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The home of experts in higher education and beyond

Our consultants have senior-level expertise in sectors that operate for the public good.

We work with non-profits and for-profits including universities, schools, charities, the NHS and arts/cultural organisations.

These institutions are educating our future leaders, providing a platform for talented artists and transforming lives.

But transformation has its challenges.

And that's where Halpin comes in.

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Latest news

Collaborating with your competitors

Nov 29, 2019

We all know there is an increased level of competition between universities. There’s no doubt that this is real; in student and staff recruitment as well as reputation and league tables. Clients tell us that there is a higher degree of caution when sharing their successes, for fear of revealing commercially sensitive information. Equally, projects which may have failed are hidden away with shame, rather than used as learning tools to inform the next curriculum or marketing innovation.

So I was intrigued by the possibility for collaboration at the UUK’s Marketing & Communications conference this week. A number of the sessions showed that the success of one university does not diminish the achievements of another; rather, collaboration and sharing of skills and resources can benefit both the individual institution and the sector more widely.

The most obvious example was from the British Council, who were showcasing their ‘Study UK’ campaign. It’s a £6m project that promotes the UK as the first-choice study destination to international students and their influencers. International recruitment is critical to the financial health of many universities, but it is challenging and resource-intensive to effectively reach and engage with target audiences from all over the world. However, by aligning institution campaigns with the Study UK campaign – for example by echoing the same key messages about employability, quality of teaching and student experience - then this can create greater impact as a whole, rather than the two running parallel to each other.

Even better is that the British Council is keen for institutions to play an active part in the Study UK campaign; your university could take over their Instagram for a day, lead on a Facebook Live event or contribute to their blog. In most cases, their reach is going to be larger than any one institution, and there’s no cost.

The second opportunity was inspired by the value of university research that was completed with students earlier this year by Savanta ComRes. They were able to identify 5 key benefits of higher education:

  1. Enjoyment of learning
  2. Developing skills and opportunities
  3. Gaining vital life skills
  4. Building diverse networks
  5. Contributing to society

It’s obvious that many of these are related to employability; but the emphasis is much more on preparing for a fulfilling life and career, rather than any single metric. It seems to me that this is a message that is universal to the sector and not specific to one institution. As a group, we are missing an opportunity to be explicit about the broader benefits of degree-level study; instead we see a plethora of institution-specific messages that are reduced down to graduate employment rates after 6 months, or average graduate starting salaries. Applicants deserve much more insight into what it really means to study at university beyond these statistics and a collaborative approach to sharing this message would have much greater reach.

The final point is about working with our close neighbours. Whilst the importance of having a civic role is high on strategic agendas, the practicalities of ‘town vs gown’ can bring specific local challenges. Claire Whitelaw, Head of Communications and Engagement at Durham University, shared their approach to improving community relations after a significant increase in their student population was having a negative impact on the city and its permanent residents.

It was great to hear about some of the initiatives that are being taken to proactively manage relationships with their local communities and it is clear that this is another area where working in partnership can bring benefits. Where a city has two or more universities, local residents don’t differentiate between them – students are students, who cares where they are studying? - so it makes sense that the response from those institutions should also be a collective one. It’s another case where collaboration is potentially both more efficient and effective.

The Universities UK Marketing & Communications event was held on 27th November 2019.

The power of a review - a digest

Nov 26, 2019

Throughout November on our social media channels, we've been shining a light on the power of a review. We've shared content from Halpin staff and fellows, and we've also shared articles and resources that we've found online.

We all find it easier to plan and put new things in place than we do to review how our plans have turned out and, if required, consider how we can dismantle and rebuild things.

But if an institution wants to futureproof itself against inevitable turbulence, then regular and intelligent review across all areas of its structure is crucial. Reviewing a particular service area allows senior leaders to take and step back and appraise the results of their efforts. Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak in your approach here and there to make big differences.

Halpin Joint CEO Susie Hills suggests that seeking an external review should not come from a fear of failure and noncompliance (most institutions will be compliant); it should be about aiming for best practice and governance that supports your institution to thrive in uncertain times.

It all starts with a review. Whether it’s your governance, your fundraising, your marketing or your strategic direction, we have put together this digest of useful links from both Halpin experts and other sector experts - we hope it's helpful.

