By Cassie Taylor

Beyond the stress of actually living through the COVID-19 crisis themselves, college leaders are in the midst of having to make substantial changes to the higher education system in what feels like real time. From ongoing efforts to improve student services to the urgent need to transition courses online due to the pandemic, the entire post-secondary education field is confronting significant transformation.

Most people would likely agree that large-scale organizational change is incredibly challenging–even daunting. For example, schools looking to implement Guided Pathways (a set of reforms that streamlines the student journey through college) need to not only restructure degree requirements across every department, but also redesign student advising, course registration, first year experience programs, and course curricula. This is a campus-wide effort, but even seemingly smaller initiatives can be difficult to implement successfully.

Applying behavioral science to organizational change can help make transformation efforts easier, faster, and more effective. We’ve identified a set of strategies that school leaders can use to manage some of the most common behavioral barriers they’re likely to face when promoting change, from planning for needed changes through implementation of plans:

  • Unstick from the status quoPeople prefer to avoid change, especially when there are many potential paths forward or these paths are hard to compare. School leaders can mitigate status quo bias by highlighting the benefits of change and prompting those affected to compare the current approach with the proposed new one.
  • Set a goal and get on the same page When working on a change initiative, people may have different visions of the end goal without even realizing it. To address this, leaders should ensure that everyone’s mental models of the end goal are aligned through activities such as collaborative visioning exercises.
  • Connect identities to tasksChange initiatives require people to take on new tasks. Team members may be reticent to take on a task if they feel it’s not part of their defined role. School leaders must therefore help people see a connection between their new responsibilities and their established role-based identity.
  • Work together from the startWhen working through a significant change, people care not only about fair outcomes, but also about fair processes. To promote a sense of procedural justice among those who will be affected by any change, school leaders should create channels for meaningful input. 
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify Every change initiative involves many smaller steps, and little hassles along the way can have a disproportionately large impact on behavior. Leaders managing the change should simplify new tasks as much as possible, and keep an eye out for any steps on which people get stuck.
  • Build habits to make new tasks stickChange initiatives, by definition, require people to do their jobs differently — but new one-off tasks are easy to forget. School leaders should help people develop new habits by integrating any new processes into existing routines, and timing the roll-out of changes with natural breaks in the school calendar.
  • Expect delays and build in bufferPeople systematically underestimate how much time, money, and effort it will take to design and implement a change initiative. To address this planning fallacy, school leaders should help those managing the change process create concrete, detailed plans, and encourage them to add more slack to the schedule and budget than they think is necessary.
  • Leave time for integrationResponsibility for planning most change initiatives is typically split among different people or even different departments. Aligning separate workstreams at the end of the process takes more time and attention than people think. School leaders should budget extra time and attention for this coordination, and avoid tunnelling on small pieces at the expense of the bigger picture.

Our toolkit Advancing Transformation with Behavioral Science” delves into the behavioral science principles that inform each recommendation as well as tips for putting the strategies into practice. You can also find a handy overview of these eight strategies here.

While we developed these strategies with higher education in mind, they are applicable for any organization facing large-scale change. By proactively designing for common behavioral barriers, we hope that readers will be able to bring about the organizational changes they seek faster and with less friction. Leaders at colleges, universities, and beyond have no shortage of good ideas—our goal is to deploy behavioral insights to help make planning for and implementing those ideas as effective as possible.

Interested in learning more about putting these strategies into practice? Reach out to Rachel Taylor at with questions or thoughts.