Navigating the New Normal: 3 Change Management Frameworks for Educational Leaders

Devin Vodicka

Hierarchical systems are designed to create stability and order. During times of rapid change, information bottlenecks impede efficiencies and create stress throughout the organization. Simply put, hierarchies and bureaucratic systems were not designed for adaptation. Right now, during this global pandemic, it is a time of constant change and we must reimagine our systems and structures to be more nimble, flexible, and adaptable. We must also remember that change happens at many levels.  In addition to being mindful about systems, change is also an internal and emotional process that requires self-awareness, empathy, and compassionate leadership.  

Here are three frameworks to help school leaders manage change. 

William Bridges: Managing Transitions

Bridges applies his experience as a grief counselor as he outlines three emotional stages that are common in moving through change: the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.  Each of us processes these changes at different rates and in different ways, and thus, while some of us may still be in the “ending” phase, others may be in the “neutral zone,” and still others may already be in the “new beginning” stage.  Navigating these realities takes time, patience, and awareness.

It is also important to note that in this model there is a recognition that changes are generally accompanied by an implementation dip where productivity declines before it gets better.  Many change efforts are discontinued before they even have a chance to succeed due to these dynamics.  In Managing Transitions, Bridges offers practical suggestions to help move through each of these developmental stages.  As examples, recognizing loss is critical in the ending phase, use of temporary structures is helpful in the neutral zone, and celebrating small wins can be motivating for those in the new beginning stage.

John Kotter’s Dual Operating Systems

In Learner-Centered Leadership, Superintendent David Vanasdall from Arcadia Unified School District shared how their district is implementing “dual operating systems” to promote more agility in their learning organization.  In this model, the dual operating system model “simultaneously celebrates the need for strong traditional hierarchy, while building a network of small, agile groups that can quickly find solutions in real time” (page 99).  In this approach, volunteers are solicited to participate in problem-solving and empowered to be creative and innovative in their approach.  Importantly, these volunteer groups are further networked through a guiding coalition that provides support and direction.  I would also note that this approach requires a strong strategic orientation to a common vision, mission, values, and goals – hence the need to consider this model in combination with a comprehensive model like the Altitude Learning “Learner-Centered Transformation” framework.

Altitude Learning: Learner-Centered Transformation

With a recognition that change is an emotional process and an understanding that a dual-operating system approach can be helpful in balancing stability with change, I believe that a comprehensive change model such as the one that we have developed at Altitude Learning can establish the conditions for system transformation.  One of the aspects of this framework that is particularly relevant for educational leaders is the fact that it is specifically designed for learning communities.  Aligning elements such as a learner profile and learning model with the vision, mission, and goals of the organization are critical for schools and systems to make meaningful and systematic changes.  Given the strong need for support with these significant efforts, we now provide an offering to assist in the formation and implementation of these elements of a transformational change.


Regardless of the framework that resonates most for you, educational leaders must recognize that we must be purposeful in the design of our supports for those who are experiencing so many changes right now.  In my experience, I have found it useful to be explicit with others in articulating the change management model that is being used at a given point in time.  I encourage educational leaders to identify, name, utilize, and share the change management framework that will be most helpful for your community.  If we want our students to embrace lifelong learning, we must model it ourselves by skillfully supporting purposeful change for the benefit of all learners.

Please extend the conversation by using the hashtag #LCLeadership to share your ideas and experiences.

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