Planning vs Strategy…

Strategy is not planning, and it’s said that a strategy without a plan underpinning it may simply be a wish. Read more on separating out the two in your mind at Inside Higher Ed.

Are you in a ‘comfort trap’ when it comes to strategic planning? Avoiding making difficult decisions through habit? Harvard Business Review presents the case for breaking out of your strategic planning habits.

Building institutional resilience

A mid-year strategic review can easily turn into a paper exercise, just to tick the box. Here are some simple tips for optimising the results of your review.

The old adage ‘work smarter, not harder’ has never been truer. Here are some tips from Harvard Business Review on how to sharpen up the processes behind your operations.

When things go wrong…

Are you thinking about failure in the wrong way? Harvard Business Review offers a different perspective in their article ‘Strategies for Learning from Failure’.

This article from Forbes sets out a clear strategy for turning a business around without any knee-jerk reactions. It focuses on a simple three-step process: 1. Frame the problem, 2. Create a clear vision, and 3. Empower the team you have.

Problems crop up all the time. Effective problem-solving is a rare and beautiful skill. Rather than jump straight in with the ‘fix’, step back and let your team help. This blog on problem-solving was first published over two years ago and remains one of Halpin’s most visited pages to date.

A spotlight on service reviews

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Reviews: Halpin worked with Central School of Speech, Music and Drama to look at race equality on campus. Read more about the project here.

Governance Reviews: Halpin’s team of governance experts worked with University of Bath at a time when their governance came under public scrutiny. More info, and a link to the final report can be found here.

Is it the right time to review an area of your institution? Here’s a digest with plenty of further reading on governance that may help.

Portfolio reviews: The size, shape and substance of the courses on offer is at the heart of a university’s purpose, and it is neglected at your peril. Here’s a blog on portfolio reviews from Marketing specialist Rachel Killian.

Family policies: Do your institution’s family policies offer the right sort of support for your staff? Or are they reinforcing tired stereotypes? Could it be time for a refresh? Here’s Halpin Consulting Fellow Ailsa McGregor with more.

Performance Reviews: Universities are being managed as though they are businesses. This article from Times Higher Education suggests that the misapplication of private sector HR techniques harms individuals without raising performance.

Inc. makes the case that ‘the dreaded annual performance review is a relic of the industrial age’. Here’s their take on a new approach to performance review.

Could it be time to conduct your own performance review? Avoid getting stuck in a rut by taking an objective look at your career. Rachel Killian makes the case for a regular personal/career review, allowing you to reassess where you are and whether it’s still right for you or not.

The difference a review makes:

Here’s how London Met University was turned around by ‘getting a grip’; taking both ownership of its past and responsibility for its future.’, transforming the University from a struggling institution to one with improving scores in all key performance areas.

And finally, here’s Joint CEO Susie Hills on how bringing in an external review team can help you to bring about a culture of regular review by modelling how it can be done in any part of your institution.

In the face of unprecedented change and uncertainty, there is a clear need for universities to undertake reviews to ensure their operations are efficient, effective and resilient. Over the past two years Halpin has undertaken more than fifty reviews assessing areas including governance, health and safety provision, the student experience, facilities, and equality on campus.

If there is an area of your institution that is ripe for a review, get in touch for a conversation.

#WorldKindnessDay2019 - higher education leading the way

Nov 13, 2019

On #WorldKindnessDay2019 Halpin is delighted to share the news that Joint CEO and Co-founder Susie Hills has been chosen as one of 2019’s 50 Leading Lights by Women of the Future, sponsored by Unilever.

These awards recognise the contribution of kind leaders to business, the economy and society.

Susie is listed alongside fellow higher education professionals Cathy Brown - Director of Strategy and Operations, Advancement at University College London, Anne-Wil Harzing - Professor in International Management, Middlesex University Business School, and Vivek Nama - Clinical Gynaecologist at Croydon University Hospital NHS Trust.

She says, “I’m really pleased to see fellow higher education professionals included in the list. This is great news for the sector and shows that HE is leading the way in kindness. I’d also highlight the work that University of Sussex is doing with their Kindness Research.”

