Category Archives: Updates

Things will always go wrong…better to look at what is predictable

Ed Deming used to say that ‘things will always go wrong’. This is true in the complex work and business environments that are encountered day-to-day.

We can be victims to this, much as we would be for unforeseen natural disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. Alternatively we can prepare for a likely disaster and have plans in place to mitigate its effects: bunkers, safe havens, evacuation plans.

Better is for us to be able to predict these occurrences. This is true for natural disasters, but for most of us are not obviously threatened by such calamity (which is why we probably fuss more with the trivia of the world of work!). So lets talk work – the importance of prediction is true in how we handle day-to-day ‘disasters’.

Things go wrong for two reasons – (1) underlying problems in the way things are set up we means we have cycles of good days and bad days, and (2) problems caused by an assignable factor. Deming called the first ‘common causes’ and the second ‘special causes’. the importance of this differentiation is n what we do in response to those issues. Things will always go wrong.

If performance is below the level we need on a predictable basis then we have an underlying set of ‘common causes’ which are built into the system of work – its design, the training of people, the job design, raw materials, plans. This takes a lot of effort to test new methods, monitor progress and change and embed new approaches. No quick fix.

If a one off problem occurs think – do we know the cause? Is it a one-off? Can we mitigate for that cause? What would we do if it occurs again? Fr this situation never go through redesign of the system – that will only make things worse and put what was under control, to now spin out of control. However if you find the cause then stop and think – does knowing this fact give us a clue to future fundamental improvements?

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Four years of reflection: many years of learning

search arrowThis article sees the completion of four years of blogging on this site and this is the 112th article. There is a wide range of material available across the site.

Use our search facility for any keywords you wish, to find a relevant resource.

Key themes we have highlighted over the years include:

Back to work• Don’t do it to people: understand the system of work first

trend line•   Don’t chase things that don’t
exist (like supposed trends in data)

•   Build knowledge, not opinion

•   Don’t rely on top down changeCulture change is not something that you 'do' to people

•   Change can be quick & painless at the right point of intervention

•   Leadership is about followers more
than about the leader

Bradford City ‘picked up the ball & ran with it’, working together, playing to strengths, committing effort, taking responsibility, keeping discipline, and always believing the dream!

•   Decision making can involve people in many different ways

•   Teamwork is about Purpose, Goals & Process more than about Behaviour

Some key searches which may be of interest include:
Team; Improvement; Leadership; Motivation

Key source articles include those by:
Deming; Herrero; Seddon; Senge; Covey; Scholtes


What makes us ‘professional’ university administrators?

Professionalism is something you see, hear and experience and is comprised of a set of behaviours.  A professional always aims to give the best they can.

As university administrators, we seek to maintain high professional standards.  We could do an “acceptable” job – but we always try to do an “exceptional” job.

But have we ever stopped to consider what makes us professional?  We asked this question to our colleagues in the Professional Administration Centre in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts and came up with several ideas as follows:  Our approach to service – we put our customers and users first (students & academic colleagues).  We are qualified (graduates or with graduate level professional qualifications).  We have numerous competences and skills and are good at what we do.  We strive for greater performance and for continued professional development and we belong to the professional organisation for University administrators (AUA), who provide us with a toolkit and resources to help improve our professional behaviours and deal with the ever changing complexities of Higher Education.

Students use our services, as administration staff,  as their first port of call. The blurring of lines between professional services staff and teaching staff has meant that in recent years, we have taken on more of the traditional duties of the “academic” and there is a constant need for us to provide a greater level of service outside of traditional teaching and research functions.

Twenty first  century university  administration staff sees administrators adding enormous value to, and impact on, the whole student experience, to the extent that front-line teaching, research,  enterprise and all external and commercial activities are greatly enhanced by the kind of day to day roles that we  provide.  We respond to customers’ needs, pursue complex tasks, deliver innovative solutions, drive the student experience, facilitate learning and development, effect outcomes and respond to change.  As professional university administrators, we provide high quality professional services, we have developed an appreciation of academic culture, are sensitive to the needs of a variety of diverse clients, accept responsibility for our actions and share expertise and good practice.  As such, the crucial role we play is integral to the strategic success of the University of Kent

In the light of the University of Kent’s 50th anniversary, it seems like a timely opportunity to showcase how the administrative function has changed in the last 50 years.  We should be celebrating the professional value we bring to the organisation and indeed, our own professional identity.

