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Organizational Transformation

By President Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

Since implementation of The Rensselaer Plan, the Institute has become known as a model for academic transformation. For those readers who may have an interest in organizational change, I offer this brief synopsis of how we have achieved so much in such a short time.

The Rensselaer Plan was already taking shape in my mind when I assumed the presidency on July 1, 1999. During a retreat before the end of my first month in office, my senior management team and I took the first steps together on the path to strategic transformation.

In my inaugural address Sept. 24, I publicly promised to deliver a new Rensselaer Plan that would move us to the forefront of the world’s great technological universities. In October, campuswide strategic planning began in earnest.

We moved rapidly, developing and implementing a comprehensive plan by and for the entire university in less than a year.

Now we are seeing remarkable results—many of which are celebrated in this special issue of Rensselaer magazine.

The Essential Elements for Lasting Change
Six elements—vision, courage, involvement, organization, leadership, and action—are essential to organizational transformation. More than leadership qualities, these are attributes an entire community must embrace if change is to be both systemic and long-lasting.

1. Vision.
Transformation must begin with the articulation of a lofty and bold vision. This vision must be based on an honest appraisal of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. And it must be informed by a clear understanding of the world in which the organization exists.

Rensselaer’s goal to achieve greater prominence as a top-tier research university is lofty, bold, and attainable. The vision is exciting because to achieve it will make a profound difference —in the education we provide our students, in the value of our graduates’ degrees, in the nature and extent of the research our faculty can explore, and in the world by addressing the critical societal and global problems of the day from a technological perspective.

2. Courage.
Transformation is not for the timid. Finding the means to motivate an entire community to embrace new and ambitious goals may require confronting people with unpleasant realities. And yet, motivating the community to share the vision is paramount.

To gain commitment from others requires knowing all the pertinent facts and incorporating objective observations from external advisers. The leader must have the courage to make, and stand by, difficult choices, and most importantly, the courage to empower others to pursue the vision as their own, and shape it to their own use.

3. Involvement.
The participation of all members of an organization, including its friends and supporters, enables the transformation process to profit from their unique insights and to harness their creative energy. Many avenues of discourse may be required to engender under- standing and inspire diverse constituencies to embrace the vision. The time invested will be richly rewarded. This is when “the” vision becomes “our” vision.

Before The Rensselaer Plan was finished, it had been reworked and revised by all of Rensselaer’s constituencies. Today it is truly Rensselaer’s Plan.

4. Organization.
Changing the structure of an
institution to support a chang-ing mission makes new priorities immediately visible and establishes an environment in which transformation can flourish. It is much harder to focus on “the way we used to do things” when—literally— the old organization no longer exists.
Fundamental changes were made to Rensselaer’s organizational chart early in the process to position the Institute for success and to signal where our important priorities lie.

5. Leadership.
An organizational structure reshaped to optimize change enables a team of torchbearers to mobilize people and resources, and to generate enthusiasm throughout the organization. Assembling a leadership team of talented, committed people who embrace the mission gives the process strength and energy that transcends the influence of any one individual.

In the last three years, I have made appointments to many of the university’s most critical offices through a combination of new hires, promotions, and transfers. The leadership team is now in place. In their own departments and divisions, these individuals are enabling the vision to take shape across the university.

6. Action.
Action transforms the vision into reality. Speed is important, first, because one must not lose momentum once the need for change is established, and second, because a rapid pace contributes powerfully to success. Deadlines create a sense of urgency that brings the best minds and strongest wills to bear.

The Rensselaer Plan, an evergreen plan that will be revised on a regular basis, is built for bold, visionary, and sustained action. The plan has allowed us to move with audacity and speed. In less than three years, we have seen extraordinary results. Transformation has become the new reality for Rensselaer.

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Rensselaer Magazine: December 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Marketing and Media Relations.

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