She is featured in today’s Financial Times, along with the 49 other professionals who have been recognised as beacons of kindness. They will all gather next week at a reception at St James’s Palace, London with special guest HRH The Countess of Wessex.

Congratulations to Susie, and to all the other people on the list.

If you are interested in Susie speaking on Kindness in Leadership at your conference contact us via our website, and check out our blog for articles by Susie and other Halpin colleagues who are inspired by kindness.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education fundraising, strategy, governance and marketing.

The case for a personal review

Nov 06, 2019

The case for reviewing strategy, performance and structure is a strong one but in this month where Halpin reflects on the power of reviews, I’m keen to reflect on a different type of analysis; a more personal one. I’m going to make the case that as professionals working in higher education, just as we should review organisational performance on a regular basis, we have a similar responsibility to stop and consider our own impact, performance, career journey and needs.

In the same way that our university’s external environment might change due to policy or regulation, market trends or economic factors, so too does the context in which we operate as individuals. Our family shape and size might grow, shrink or mutate into something different. Our financial situation might dramatically improve - or drastically decrease.

Our ‘internal’ environment is continually changing too. As we gather more experience, we learn more about who we are, what motivates us, how we respond to different scenarios and colleagues. Our priorities change; we might be hungry for a new challenge, or we might have a need to slow down and focus on family instead. At a different stage in our career, we might feel that our current role isn’t making the positive impact that we were looking for and seek out something that we feel is more worthwhile our time.

However, despite all of this movement through different stages, it’s very easy to stay within the same role, in the same department and institution, often for many years. This does seem to be particularly common in higher education, where the annual long-service ceremonies are typically full of colleagues who have worked for the university for 25 years or more. It’s not surprising; a university can be a ‘nice’ place to work; generous annual leave, reasonably well-paid roles, well-kept campuses with a range of sports facilities and plenty of choice of places to meet for lunch or coffee. Even better, it can feel that you are ‘making a difference’ to other people’s lives; you are playing your part in educating the talent of the future.

I was one of those people. I was very comfortable in a higher education role. My colleagues were my friends, the workload was manageable, there was rarely any tension or significant pressure and the best time of the year was graduation. I spent most of my days in meetings, with time to catch-up on emails in-between. I made the same decisions on operational plans and resource allocation each year. I followed the same cycle of activity and reporting, research projects and events. I pretended to myself that I wasn’t bored – every cycle brings something new, right?

It took a decision made by someone else for me to wake up and review what I was doing. My role had suited me perfectly for a few years – my family was young and I needed the regular working pattern and an office close by – but as my external circumstances and internal situation had evolved, I made no attempt to review what I was doing and respond accordingly. As a result, I wasn’t delivering value to my university - or myself.

It is not my intention to knock loyalty to one institution or company. Of course I don’t believe that everyone should change their role for the sake of it, or that there should be a limit on the length of time you should stay in one faculty or department. There’s definitely no space here for uniformity or rigidity.

However, I suspect we have all met people who might benefit from taking some time to review where they are, what they want to be doing and whether the ‘fit’ between themselves and their role is still as good as it once was. At an organisational level, taking the time to review what we do, and making any needed adjustments is fairly normal practice. I think it’s time that we also recognise that this process is necessary for us all as individuals too.

Halpin offers a wide range of coaching and mentoring services from seasoned experts who have been where you are. Get in touch if we can help.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education and beyond.

GUEST POST: Students finally have their say on Augar reforms

Oct 17, 2019

Recently released HEPI research shows students are ‘unconvinced’ about the appeal of the Augar Review’s reforms to HE student finance, with perhaps the THE summarising it best with their headline ‘Lower Tuition Fees? Meh’ (Daily email bulletin, 10 October 2019).

The research, based on a survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students by YouthSight, showed almost identical proportions preferring the ‘new’ system of £7,500 tuition fees paid back over 40 years compared to the current system of £9,250 fees paid back over 30 years (the reforms are of course more complicated than that, but more of that later).

