A Question For Jim Collins

What does change mean for higher education?

By AGB    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

Author and student of leadership Jim Collins, who lectures extensively on the subject of company sustainability and growth, will be addressing attendees at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship in Phoenix this April. We caught up with the author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001) and asked him about the future of higher education.

You’ve written that “change is accelerating, uncertainty is permanent, and chaos is common.” How can board leaders best navigate the change sweeping higher education today?

I would point to four things:

1) Be rigorous about having the right people on your bus. That is, make sure you have the right people on the board, the faculty, administration, everywhere. Pick your partner to adapt to what the world throws at you.

2) Practice a 20-mile march to deal with inevitable changes. Those who do well ask a simple question: When you look out 15 years, what is almost certain to have changed? What do we need to do today to march 20 miles a day, no matter what?

3) Practice productive paranoia. How well you do in difficult times is determined by how you act in good times. If it’s always good weather, you can squander your resources. Always assume there’s a storm coming, that things can be a whole lot worse a year from now than they are today. Productive paranoia means constantly preparing.

4) Have 15-year big, hairy, audacious goals. What do we want to accomplish that’s huge in 15 years? That allows you to zoom out from the current noise and set your own trajectory.

You’ve also written that some things should not change. What would those things be for higher ed?

What separates those who do well over long periods of time in a world that changes? The basic dynamic is the yin and yang symbol. One side is “preserve the core,” the other is “stimulate progress.” To remain vibrant, you need to do both all the time. Preserving the core is about preserving basic core values and your basic reason for being. Those are not open for change.

But we must also stimulate progress, which is very important in tradition-bound institutions. People can confuse core values with practices, culture, traditions; those things can change. Hold values; change practices. People not only confuse values and practices but have a vested interest in existing practice. The role of a really good board member is to say, “I am wedded to the value but not the practice. I can change the practice as long as I am true to the value.”

How can college and university leaders innovate but stay true to mission?

Do new things as long as they’re consistent with the values of the institution. Also, big, hairy, audacious goals. You’re going to have to do some things you’ve never done before in order to innovate.

We studied innovation carefully. What we found is it’s not innovation vs. not innovating, but actually how you innovate. To change a lot and maintain cohesion while changing requires calibration and empirical validation of what will actually work before doing something big.

What do you see as coming next for higher education?

Three things: First, there will never be a return to normality. There will only be a continuous series of not normal. History is chaotic and messy. We should assume there will be no new normal. Act accordingly. Second, get very good at asking not what should we do, but what should we stop doing? It’s just as important to have as many things on your stop-doing list as your to-do list. Third, it’s in the interest of higher ed to make sure that every single kid is reading by the end of grade 3 and doing math by the end of grade 8. The only way the whole system wins is to have as close to 100 percent of those kids prepared by age 18 as possible. If we don’t have a stake in that, then we all lose. And if your institution succeeds, but higher ed fails, then you have failed.

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