Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Are We Really Ready For Change?

It's a snow day in our district, so some items came off today's calendar. I decided to look through my stack of unread articles and journals, and pull out one to catch up. I opened the pages of my October HBR to an article around why organizations fail to sustain change, even with training, development, and learning, especially at the leadership level. Hmmmm, I thought, even though the article is about big corporations, that resonates with education...

In a nutshell, the article argues for a transformational shift, from targeting change and development at an individual level to making the organization itself the primary target for change and development (followed by individual training):

If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behavior change -- indeed, it will set people up to fail.
Why is it difficult for organizations to make systemic changes? The authors of the article suggest six barriers: 1) unclear direction; 2) low commitment by upper level people to the change; 3) lack of honest conversation about problems in the organization; 4) uncoordinated organizational design; 5) inadequate time and attention paid by leaders to people issues; and 6) the fear lower-level people have about telling those above them of an obstacle.

As we in education leadership encourage teachers to change and innovate for the benefit of students, I think we have to be mindful about the importance of organizational change as well. In other words, is our organizational design set up to support change, or, are we setting people up to fail? Should we be looking at our organization first, before we begin encouraging (or in some instances, even expecting) change in others?

There is a myriad of moving pieces in any school or district. The locomotion of just one has unpredictable, nonlinear impacts on others. In order to make smart choices about change, the advice of the authors of the HBR article, adapted by me for education, may prove useful. They suggest that the following questions first be answered by those at the top, and then in each major unit. For us, that would be district-level, and then school-level:

  • Is the leadership team unified around a clear purpose, one that aligns with their mission, vision, and guiding principles?
  • Has the team collected uncensored and raw feedback about barriers to effectiveness, including leader behavior?
  • Has the team redesigned its organization, systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by that diagnosis?
  • Is the team offering consulting and coaching in the form of job-embedded learning so that people can practice the new practices required of them?
  • Does professional learning properly support the change agenda, and will each school's leadership team and culture provide fertile ground for it?
The authors argue that a "no" to any one of these questions should compel an organization to look at the context and strategies for its change.

Until we change at an organizational level, are we really ready for change?

Join the conversation...
For those of you in education, what "change" has stuck, and why? Or, why do you think some great initiative failed, despite its value and worth?

For those of you in other professions, what has been your experience with change?


  1. Glad you had a snow day and were able to share this reflection, Judy. The questions posed made me think about how important it is to name the barriers in order to overcome them. What makes this tricky is that the barriers are usually (always) human. We can only overcome these beautifully complex obstacles if we reflect on and embrace the wonderful challenge of "being the change we wish to see."

    1. As one of my mentors says, "you have to name it to tame it." Thank you for your comment.