This inability of the reforms to ‘move the dial’ and gather a real groundswell of support among students is, in my view, unsurprising, and, if anything, the biggest surprise to me was that only 18% said they had no preference either way. Here’s why:

1. Most undergraduates have far more pressing concerns

The HEPI research confirmed what I have consistently seen in research I have carried out among undergraduates – day-to-day cost of living is a far more immediate worry than the level of tuition fees (59% cite it as the higher priority in the HEPI research, vs. 18% citing tuition fees). Thinking about paying for increasingly expensive student accommodation, the cost of train travel home in the holidays, whether to take a term-time job, or how to secure a summer internship understandably weigh more heavily on students’ minds than the elephantine size of their future, intangible student debt.

2 For many, the differences are hypothetical

The headline changes recommended in the Review were to the level of tuition fees, which students don’t currently pay in any meaningful day-to-day sense, and the maximum length over which students would be expected to repay loans. Understandably, telling a student under the new terms they could still be repaying their loans in 2051, as opposed to stopping repayments in 2050, is not something that would typically vex the average 20-year-old. And importantly, the one thing the Review did not suggest changing is the unofficial ‘tax rate’, or the rate of repayments, currently 9%, which for an undergraduate thinking about their imminent standard of living is arguably the key figure.

3 It’s actually an unrealistic trade-off to make

I must admit I haven’t seen the exact wording of the survey (though I'm sure YouthSight did a thoroughly professional job), but whether or not a student should prefer one system over the other depends on their expectation of starting salary (a year or two away) as well as their expectation of lifetime earnings (5, 10, 20 or even 30 years away), let alone factoring in relevant changes in the future political landscape. Indeed, given all this, you might rationally expect even more students to have just said ‘Meh’.

None of this, of course, is to say the reforms aren’t meaningful, but more to admit that students were not centre-stage when it came to intended stakeholders. The potential near-term implications were always going to create more debate, discussion and potential impact among those running universities, politicians and HE Wonks than students themselves. Which, in my view, is a shame.

Alan Terry is a research expert for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education and beyond.

Inequality - calling it out is not enough.

Oct 11, 2019

HEPI’s report on ideas for reducing racial inequality is great. But what’s next?

While I was reading it, a few questions came to mind.

Who is going to continue the conversation?

Which universities are going to step up, make a pledge and meet a target?

Leadership is still a problem in this area. VCs who are great at this take an active role in championing race equality in all its forms and journeys (staff, student, alumni). They have a well-informed opinion. They have meaningful relationships with the right internal and external networks. They use a robust data strategy to inform and improve on their interventions.

How much of a role do the BME/BAME/Multicultural staff networks at institutions have to play?

They have a leading role to play. Put them at the centre of everything you do for race equality. This is where the raw conversations are happening and some of the best innovations are coming out.

What can we learn from other sectors?

It must be admitted that higher education is playing catch up when it comes to race equality. The private sector is well ahead of the game. Take Ernst & Young for example – how are they bridging the gap between the experience of partners right at the top and their new talented and underrepresented fresh-faced graduates? They are using Virtual Reality. Are they open to conversations? You bet – go and ask them.

Are we right to align funding criteria to Equality interventions such as the case with Athena Swan?

Yes. But is this the only role we want funding bodies to play? Do we dare ask them about their own EDI policies and how diverse their teams are? Perhaps there is a leadership role for funding bodies to play here too. In the same respect, I love HEPI for the report but it only took my colleague 30 seconds to point out the same lack of diversity ‘elephant in the room’ exists within many bodies related to or working with Higher Education, and it’s an issue we are well aware of at Halpin too. Is the report enough? Maybe. But the perception of your organisation and its lack of representation is real.

How important is the Race Equality Charter (REC)?

The REC has received mixed reviews up and down the country from HR teams and leadership committees across the sector. In my experience this has blighted REC’s reputation, and therefore its effectiveness. If REC is to have any kind of impact like Athena Swan or Stone Wall then we need to work with it. Let’s not get too hung up on the semantics – it’s never going to be perfect – The notion of ‘Race’ itself is not perfect. What the REC provides is a target and that is the best way to start achieving some change.

There are some home truths in HEPI’s report, and in the comments from various authors of the essays.

The one that hit home for me was that...

This is an equality emergency.

Action has to be taken.