Time for lift off: Change Academy Networks

The original University of Kent Change Academy project focused on the Faculty of Social Sciences and involved a cross-functional Academic & Professional Services team. The team developed informal networks and influenced existing approaches to work through the Faculty Learning & Teaching Forum, Student Reps meetings and other initiatives.

Butterfly etakes flight 3

The project became a change ‘test-bed’, with the aim to:

  1. Transform the attitudes and values of all staff towards a student-focus;
  2. Transform organisational culture so that the academic community embraces student learning as well as research;
  3. Ensure effective use of resources through a collaborative approach to the delivery of a quality student experience.

Associated with this efforts, the University developed new approaches to Leadership, Mentoring  and Development. The project became a testbed for developing organisational change. We now have 100 articles and commentaries on this site which we encourage you to explore. The re-branded ‘Change Academy Networks‘ aims to open an informal dialogue between colleagues and with external contacts to stimulate ideas and developments across several themes (e.g. Leadership, Change Principles, Excellence, Communication, Learning & Teaching, Research) which address the major issues of current interest within the HE sector. We hope that you benefit from the insights and experiences we share over the coming months and years.

Read more:

About Us: Change Academy.


The Buck Stops – Where?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my last blog, I discussed the importance of understanding different roles within a project. This blog takes that thinking to the next level of detail. Those who use formal project methodologies such as PRINCE 2 undoubtedly understand the value of responsibility charting. It should be stated that this blog will not provide that level of formality or detail. Rather, it simply serves as a broad introduction for getting further clarity on how roles and responsibilities fit together to accomplish tasks.

In the RACI process, generally four responsibilities are defined for each task and incorporated into a matrix framework. Common terms used in this process are: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed, although many variations of this model exist and many more initials can be added to the acronym depending what Guide to… you choose to read. We will keep it simple.

Those who do the work to achieve the task. At least one role must be responsible for each task.

This is the role that is ultimately answerable for the appropriate completion of the task, and is the one who delegates the work to those responsible. There must be only one accountable role specified for each task or deliverable.

Those whose opinions are sought, typically subject matter experts; and with whom there must be two-way communication.

Those who are kept up-to-date on progress, often only on completion of the task or deliverable; and with whom there is generally one-way communication.

Often the role that is accountable for a task or deliverable may also be responsible for completing it. Outside of this exception, it is generally recommended that each role take on, at most, just one of the participation types for each task. Where more than one participation type is shown, this may mean that further clarification is needed.

There is also a distinction between roles and people: a role is a descriptor for a set of tasks and may be performed by many people; similarly, one person can also perform many roles.

As mentioned previously, all too often we gather together and simply begin the work at hand. While not getting caught up in formalisation and documentation for their own sake, using some techniques for clarifying roles can provide a useful framework for any type of group working.

The benefits are many in using the role clarifying techniques discussed in this and last week’s blog, including:

Helping group members understand their roles and responsibilities

Clarifying interdependencies between roles

Raising awareness of the significance of contributions

Helping to balance workloads

Promoting acceptance of the structure and systems needed for the project’s success

Serving as a way in to engage in constructive conflict management if this should occur.

Clarification of roles and responsibilities will benefit the entire project and its group members since everyone will be clear on where they fit within the whole and can work together towards the vision, purpose and objectives that have been established.

Categorising Group Roles

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

I have previously written about principles that can benefit groups when they want to think together. I have also written a series of blogs with practical tips for the chair and for participants in working to ensure that meetings are successful.

But what I haven’t yet done is share thoughts on the roles of group members. Role differentiation and clarity is important to any group. There are many many ways to categorise group roles and I do not profess any particular theoretical expertise on group dynamics. Do take a look at the work of The Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent (also Twitter @Group_Lab) that researches social psychological processes affecting group & intergroup relations.

