Changing how we change
Let’s face it, change is risky and dangerous work. It is the kind of work that can either lead leaders to new heights of success or to the brink of career collapse. Heifetz and Linskey noted in Leadership on the Line that “When exercising leadership, you risk getting marginalized, diverted, attacked, or seduced. Regardless of the form, however, the point is the same. When people resist adaptive work, their goal is to shut down those who exercise leadership in order to preserve what they have.”
To navigate the implementation of new ideas, school leaders have traditionally looked to change management theory to guide a successful implementation. Authors like Michael Fullan, John Kotter, and Robert Marzano have provided us various frameworks for effectively managing change. Each theory possesses nuanced differences, yet they are all based on the foundational assumption that change can be managed by eliciting specific action from people through structured action by the leader. Do this, get that. Do enough of this, and the change will be accepted.
I have led several successful large scale system changes and I have studied the various change theories. I have tried each theory, combined theories. I have engaged in top-down, mandated changes and bottom-up creative changes. I can affirm that each of the authors are well intentioned but I still end up with some significant wounds and a few causalities in the process. It is never smooth, and almost always leads to large scale disruption to the learning institution.
I know what you might be thinking, “may it is just the way you did it?” I had the same though, so I started asking my colleagues about their change experience, and to a person they reported similar dangers. I shared with each the idea that Heifetz and Linskey proposed and the quote resonated with them. This led me to wonder why, in an array of different circumstances, do the participants in change processes react with a virtual auto-immune response? How could these really smart guys, who have studied change exhaustively, be so off?
I’ve decided that it is not the researchers who are off, it is the misapplication of the leadership theories by the leaders. Each of the cited leadership theories are based on the idea that you are conducting incremental, slow progressing change that can be managed by the leader like an expert chess player. The truth is this is not the type of change process that is occurring in education. From NCLB, Common Core, 21st Century Learning, and the integration of technology we are living in a period of disruptive change.
Teachers in the classroom are not being asked to gradually embrace new practices. They are being asked to reconstruct their practice very three to five years. The impact in the classroom is great, and the teachers are baring the largest burden of the changes. Their practice is being massively disrupted and as Heifetz and Linsky states, “…their goal is to shut down those who exercise leadership in order to preserve what they have.”
To effectively manage change we need move away from incremental change processes and begin to incorporate change management strategies that make disruptive change less disruptive. We need to look to Positive Organizational Strategies to leverage what is working and accelerate the adoption of disruptive practices.
Leadership On The Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linskey