Working in higher education, we strive to solve the most pressing challenges in the world. Imagining that we can do this as one homogeneous group is a mistake. In fact, it's probably how we got to this situation in the first place.

If you want to effect real change at your institution, get in touch. Halpin’s consultants conduct equality, diversity and inclusion reviews to help institutions achieve best practice.

Fezzan Ahmed is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education and beyond.

Mental Health – what are we doing?

Oct 09, 2019

I have four children in schools at the moment, from the ages of 6 to 15. Every one of them has weekly homework, even the 6-year-old. The pressure on the others to perform well in SATs, mocks, yearly tests etc. is ever mounting, and that’s not to mention actual GCSEs which my eldest will be undertaking this year.

What are we doing?

In the workplace, we are addicted to growth and ever-increasing performance. Now everyone wants to progress in their role, and do better, but the growth model seems to be fraying at the edges. What happens if the projected budgets don’t perform as they should for organisations? In my experience we simply reason that away with certain things being “abnormalities”, by making a bigger target next year, and putting more pressure on those already struggling to meet the targets they currently have. Are we trying to push in order to get the best out of people, or are we simply setting them up for failure?

Are we facing reality?

All of this pressure in education and in the workplace seems to be leading to an epidemic of mental illness. Everyone in their lives will be touched by this, whether as a sufferer or the friend of family of someone who is affected. Often both. Unfortunately, proactively looking after our mental health comes a sorry second to the need to perform and to be seen to be doing so, and proactive strategies are only usually used after someone has suffered a crisis: an exercise regime, eating and sleeping well, dealing with stress appropriately and reaching out when you need help are all part of the things we should all be doing all the time.

Are we proactively helping each other?

We can often see when a friend or colleague is struggling, but somehow we don’t speak up and we let that situation continue until crisis point. It can be a hard conversation to have with someone, but isn’t that better than regretting the fact that you never tried to say anything? So often a turning point in someone’s life (listen to any interview) is when someone was brave enough to say, “I’m worried about you, you need to think about what you’re doing”.

Where do you get help?

The statistics on research and the availability of help on the NHS are frankly not great. The fraction of money that goes into mental health research, despite it being a leading cause of death for people up to the age of 49, is vastly, vastly less than that for cancer, for example. Child and Adolescent Mental Health is in desperate need of more psychologists, clinicians and funding. But the Charities absolutely do exist if you need to reach out. Samaritans, Mind, Young Minds, Think Twice etc. But the very best first port of call is your local GP. Don’t wait to get help, and the NHS has launched ‘One You – Every Mind Matters’ – a collection of resources as a place to start online.

What can we all do?

Back to where I started, every business wants to perform well, whether that is for-profit or otherwise. But performing well doesn’t have to come at the expense of your mental health. Achieving a balance is absolutely key. After all, who actually thinks family should come second? I haven’t heard that used much as a phrase.

At Halpin, we try to encourage people to take their wellness seriously, and have made taking some time out part of our away days. That might sound odd, but someone who has taken a bit of time for themselves then has more to contribute to others. We aren’t perfect, but we are consciously trying to do things differently.

So make space in your life to do the things you need to do in order to feel mentally well. Take some time, and get things in balance. If you are the one setting targets, make them so that they can actually be achieved, and with input from those who are subject to them. And please do reach out to those around you when you are suffering, and when you see others heading for a fall.

That’s what we can do.

Halpin can undertake a review of your workplace mental health or your provision for students - get in touch to find out more.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education and beyond

Case Study: City Law School

Sep 30, 2019

Service: Market Position, Strategic Restructure advice

Since August 2018, Halpin has been working with City Law School, firstly to undertake a review on their market position and more recently to provide strategic advice and support around their decision to restructure the School.

City Law School is facing unprecedented change, with both external drivers (such as changes being proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board), and internal changes (huge increase in LLB students, the consolidation of the ‘Practice’ and ‘Academic’ aspects into a new building).

In light of this period of change, and prior to the appointment of the new Dean of the Law School, Halpin was commissioned to review CLS’s market position, and to recommend a constructive path forward.

Our work with the Law School to find its market position led to further research regarding the future of legal education. The additional research was designed to gather evidence from undergraduate LLB and BPTC students on their programmes, as well as to canvas institutional opinion from professional services and academic staff on how to transform into a nimble, innovative and highly rated School.