To keep things simple, as a starting point I will reference a single model used by one of my own University professors (Professor A.R. “Elango” Elangovan), which is a distillation of Kenneth Benne and Paul Sheats’ work on group behaviour that originated as far back as the 1940s. Benne and Sheats defined three categories of group roles: task-oriented roles, relations-oriented roles, and self-oriented roles.

Task-oriented roles include initiators, information seekers, information givers,  coordinators and evaluators. These roles are important in actually getting the work done.

Relationship-oriented roles serve a different purpose. These roles help the group function in a positive way. They include encouragers, harmonisers, gatekeepers, standard setters, and group observers.

Finally, Self-oriented individualistic roles generally weaken and disrupt the group. These roles include blockers, recognition seekers, dominators and avoiders.

If you have freedom of choice in forming your group, be careful in choosing your members. A diverse range of people who balance task and relationship-oriented roles will take the group forward in a positive way.

But what do you do about the dysfunctional self-oriented roles? Perhaps you don’t have complete control over group membership. If this is the case, then the goal should be to minimise or eliminate these behaviours through increased awareness and full group acknowledgment that all of these roles exist within groups. This is of course easier said than done but a start can be made by simply naming these roles and agreeing from the outset of the group creation that disruptive behaviour will not be tolerated. Coaching and feedback can also help to greatly reduce or eliminate these behaviours.

You have an idea of the range of roles you want. What is next?

When are many heads better than one?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

As a follow on to my last blog, why do we bother with groups at all?

Firstly, it is important to note that sometimes groups are formed as a conscious structural choice of an organisation. At the University of Kent, for example, staff members who were previously dispersed throughout colleges were collected into subject-based academic schools in the mid 1990’s. Professional services are similarly identified as functional units and sometimes co-located to provide support to the core business of the University’s Faculties / Schools. For example, Information Services, Human Resources, Finance and Research Services (among many others) each serve a functional purpose. While much could also be written about these groups, what follows is not focused on groups that are created as part of an organisational structure.

Rather, what about those groups or teams that are created for a reason beyond the formal structure? Research groups, project teams, working parties – these are groups that come together – usually over a finite amount of time – to accomplish a specific goal.

Why do we create these groups? What is the potential value that we gain? While in reality we do not always accrue significant benefits for a host of reasons we will consider, group decision making can be superior to individual decision-making in a number of different situations. Many heads can be better than one, for instance, when:6

  • Tasks require judgments about uncertain events and information available is either incomplete or uncertain
  • Concern for quality outcomes are high and potential benefits are substantial
  • Costs of errors is also high and it may be difficult to reverse or salvage a poor decision
  • Many feasible alternative solutions exist
  • Identifying the optimal alternative is difficult
  • Feedback about results will not be immediately available

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and there are undoubtedly many more reasons that could be added. Perhaps two key factors that are common, however, are uncertainty and complexity.

So, if groups can sometimes be effective but aren’t in all cases; where do we go wrong? What are the characteristics of successful groups? More on this next time.

Building and Maintaining Resilience

imageBy @cdvallance

The past few weeks since my last blog have been a struggle. Like many others around the University I have been battling what a colleague referred to as ‘the ubiquitous Kent bug.’ While I very much doubt that Kent is alone as an organisation that has had many of its members fall victim to a range of winter colds and flus, it has certainly been difficult for me to identify anyone absolutely brimming with energy and enthusiasm of late. Add to this a bout of cold, wet, grey weather, short days, dark nights and many work challenges. So what can be done?

For me, the only way to regain and then maintain my personal and professional resilience in relation to work is to reflect on the question ‘why do I bother?’ What do I believe about why I get up every morning and go to work? Of course I need and want a pay cheque. That is a given. But this isn’t enough for me and I believe it isn’t enough for others either. I believe we all (or at least the great majority of us) want to feel that we are making a positive difference in what we do and that we also want to share these feelings of pursuing a common purpose with others.

