Aston University

empowering staff and increasing agency

Enabling staff to have more agency and feel empowered to take control of their work, through live projects

Aston asked us to help unlock people’s agency. We supported three cross-team working groups to deliver impactful projects that shifted mindsets and inspired distributed leadership.

A programme to unlock agency

Aston University is an award winning university with approximately 14,000 students and over 1,900 members of staff.

They are one of the best UK institutions for getting graduates into high-paying jobs, however, they now operate in a global marketplace so are having to think hard about how they can thrive in the face of strong international competition.

The context – a cultural challenge
Aston is a really friendly place to work, but because universities are quite hierarchical, staff can be hesitant about taking risks or taking responsibility, because culturally that feels uncomfortable.

Leadership wanted to enable staff to have more agency and feel empowered to take control of their work, as a reticence to lead and inertia affecting project delivery was identified as a significant risk for the university’s ambitions.

Initial Conversations
In our conversations about how to unlock people’s agency, we proposed a real-time programme where we could support people to both engage with a live project, learn soft skills and shift their mindset at the same time.

What we did

We ran three iterations of the programme, learning as we went:

  1. Engaging staff with dynamic working
  2. Transformation to digital help-desks
  3. Improving data quality

More on these 3 projects below.

Project 1: Engaging staff in dynamic working

In the first phase, we worked with a group of six to eight staff with different levels of seniority, to work out how to best use a newly designed open plan office space.

The background to this project
This new space had been created so that people wouldn’t sit at the same desk with the same people every day, instead it was hoped people would embrace ‘dynamic working’ and start mingling, making connections and building networks.

The space looked amazing, but people weren’t sure how to use it.

Owning the project
The working group were asked to be champions for this new space, and to work out how to get people to use it.

Our first job was to support the group dynamics. The group didn’t know each other and were wondering what their role was and how to behave across levels of seniority. Junior people wondered, “Am I allowed to talk? Do I have to be subservient? Are more senior people going to value my opinions?”

Once we had established that all were equal, taught them some soft skills, and there was a good working pattern, the group embraced and owned the project.

A framework for dynamic working

The group’s process
The working group surveyed and spoke to a lot of people about how they were using the space, and what was stopping them from using it, then analysed the data. The outcome was a maturity framework that outlined facets of dynamic working and different ways of using the space.

The framework has 4 levels:

Maturity Level How staff engage with dynamic working and the new workspace
Level one You don’t use the new workspace at all. You just carry on doing what you’ve always done.
Level two You’ve heard of dynamic working, and you’ve tried using the new workspace, but you’re not really sure what to do
Level three You’re using the new workspace regularly. Dynamic working has started to feel normal, but you may not have worked out how best to use the space ie you’re still trying to do focused work in an open plan office.
Level four You’re matching where you work to the task. Sometimes you work at home, sometimes in the new workspace. You understand dynamic working and you’re mingling and taking advantage of the networking.

The aim was for individuals, managers and teams to use the framework to assess where they were and to move up a level or two over an agreed number of weeks.

From ‘why am I here?’ to ‘let’s make this work!’

The working group was really proud of what they produced. They sent out communications, showcased the framework and ran some training.

Over the course of the project the group’s attitude shifted from “Why am I here? Do I have any authority?” to “Let’s make this work.”

People in the group blossomed. They stepped into their agency and took responsibility. And they created a really strong bond and sense of identity as a team outside their formal roles.

In addition, the framework for dynamic working in the new space was adopted.

That was the proof of concept.

Project 2: Transformation to digital help-desks

In phase 2, we worked with a group of 20 people across multiple schools and directorates who were looking to implement new help-desk software.

The aim was to support a change from providing multiple and confusing ways of getting help, to one streamlined approach.

Under the old system, help-desk staff were often unsure who to go to for the answer to an enquiry, and there were lots of points of failure. It was time consuming and hard to navigate and led to a patchy experience for students.

In the new system there would be one place, with a clear process.

New software meant new behaviours
To ensure enough information went into the new system, a lot of people had to write a lot of content. Other people had to learn how to use the software, to think about how they were distributing the support work, and learn how to use a ticketing system. These were all behaviour changes.

There was an ambitious programme to roll it out – our applied project was to support that work.

Forming the group
When initially forming the group, there was a lot of uncertainty about what the project entailed and what people’s roles were. Plus there was some work needed to bring people up to the same level of understanding.

The group encountered problems when things that had been assumed to be in place didn’t exist: for example there was only very minimal onboarding guidance for the new software, and there was nobody driving the implementation anywhere in the institution. People were supporting it, but no one thought they owned it.

The working group took ownership of the project to:

  • give it direction,
  • articulate the functionality that was required
  • work out the roadmap for migration
  • develop learning materials to support that
  • publish and share what they had learned

They created documents and workflows so that other people could follow in their path, and created some impetus. They also helped parts of the university that weren’t working together to integrate around this work.

Outcome – distributed leadership

As a result of this project, peers collaborated in new ways, where previously they worked in silos and had no way to connect with each other. They established a distributed leadership approach: they started to own and deliver things on behalf of others, communicate and link things up, ask questions and make requests of other people.

Project 3: Improving data quality

After the success of Phase 2, we supported a different group of 25 people grappling with a project to improve data quality across the university. This followed a similar path:

  • Forming the group from different levels and departments
  • Working out what the existing situation was,
  • Determining the need,
  • Doing the project work and communicating around it.

In so doing, building connections and agency in the working group, so that individuals would step forward and own the work – in the process building expertise in forming coalitions.

Learnings

By the third iteration we had a strong understanding of the cultural dynamics at Aston and how to overcome them. For the third project we were asked to run it in a different part of the institution where initially there was discomfort and concern for the distributed approach being taken. Sponsoring staff wanted to see evidence of progress against a structured approach before delegating authority to the group.

The group, which was initially fired up for the challenge, lost a little confidence and temporarily reverted to a more typical response to authority: delivering the requested work without voicing concerns or making recommendations. However once our sponsors felt more confident that we could deliver and started to notice new behaviours from the group they relaxed and gave the group space to develop.

By the end of the project we felt confident we had established a new norm for the group, who were able to collaborate effectively across silos, identify issues and work on solutions together.

It was fascinating to experience the impact the concerns of the project sponsors had on the group and to work through the process of building confidence and winning them over to the approach.

It was an important lesson in managing the expectations and accommodating the instinctive uneasiness towards new ways of working present in most organisations.

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