Our findings were presented to the new Dean of the Law School in January 2019 and the next phase of our work – on refining the BPTC programme via testing with employers – is scheduled to commence in February.


  • Realistic evidence-based benchmarking.
  • Clear recommendations on developing new offerings to satisfy the direction of legal education in the future.
  • Strategy for increasing market share in international recruitment.
  • Further recommendations regarding structure and management as well as teaching and student experience to facilitate any future change.

What can HE learn from the collapse of Thomas Cook?

Sep 27, 2019

1. “One-offs happen all the time.”

Thomas Cook has been buffeted by “one offs” - volcanic ash clouds in 2010, the Arab spring in 2011, heat waves and Brexit. In the face of increased uncertainty and damaging ‘events’, the board should have focused on debt reduction to increase resilience of the business. HE institutions waiting for the upturn in demographics and resolution of Brexit to deliver student numbers take note - there will be other “one off” events in these uncertain times.

2. Customers change their behaviour and you have to change with it… fast.

Thomas Cook’s business model didn’t change as people changed the way they booked holidays - for example still having high street outlets when people were booking online.

“One might argue that the product mix on offer at Thomas Cook did not align with what its customers really wanted.” - Jonathan Manning, Business Live HE institutions that don’t have a deep understanding of their ‘customers’ (the way they make decisions, how they want to be communicated with, how they learn and what they expect from their university) will die at the hands of nimbler competition. Now is the time to ensure you have the right market intelligence at your fingertips, you are looking ahead to predict what your students will expect of you, you know what your competitors are doing and how they are changing.

3. This government will allow painful failures to happen

The UK government refused to bail out Thomas Cook, saying it would create a ‘moral hazard’ and increase risks taken by businesses if they thought the government wouldn’t let them fail.

Does this sound remarkably like the rhetoric used around allowing university failures? If we were ever to doubt whether they would allow a university to fail, look at how the government has allowed Thomas Cook to fail. They would rather spend government money on getting holidaymakers home in the short-term, rather than helping to save a business with thousands of employees and the investment money of pension funds in the long-term.

HE institutions face many challenges with continued reductions in student numbers, heavy borrowing for capital programmes and rising salary and pension costs. It might be wise to review the assumptions built into your institution’s financial strategy, and consider the criticism that Thomas Cook leadership faced for not focusing harder on reducing debt and looking to long-term financial sustainability.

4. It’s all about governance

Boris Johnson decided to immediately home in on the directors of Thomas Cook, saying, “One is driven to reflect whether the directors of these companies are properly incentivised.” The failure of Thomas Cook will now be subject to an inquiry by the Insolvency service who has been asked by Andrea Leadsom to look at directors' conduct "immediately prior to and at insolvency". Governance in all sectors is the focus of much attention from regulators. Now is the time to review your institution’s governance - whether it is ‘due’ or not.

5. Remuneration is the ‘hot’ story

In the face of thousands losing their jobs, tens of thousands stranded on holiday and the damage to pension funds, the focus of the media has swiftly turned to the pay packages of the directors of Thomas Cook. Questions have been asked about how their pay was or wasn’t linked to performance, and the governance decisions made around their remuneration.

Given the significant focus of attention on HE leadership remuneration, we can see how this will become the focus of attention if and when failures happen in HE. If you haven’t reviewed your remuneration policies and processes, do it now.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

Sources and further reading:

Five features of successful projects

Sep 27, 2019

As Halpin celebrates our two-year anniversary this week, I thought I’d reflect on the lessons we have learnt from our first two years in business, how we have used these lessons to help our clients, and how they might help you in your work.

Since we set up the business in 2017, our team of Consultants and Consulting Fellows have worked on 60 projects for 35 clients across leadership, strategy, performance, governance, equality, finance, HR, health & safety, programme review, marketing strategy, student experience, fundraising, campaigns and communications.

Throughout our work we have identified a series of factors that lead to a successful project – here are five to get you started. Use them to guide your work internally or to get the best out of consultants who work with you.