How do we do this? In my last blog, I shared six keys to successful change coined by leading thinker Rosabeth Moss Kanter. To recap, these were:

Show up, speak up, team up, look up, don’t give up, lift others up.

In my next few blogs I will discuss why I believe groups and teams are key to organisational success. This is partly selfish. My hope is that sharing my thinking about something I care about – team work and collaboration – will also help me rebuild my own resilience and restore my own energy in trying to make a positive difference at the University of Kent.

Leadership in Action

By Cindy Vallance


I was very pleased to be asked to present our University of Kent leadership and management programme participation certificates at the annual Learning and Development Awards Ceremony in late January.

However, before I presented the certificates I was given the opportunity to share a few thoughts with the 120 staff members in attendance. A few people asked me afterwards for my references so I thought it might be useful to repeat the words I shared with that group again here:


Everyone in this room today that is receiving an award has demonstrated leadership. This type of leadership is self-leadership and is the foundation for all other types of leadership. An American professor by the name of Charles Manz provides an explanation of the concept of self-leadership in relation to self-management. He stated that while self-management is largely concerned with a set of behavioural and cognitive strategies that reflect a rational view of what people ought to be doing…self-leadership goes beyond this to place significant emphasis on the intrinsic value of tasks.” (Manz, Charles C. “Self-Leadership: Toward an Expanded Theory of Self-Influence Processes in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review, Volume 11, No. 3, 1986, 585-600.)

The individual who exercises self-leadership does not simply respond to a leader’s vision; the individual helps to create the vision. Your achievements reflect your individual part in helping to embody a wider organisational vision for the University of Kent.

I have also noticed a number of common themes recurring increasingly in discussions across our leadership and management programmes – behaviours that appear to resonate to participants, managers, and sponsors alike – qualities that I am happy to see not just being spoken about but also demonstrated.

These themes include: collaboration, community, respect, fostering diversity, transparency, trust, breaking down silos, appreciation, balancing creativity with consistency and focusing on a purpose that is larger than ourselves to inspire and motivate others.

Everyone can help to demonstrate their self-leadership and belief in the themes that are resonating across the University by practicing six keys to leading positive change. These keys were coined by one of my favourite thinkers, Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter and are really very simple:

“Show up, speak up, look up, team up, don’t give up, and lift others up.”


Tips for Meeting Participants

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

Even if you’re not ‘in the Chair,’ all participants still have responsibilities when it comes to ensuring that all receive the full benefit from effective meetings.

Prior to the Meeting

Submit agenda items if and when asked to do so

Come to the meeting prepared to discuss the agenda at hand

Read and be familiar with any information that is distributed in advance

At the Meeting

Attend all meetings and if for any reason you can’t, send apologies in advance along with your legitimate reason for being absent

Arrive at meetings on time

Stay until the end of the meeting

Actively participate – that is why you are attending in the first place isn’t it?

Understand that within the meeting everyone has an equal right to participate

Exert peer pressure on other group members by fully supporting the Chair in managing inappropriate behaviour

Share ideas in an honest and open manner

If conflict exists, air these items in the meeting in a professional manner, not after the meeting

Retain confidentiality for any meeting items when agreed to

Once actions have been decided, support the group’s decision

Refrain from complaining about other participants or the group itself when outside the meeting

Raise concerns with the Chair directly

After the Meeting

Complete any tasks that you have responsibility for within the timeframe discussed

Share with the Chair any observations that might provide helpful learning for the future

In conclusion, the ‘how’ of the meeting is just as important as the ‘what’ since it is the collective energies, commitment and actions of the group that will help us to accomplish so much more than any of us can individually. Note that further consideration was given to the ‘how’ of creating a thinking environment for meetings in this earlier blog series.

Since this is my final blog for 2012, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been reading these pieces.  While formal comments within the blogs have been minimal, I have appreciated the references that colleagues have made about the blogs along with the retweets when these have been posted to twitter. I hope that you have found these blogs to be of interest. Do check back in the New Year and in the meantime, I wish you the very best for the holiday season and for 2013.