University leaders need to have confidence that the transformation projects being undertaken are the right ones, being delivered at the right times, and for the right reasons.  But in the complex HE landscape, it's easy to be pulled off course and to end up miles from where you intended to be.  Here, SUMS Associate Consultant Amy Bray explains how a portfolio assurance approach can help university leaders stay on track and deliver the right changes at the right times.

It’s tough to deliver successful university change. In the rapidly evolving Higher Education multiverse, with so many projects on the go at any one time, many senior leaders in the sector are left wondering: Are we still doing the right things? Have we got the capacity (and capability) to deliver what we have committed to or already started?  What should we stop, start and continue? How do all of these changes hang together? Where is this being coordinated?

Often the answer to more than one of these questions is: I simply don’t know.  The volume and scale of transformation activity can be utterly overwhelming, both to new joiners to the university as well as the existing staff who may have lost track – or simply do not have the visibility – of the many change projects underway.

Making visible a common understanding of the big picture of change activity within the institution is an excellent place to start.  By building this necessary understanding, it is then possible to engage the organisation, focus on priorities and make decisions.

Here, we consider how a Change Portfolio Assurance (CPA) Approach can help university decision-makers get a grip on their change portfolios, align these with organisational priorities and focus on what will make the biggest difference for students and staff.  The result: a more efficient transformation portfolio that makes the most of organisational resources and has the biggest impact.

The Challenge for Higher Education Leaders

I have lost count of the number of ‘transformational’ change programmes and projects I have seen started and implemented – or partially implemented – because of the desires of a single individual.  This often happens even where the rationale for the change may not be immediately obvious or supported by the entire top team.  This is clearly not a solid foundation for successful university change.

Politics and personal passions play a critical part in the dynamics of just about every senior leadership team.  I am not about to suggest that this shouldn’t be a natural and indeed, expected, characteristic of organisational interpersonal dynamics.

However, the challenge for all HE institutions – the one that often keeps leaders awake at night – is to look beyond the individual initiative that appears to be a fantastic opportunity and ensure that the right combination of change initiatives is being pursued to deliver the strategic vision and goals of the organisation.

What Does Good Look Like?

This portfolio of transformative activity should:

  1. Clearly align with the university’s strategic objectives (and if it doesn’t, who’s asking: why are we doing this?).
  2. Be informed by key management information and insight to ensure only the projects that matter most get started.

Again, if the evidence isn’t there to support kicking off this particular change, at this particular time, who is challenging by asking: why this and why now?

In HE, decision-making about the transformation portfolio must also consider the cycle of the academic year.  The ebb and flow of activity around recruitment, enrolment, graduation and assessment, for instance, will have a significant impact on the organisational ability to support, inform, and embed any planned changes.  Too often have I seen projects fall flat as the capacity of the people expected to enable or embed the change has not been fully considered.

Benefits of Change Portfolio Assurance

Using a CPA Approach is rather like having institutional air traffic control. The radar allows teams to know what’s in the air, see around corners, avoid mid-air collisions and land safely on schedule.

CPA has been used to provide institution-wide visibility and oversight of the major change initiatives universities deemed to be of the highest impact and complexity, taking an interconnected approach with risk and resource management.  One of the valuable tools used in the CPA approach is the resource implications heatmap, developed to present the collective demands on organisational capacity.  The heatmap takes into account the change underway, the change planned and the core business over a defined period of time.

In brief:

  • Clearly articulating the whole picture is challenging, yet vital for building a common language of transformation.
  • CPA provides leaders, governing boards, investors and staff with the confidence it can be delivered – and that action will be taken if it looks like it cannot.
  • It can be surprising to discover just how many projects and change initiatives are on the go (and how much this is all likely to cost).
  • It quickly becomes evident whether it is all needed or aligned with the university strategy.
  • It helps to acknowledge that it is often a struggle to align project work with rapidly changing business priorities, especially when personal politics play a part.
  • Projects proliferate and develop a life of their own – CPA offers a means of regaining control.

Where to Start

At this point, university decision-makers may be left asking, where do I start?  In short, there are five steps that can be taken to get a grip on the change portfolio and deliver successful university change:

  1. Honestly assess the big picture.  Ask all of the tricky what, when, who and how questions.  It may be messy – and a lot bigger than expected when it’s all collated – but this is a reality check that is vital to ensuring the organisation can make effective decisions.
  2. Review the component programmes and projects.  A health check tool is a great way of consistently understanding how each individual project is doing, including establishing a genuine appreciation of the level of risk involved.
  3. Engage leaders in assessing the portfolio.  Honest, transparent discussions about strategic alignment, performance, costs, risks and benefits will lead to better decision-making about what starts, stops and continues.
  4. Establish the engine to maintain a grip on the portfolio. A Portfolio Management Office (PMO) can be a highly effective means of ensuring portfolio visibility isn’t a one-off exercise, but a considered, managed approach that informs decision-making at a frequency level that best suits the institution. It is worth adding that an intelligent PMO should be sufficiently light touch to not be an industry for its contributors, and yet offer a unique insight into how the portfolio is performing, to ensure it remains right for the institution.
  5. Consider the capability to deliver.  HE leaders must honestly consider whether the organisation has the capability and capacity to tackle this work and to see it through.  Often the necessary skills are regarded as ‘nice to haves’ when in fact they are critical to enable leaders in making some of the most significant strategic decisions of their careers.


University leaders are coming to recognise that it is simply not sustainable to continue delivering a multiple and varied suite of change projects in isolation, without the confidence that these are still the right projects, and it is still the right time to be doing them.  The funds may no longer be as readily available, or the market may have shifted.  Perhaps the league table position means the focus needs to be elsewhere. It can be challenging to know what should stop to enable something new or different to take priority.

CPA can give HEIs the confidence to adapt the schedule, carefully consider the resources required from core enabling services and openly discuss and plan for interdependencies between change programmes.  Visibility of what’s going on can be transformative in itself and underpins successful university change.

Ultimately, university leaders should have confidence that the transformation projects being undertaken are the right ones, being delivered at the right times, and for the right reasons.  This confidence should be underpinned by an up-to-date radar of activity, informed by evidence and therefore allowing leaders to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that the portfolio is efficient and impactful.

SUMS is uniquely placed to support its members and HE institutions across the sector through large-scale, successful university change programmesGet in touch to find out how we can help your organisation get a grip of your transformation portfolio.

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