1. Fully reasoned shared objectives

When undertaking any project, it’s vital that everyone involved has a shared understanding of what the objectives are and why they are important. So often it’s assumed that everyone is on the same page and that the objectives and why they are required is obvious.

In our work with clients we have learnt that time taken at the start to fully set out objectives is time well spent. The more detailed an understanding we have of the reasoning behind the objectives, the more we can help define them clearly and ensure they will deliver what is required. It enables us to deliver the very best work for our clients at the very best value.

If you are using consultants, spend time at this stage of the project exploring the objectives, developing the reasoning behind them and refining them if required. You should do this even if you have been through a procurement process which set out expectations quite clearly. Often the person who has written the requirements is not the person who commissioned the work. It is only really through frank discussions that your consultant will fully understand what you need and why you need it. They will also help you refine your objectives to ensure they deliver what you really need – use their wisdom and perspective.

This is also an invaluable approach if you are leading a project internally as it enables focused effort and ensures clarity of understanding across a team. It also gives team members the opportunity to ‘own’ the rationale for the work they are undertaking so they can explain it to others.

2. Clearly defined scope and scale

Understanding what is in and out of scope is crucial. Complex projects have fuzzy edges and can extend in scope and scale as they go on - so definition is key. What and who do you need to involve and why? What is open to questioning and change and what is not? How long do you want the project to last and why? When do you need deliverables by and why? It sounds obvious but it can be harder than you think – that is why projects grow and extend (and become more costly). Sometimes an increase in the scope and scale is vital if something is uncovered during early stages, but more often the scope and scale grows incrementally without checking.

If you are working with consultants, ensure that you all agree scope and scale at the start of the project. Agree that if/when the scope is changed you will be informed and told why, so you have an opportunity to sign off anything additional. Internal teams should adopt the same approach; changes in scope and scale should be agreed by the team so the reasons why are understood and clearly communicated. A project manager is a critical resource and can help keep things on track. The more experienced they are, the more they will see issues coming before they present a big problem.

3. Focus on data and evidence

We often have lots of data and evidence, but less often do we take the time to analyse it, benchmark it and explore the story it tells without making assumptions. If you’re working with a consultant, ask them for a list at the outset of all the data and information they think they will need, and share fully so that they can bring value. If you’re leading a project internally it’s vital that at the outset of a project you gather all the information you think you will need, and consult widely to see who is holding relevant information. Read and digest this before you talk to team members – make sure you are fully up to speed and ensure you get best value from your discussions.

4. There is great power in listening

All challenges can be resolved through asking open questions and carefully listening to the answers. Questions such as:

• What are the key issues?
• What could be improved?
• What works well?
• Where does tension lie?
• What are the risks?

As you listen, you need to check you understand:

• What I am hearing is… • Is that right?
• I think you are saying…
• Have I understood you correctly?
• It sounds like the key point you are making is… do you agree?

If you are enlisting a consultant to review an area of your institution, make sure they have the skills to ask, listen and explore your specific situation - and not make assumptions and bring in a blueprint developed elsewhere. If you are undertaking some kind of review and need to talk to team members, allow plenty of time - nothing is worse than a conversation that’s rushed or curtailed. Leave gaps between meetings so you can digest what you have heard, take notes, and refresh your energy. Make an open invitation to staff/stakeholders to talk to you – you may be surprised that key information lies with people who you might not have included on your ‘list’ of people to talk to.

5. Tell truth with kindness

There is no point in hiding from the truth or sugar-coating it until it is unrecognisable. To bring about change we often have to feel uncomfortable, we may have to admit we got something wrong or something isn’t good enough, or at least that things have changed, and we need to make changes as a result. However, telling truth with kindness is different from sugar-coating it or avoiding it. We can tell the truth about the situation without blaming individuals. We can recognise what has worked alongside what is not working, we can thank people for hard work, we can show them respect, we can let them know we understand it may feel difficult, we can take time to consult, explain, listen.

If you are working with a consultant, find one who can deliver truth with kindness (ask for examples of how they do this), and if you are leading a project internally, set out to tell truth with kindness from the very start of your project – let it guide your work.

Every project is different, but these five core points have been relevant to every project we have undertaken at Halpin, and I suspect they always will be. What would you add to the list of things required to deliver a successful project?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.