience is the “change environment” in which we all exist. The entire university community has been through a significant amount of change recently, brought about by the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic and a long series of transformational changes to systems and processes due to other projects, to name only two of the most significant factors. The community is tired, in general, and tired of change, specifically.

I ask Cindy what the role of change management is as it relates to change fatigue. “To be aware of it,” she says. “To be aware of it and determine how best to navigate through it to find balance again.” She pauses to gather her thoughts before continuing, “I don’t have the golden egg,” she says carefully but firmly. “No one has it, because there is no golden egg. I can’t just fix the change fatigue. But being aware of it helps us figure out how best to move forward while considering both the bigger picture and each individual affected by the project.”

The Importance of Transparency and Trust

The fact that the bedrock of change management is communication—sharing and listening—means that the change team and the strategies employed by the team must always be changing themselves. “None of us came into this project knowing everything,” says Cindy, “and we must constantly pivot as we learn new information.” As we learn more about the people and processes that will be affected by change, our actions and our methods must adapt to that learning. “Nothing is black and white,” she says, “and nothing is set in stone. We have a strategy for conducting change management, but even that strategy must pivot at times.” 

Because we are also experiencing ongoing change, we have had to learn to be flexible and to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. We also have had to change manage ourselves, to put our masks on before assisting others, as they say. “We have to listen to each other first and foremost,” says Cindy, “and we need to allow ourselves to go through the same change process as everyone else.”

When the SIS Project’s initial RFP was closed without an award, the team struggled with a lot of questions and uncertainties, not the least of which included questioning what the decision meant for us as a team. Did we fail by not finding a solution for the university? Could we still find a way to deliver on the goals of the project? What would happen to the project? And to the team? Would we still have roles to occupy? 

Just like anyone else going through change, we had to process that development, wait anxiously for communications about next steps and then, eventually, get on board with those next steps. “We are just as human as everyone else and change impacts us as well,” Cindy says, recalling our team meetings just after that decision was made. Recognizing the processing we had to do ourselves after the decision to close the initial RFP without an award helped us to better communicate to the rest of the university about the change. The team strives to provide as much transparency as possible about the project and the decisions made for the project. “If we know and we can, we must share,” says Cindy. “When you’re honest and share what you know, then that builds trust.” 

Trust is something the change team thinks about and discusses frequently. We know that past experience with change—be they within a team, department, division or organization at UC San Diego—influence how individuals approach new change efforts. In conversations with individuals and groups from disparate areas of the university, we hear time and again worries and fears stemming from past, negative experiences with change. The team feels immense pressure to step out from the shadow of those negative experiences and the broken trust that often comes along with them. “We have work to do to rebuild trust,” Cindy says somberly. There is no single thing we can do to rebuild, but we are doing what we can in the ways that feel right to us and pivoting and adapting where needed, and we hope that will be enough.

To end our conversation on a lighter note, I ask CIndy what she is most excited about related to the project, and she shares that she is excited about the prospect of a future post-SIS Project. “I am excited for what the future holds for us,” she says. “It is not going to be easy, no matter what decisions leadership makes in the coming months for the project, but with the right system we will be able to take our complex and forward-thinking university into its next phase of growth.” Cindy closes our conversation with a final pause for reflection, before circling back to the team’s most present goal: better serving and supporting our students. “Anything we can do to support the success of our students is important, and is our next most important next step.”

Category: News, Student & Faculty