4 Steps in Solving Organizational Systems Problems in Higher Education

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illustration for a professional higher education leadership 4 Steps in Solving Organizational Systems Problems

Higher education faces a lot of problems in today’s day and age – everything from decreasing enrollment, political interference, changing demographics, shared governance – the list goes on and on.

Many higher education institutions call on us to help them solve their organizational problems, whether that be a lack of board independence, changing demographics, shared governance, accreditation issues – the list goes on and on. Normally, institutions have an idea of what’s going on, but they frequently misdiagnose the root causes, and that gets them into more problems with their accreditor, their stakeholders, and others.


The Tip of the Iceberg

When presidents call me to discuss an issue they are having, they’re usually pretty good at describing the symptoms of the problem but not getting down to what’s actually causing the problem.

There’s a reason we use the saying, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.” Only about one-ninth of an iceberg is visible above water, but it’s not the visible portion you have to worry about. It’s the other eight-ninths that are lurking below.

Higher education institutions are like that. The symptoms you see are often only the tip of the iceberg. What’s underneath? What’s really going on? How can we get past visible symptoms and find the root of the issue? You have to dive down to figure out what’s going on – and then fix it.

We recently had to help an institution that had been put on Warning by their accreditor for board and shared governance. The administration was adamant that the problem (and the reason they were put on Warning) was there was a small and vocal cadre of faculty who were disgruntled, took the visiting team aside, and “poisoned the well.”

This could not have been further from the truth, but this was their reality.

In holding multiple conversations with the over 200 staff and faculty of the college, it was clear to us that the administration had completely disregarded the principles of shared governance, i.e., including and allowing input from the various stakeholders into the decision-making process of the college. It was not just a few faculty – it was nearly the entire population of the college.

When we look at breakdowns in organization systems, there is never just one cause. There is never just one piece that is slightly askew; it’s frequently many pieces of the puzzle that do not fit. Often, the biggest portion of the iceberg is leadership, its failure to recognize problems or handle them effectively, and the structure of an organization itself. These factors can run any ship aground. Every organization is unique, but in general, there is a process by which we can determine what’s broken and, as importantly, how we approach solving your organizational systems problems.


Holistic and Systems Thinking

Before we get into how to go about diagnosing organizational issues, we need to discuss systems thinking.

According to Bao Hui Zhang & Salah A. M. Ahmed[1], “systems thinking is a way of understanding reality that emphasizes the relationships among a system’s parts that go beyond the parts themselves.” In other words, it is looking at the whole instead of the parts.

When consulting with an organization, whether helping them thrive in a period of transition, increase effectiveness and engagement, or undergo an organizational evolution, my focus is often first on helping leadership embrace a systems thinking perspective as opposed to a more traditional analytical way of thinking. In order to approach a challenge from a systems thinking perspective, one must ask these six key questions:

  1. Where do we want to be?
  2. How will we know when we get there?
  3. Where are we now?
  4. How do we get there from here – close the gap between where we are and where we want to be?
  5. What will change in your future environment that will affect you?
  6. How do these changes help the organization and the people who make it up?


It is a continuous loop of actions, feedback, and evaluation that ensures you are addressing your most pressing concerns and maximizing opportunities to solve tough higher ed challenges.


Analytic Thinking to Solve Tough Higher Ed Challenges

Analytic thinking, on the other hand, focuses on:

  • Today. What are today’s problems and issues?
  • Breaking issues into their smallest parts and isolating them from the whole.
  • Solving each problem as a discrete unit.
  • Solving the problem, not advancing vision or goals.


Analytic thinking is akin to looking at a person not as a whole being but as a collection of parts. When the heart is ill, for instance, they look at it as a problem with one organ, not as an issue with the whole system. We know that approach to medicine doesn’t work; why would that approach to business work any more effectively?


Four Steps to Holistically (Systemically) Solving Higher Ed Institutional Problems

When consulting with higher ed institutions, there are four distinct areas that must be examined: outcomes, processes, structures, and culture. Of these, culture is probably the most pervasive and most difficult to change, but certainly not the only issue.

Here’s the process that we use to examine and solve universities and colleges’ institutional problems.


1. Discovery

What is the nature and scope of the problem? We go through an intensive investigative phase that looks beyond the obvious. This includes one or more of the following tasks:

  • Conduct an in-depth document review to understand the policies and guidelines that the board and the college follow,
  • Have conversations with key stakeholders (e.g., board, president, cabinet, etc.), to get their perspectives on the issues, and
  • Administer a quantitative survey to get a broad understanding of the issues and assess how they “stack up” against best practices in the respective area.


