Departmental Change: Engaging in a Change Initiative

Joel Corbo, University of Colorado Boulder; Courtney Ngai, Colorado State University; Gina Quan, San José State University; Sarah Wise, University of Colorado Boulder

published Mar 17, 2021 10:18am

The Departmental Action Team (DAT) Project supports departments as they make changes to their undergraduate programs. In previous posts, we described the principles that underlie the DAT Project and the initial stages of DAT formation. In this post, we'll share some of what DATs and facilitators do as they engage in a change initiative together. If you are interested in learning more, we are leading a free interactive webinar (Tuesday, March 30, 12-1:30pm EST) about facilitating change using the DAT model. Register for the webinar.

The work of facilitators

DATs are teams of faculty members, staff members, and students in a single department working to enact curricular and/or cultural changes to improve their undergraduate program. DATs work on big-picture, complex challenges: curricular alignment, skills assessment across the major, support for students from marginalized groups, student employability, effective peer mentoring, and so on. The members of a DAT choose their team's focus based on their own interests and their understanding of their department's needs.

Because of the complexity of a DAT's work, DATs are guided by facilitators who support the team in leading effective change and growing as change agents. Good internal or external facilitation is a critical component of the DAT model. To date, members of the DAT project team have acted as external facilitators, which means that we are not members of a DAT's department. This has a number of advantages: we can provide a fresh, outsider perspective; we can challenge ideas or disrupt problematic behavior without worry about professional consequences; and we can focus entirely on supporting the team's, leaving the execution of their initiatives to them.

We've also seen many DAT and DAT-like teams function well with internal facilitation, in which the facilitators are members of the relevant community. Often internal facilitators wear two hats, by participating in project ideation and decision-making in addition to facilitating. Internal facilitators can bring insider knowledge to DATs that can be strategically deployed. What's most important is that a DAT have someone in an explicit facilitation role, whether external or internal. Facilitation is key to success.

So what does a DAT facilitator do? There are four components to DAT facilitation:

  • Helping manage DAT logistics. This includes scheduling, communications, , setting meeting agendas, taking notes, providing snacks—all of the nuts and bolts that keep the group meeting regularly and efficiently.
  • Supporting the development of a high functioning team. It takes time and effort for a group to turn into a high functioning team. Facilitators support a group's functional internal communication (such as following norms of collaboration (Acrobat (PDF) 871kB Mar17 21)), help manage conflict effectively, provide structures for making decisions thoughtfully, and suggest how to distribute work (and credit!) equitably. Facilitators model functional behaviors in meetings and explicitly introduce relevant concepts and structures during a dedicated "process skill" segment of each meeting.
  • Providing support that is customized to the DAT's goals and needs. Depending on the DAT's change project, they will need access to different resources, which could include introductions to different offices on campus (e.g., institutional research, admissions, advising), pointers to the literature on relevant topics, connections to external experts, and so on. Facilitators benefit from broad knowledge about their campus and the landscape of undergraduate education to serve a DAT's in-the-moment needs.
  • Cultivating an environment external to the DAT that is conducive to the DAT's success. Facilitators support a DAT in communicating effectively and in a timely manner with their department. They can also support a DAT's success by communicating their progress and successes to others who may be able to provide further support (e.g., deans, upper administrators). This not only draws attention to an individual DAT's good work, but also to the broader impacts of a DAT program itself.

On first glance, this list may seem overwhelming to the novice facilitator. However, you don't have to start with all these skills right off the bat; it is possible to develop the skills necessary for effective DAT facilitation over time. On our project team, we always practice co-facilitation, in which two of us team up to facilitate a DAT together. By partnering up, the co-facilitators can support each other's growth through mutual learning and reflection. We also actively seek out resources to improve our facilitation, like this menu of meeting activities or this chapter on supporting change as a departmental insider.

The work of a DAT

Just as the role of facilitator is multifaceted, the work of a DAT also encompasses multiple "strands'' that operate in parallel. These are summarized in the following table.

"Strand" of DAT workActivities
Developing a high functioning team that enacts "DAT culture"
  • Recruiting a diverse team
  • Setting up group norms
  • Defining team structures (e.g., decision making, meeting frequency and duration, communication mechanisms, agenda setting and note taking)
  • Managing conflict
  • Managing power differentials (e.g., supporting student/staff participation)
  • Collecting and reflecting upon feedback from team members
  • Motivating team members, encouraging participation
Growing as change agents
  • Learning about models of institutional change
  • Learning more about resources on their campus and externally that they can leverage in their work
  • Learning how to recognize and take advantage of opportunities to advance their change effort
  • Feeling more capable of creating change
  • Feeling more motivated to create change
Carrying out the change initiative
  • Defining a vision
  • Setting short- and long-term goals
  • Gathering and analyzing data
  • Defining a project and project activities
  • Engaging in project activities
  • Assessing results
Building positive external relationships
  • Gathering input from the department and reporting back to the department
  • Cultivating allies in and beyond the department
  • Developing buy-in/managing resistance
  • Helping department members make sense of the change effort
  • Interfacing productively with other units

Each of the activities listed in the table is essential to a DAT's success. The "Carrying out the change initiative" strand is perhaps the one that always comes to mind when thinking about the "work" of a change team. However, teams often rush past some activities within this strand, like visioning, explicit goal setting, and assessment.

The other three strands are even more likely to be overlooked, but they are all necessary for a successful change effort. Having an internal or external facilitator is especially important to help a team pay adequate attention to these strands.

  • Many teams fail because they do not develop ways to function effectively together. Over time, facilitators encourage the development of what we call "DAT culture," a set of values and behaviors which are anchored by our core principles.
  • Without positive external relationships, a team can spend months functioning well and developing a solid plan for improving the department, but still fail because the department has not been readied to accept the plan. 
  • Individuals on the team need to grow as change agents, in terms of their knowledge, skills, and self-perception, to effectively carry out the other strands and to increase the chances that they will sustain their departmental change initiatives. 

Ultimately, a DAT needs to engage in and value all four of these mutually-reinforcing strands to increase their chance of success.

The outcomes of a DAT's work

Typical DATs spend between one and two years working with external facilitators on their projects. By the end of that time, successful DATs have achieved four outcomes:

  • The DAT has affected change related to undergraduate education.
  • The department values the work of the DAT.
  • DAT members are change agents.
  • DAT members enact DAT culture without help.

The first of these is perhaps the most obvious, but hopefully the rest of this post has made clear the value and necessity of the other outcomes. Once these outcomes have been achieved, and internal facilitators have been identified, the DAT is ready to move forward on its own without external facilitation. Across the DAT project, about 70% of DATs have brought this state of independently sustained change to their department, while others have completed discrete change projects.

If you are interested in learning more about these processes, please see our book (Facilitating Change in Higher Education: The Departmental Action Team Model) and the free facilitation resources hosted on our website . If you have a question or are interested in following the DAT project, contact us! Stay tuned for our final post about supporting departmental change efforts using the DAT model, and be sure to register for our webinar (Tuesday, March 30, 12pm EST)!

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