Tuesday, October 20, 2015

We Are The District

Peter Drucker is often credited with the phrase "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Ken Williams, who is coming in February 2016 to speak in Forest Hills, writes in his new book (Starting a Movement: Building Culture from Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities) that "culture eats structure for lunch." Regardless of the speaker (or the meal), the culture of an organization does have tremendous power, and change is not always easy.

One of the reasons it is difficult is that change is only one part rational; the rest is relational. Rationally speaking, if an expert with uncontroverted research-based evidence tells us why and how to engage in change, common sense dictates that each and everyone one of us will do it with fidelity, and lasting change will occur (Daly, 2010). Reality is quite different, because relationships matter. What our trusted colleagues think about the change matters to us.What we see and hear in the office, the copy room, the hallway, the staff meeting, or the lounge matters to us. We are the district.

So, how do we make a shift to an innovative culture that encourages and supports new ideas and creativity? I could give you piles of research that support such a shift, but that alone is not enough. Our capacity for change in shifting our culture depends just as much on our people (relational) as it does on the research (rational). For example, who do you think of as innovative, or even more importantly, as influential? Your answer to those questions will have as much or more of an impact on the success of a culture shift than any objective argument I could make. That is why a change in culture has to be both top-down and bottom-up. As Ken Williams so succinctly states: "Leaders strike the match for schoolwide culture change; staff fan the flames."

The difficulty in navigating culture shifts, especially toward innovation, exists in all organizations. Businesses deal with the same rational versus relational balance. In fact, Mauro Porcini, Pepsico's Chief Design Officer recently gave an interview to the Harvard Business Review about this very process. Porcini identified two must-haves before any shift can begin: first, the person or people at the top of the organization are willing to protect the new culture from outright rejection, and second, there must be some sort of external validation that it is the right direction to move toward.

Once those two pieces are in place, Porcini describes the actual cultural shift as an evolutionary process that has five overlapping phases:

  1. Denial: the organization as a whole sees no need for a new approach or new culture, but someone with influence and power understands the need and hires a leader who tries to introduce a new culture.
  2. Hidden Rejection: people at the top of the organization embrace the new approach but the full organization is not there yet. The leaders move forward and think things are working well but in reality they may not be. This is the phase where the culture change may die out.
  3. Occasional Leap of Faith: the leaders find some co-conspirators within the organization who understand the value of the change, even if it is not a deep understanding. The co-conspirators decide to work with the leaders, and build understanding about the value of the new culture.
  4. Quest for Confidence: the organization understands there is value in this new culture and tries to integrate it. There are bumps in the road, but confidence in the organization is being built.
  5. Holistic Awareness: everyone understands that the new culture makes sense for the organization. It is universal, and everyone modifies their approach to their work to embrace it.

As you can see, so much of the core cultural change is relational.

Through our professional learning communities (PLCs) in each school, we continue to build the relationships that serve as the foundation of change.As we consider our capacity for complex organizational change, it is those small groups upon whom change depends. Indeed, a  study by Moolenaar and Sleegers (2010) demonstrated that "teacher teams characterized by a common exchange of work-related information and discourse are the cornerstones of organizational climates in which teachers not only trust each other, but also have a 'can-do' attitude toward change and innovation, are willing to try new ideas and collectively develop new knowledge, and are continuously working to improve their instructional practice." We are the district.

We have an enormous talent pool in our teachers and other staff. There is no lack of creative, new ideas. Rather, as part of a successful culture change, our challenge may lie in creating a process that accurately evaluates ideas in order to decide which ones to pursue. Minimally, we would want ideas to align to our priorities, and also solve a problem or fulfill a real need. We also need to build a structure that ensures that everyone has access to the resources and expertise needed to actually implement innovative ideas.

Join the conversation...
Where might we be on the five-phase journey of change toward an innovative culture? What or where do you see opportunities for us to grow? What type of processes and systems do we need to cultivate and support the innovator in each one of us?

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