This stage is all about trust, deep dives into issues and documents, and leveraging multiple years of experience in higher education leadership roles.

As you will see in some of our client testimonials, it is often easier for us to elicit information because we are not vested in office politics, nor will I violate confidence; in other words, people might tell me things they would not tell their boss, or they would not report to their president because they are not afraid of reprisal or of being singled out.


2. Reporting the Positives and Areas for Improvement

In this second phase, we report back to the project “executive sponsor,” e.g., the president or board, what we have found, both positives and areas for improvement.

Frequently, they are aware of these, but more often than not, this comes as a “surprise.” For example, in the example given above, the president and cabinet did not believe that the problem was as widespread as it was – they thought it was just a small cadre of angry faculty. If

This surprise is not because they are inept or stupid but because they haven’t made the deep discovery that we have, and/or their stakeholders do not trust them enough to tell them the unvarnished truth.


3. Analyses and Proposed Solutions

In the analysis phase, we typically take the data that we have collected in the feedback we have received from leadership and stakeholders and formulate possible solutions. This is where the four levels of holistic (systems) thinking from the iceberg come into play.

  • What is the desired output that the client is seeking?
  • How are institutional processes impacting the output the client is seeking? For example, in the above case, the president and cabinet injected themselves into the shared governance decision-making and, by changing the shared governance process, stifled faculty and staff participation.
  • How were institutional structures changed to create the problem, and how do they need to be changed to solve it? In the example above, multiple things happened. First, the board did not have any structure that allowed for input from faculty on what was going on – board committee meetings were not open to anyone other than board members. Policies were written that required all resolutions from the College Senate to go through administration, and many of them were thrown in the trash can with no explanation. Additionally, faculty and staff were precluded from going to the board.
  • Mental models. How is the culture of the institution impacting (or creating) the problem? In the above example, the institution’s president made it very clear that he did not believe in shared governance. He attended Senate meetings only to get on his soapbox about a new policy or what needed to happen vs. asking for input. Retaliation was rampant, not only with the president but with his cabinet – they knew that their jobs were on the line if, in fact, they did not follow the president’s wishes. The president also required the “hourglass model of board communications,” i.e., he was the only one permitted to speak directly to the board, and thus, the board had no idea that the culture issue was as deep as it was.


Analysis is only one of two things that need to be done in this phase. The second is formulating proposed solutions.

Proposed solutions can be tricky, not because they are not simple – many are – but because solutions must fit into the culture of the situation. For example, at one Christian University who had been put on probation for board independence and leadership, the president did not believe in the “authority” of the accreditor and “dissed” them in chapel, it required the president stepping down from a leadership position. In the other situation described above, the president put three faculty members on the cabinet who would represent the faculty’s perspectives on issues, and there were multiple board training sessions to talk about board and faculty governance best practices.

These solutions depended heavily on our experience in dealing with these types of issues.

This is what we need to do to start solving organizational systems problems and the resources needed to accomplish the next step.


4. Implementation

Many times, the implementation is outside the current strategic plan and requires a new planning effort that gives us the roadmap needed for getting and staying on the road to success, i.e.,

  • Here’s what we’re going to do
  • Who is going to be responsible for aspects of the planning and implementation?
  • How we’re going to do it
  • Milestones (KPIs/metrics) to show if we are being successful
  • Timeline for accomplishing plan milestones
  • The implementation plan for the strategic plan


Now, I don’t want to imply your organization is the Titanic, and I’m the deus ex machina that’s going to come in and save the day. That’s an insult to the hard work you do for your institution and its people. Rather, what I can do is help you create and implement strategic planning and change management to get you back on track.

Sometimes, the fixes are very simple when you can identify which levers you need to pull: say, HR reports directly to the CFO, for instance. What you might not be hearing is that your people feel like they’re nothing but dollar signs. So, why not have the VP for HR report directly to the CEO instead of the CFO? It is a quick fix; information still flows up and down, but people will feel as if they’re more than numbers.

Even small fixes can have big ripple effects and provide great traction for solving your organizational systems problems. Regardless of the nature of the change, whether it is complex or simple, it is important to delve down into the real substance of the issue or challenge.

The only way to create lasting solutions is to know exactly what you’re fixing and get everyone on board to start solving your institutional systems problems.  It’s vital to keep your organizational systems running smoothly with consistent analysis and review. 

[1] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-43620-9_28

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