Two strategies to manage complex change

By Devin Vodicka 

Complex change is the new constant.  As leaders, we hope to help our teams, organizations, and communities to thoughtfully and skillfully adapt and adjust for the benefit of our learners.  When we are at our best, managing change can feel almost effortless, leading to growth and success.  In my experience these effective changes are best navigated as a community where we can benefit from multiple perspectives and share insights to accelerate our collective progress.  

Unfortunately most school systems are designed for stability and not for adaptability.  We are organized in hierarchies which can create information bottlenecks.  The public school districts that I have worked in tend to have industrial-age structures that are linked with slow-moving, legacy timelines.  

Even when the context around us is relatively stable, we often struggle to effectively implement any complex changes, including the adoption of new curricular resources or other tools.  A culture of isolated teacher practice combined with high turnover in the administrative ranks and pendulum-swings in politics can lead to an understandable orientation to “waiting out” any particular change.  

As a principal, district administrator, and as a superintendent I have made many mistakes, frequently underestimating what it will take to support any enduring change.  I’ve definitely tried to go too fast, to implement too many initiatives at once, and failed to coordinate efforts across teams or departments.  

Along the way I have also been fortunate to be surrounded by committed colleagues who have provided me with honest feedback and suggestions for improvement.  Thanks to their input and patience, I have learned a few things that I hope may be helpful for others, particularly now when there is even greater urgency and complexity due to the multi-layered challenges of this global pandemic.  

In Learner-Centered Leadership I describe the importance of a Framework for the Future that includes the vision, mission, values, goals, roles and responsibilities, and a strategic plan.  This structure should provide the guidance and “guard rails” for all change efforts.  With this framework in place, there are two fundamental strategies that have been effective in my experience.  

The first effective strategy is to use temporary guiding coalitions to create the context for sharing and triangulation of multiple perspectives.  These guiding coalitions should include stakeholders from a variety of roles and they can be most impactful when also including students.  Within the guiding coalitions, use of protocols such as After Action Reviews, Start/Stop/Continue protocols, and other collaborative endeavors can help to generate simple rules to guide the change process.  These conversations help individuals, teams, and the organization to get to “simplicity on the other side of complexity” that can guide ongoing improvement and continual growth.

In our work we are seeing that guiding coalitions have been a uniquely powerful approach given the need for quick adaptations due to the pandemic and the resulting need to adjust systems, modes of instruction, logistics, and communication structures all at once.  School districts like Logan County in Kentucky have built on the success of their pre-existing coalition and others like South Kitsap in Washington have launched new guiding coalitions during the pandemic.  In both cases, the power of a group of committed collaborators has been instrumental in managing complex change.  

The second strategy is to embrace what Kotter refers to as the “dual operating system” model where the formal hierarchy is complemented by informal networks. In contrast to the guiding coalition approach, which is relatively structured and intention, promoting informal networks in this way can give rise to emergent, unplanned breakthroughs. As noted by Arcadia Superintendent David Vanasdall in Learner-Centered Leadership, “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.”  The combination of structure and defined flexibility can lead to faster insights and collective learning.  It should also be noted that these informal networks benefit from high levels of relational trust and a strong grounding in the organizational strategic framework which are often preconditions for effectiveness.

Regardless of your level of formal authority, any educator can utilize these approaches.  Anyone can embrace the principles of the dual operating system model and create optional, volunteer opportunities through informal networks.  Anyone can advocate for the formation of a guiding coalition and school and district leaders can create them at the site or district level.  Engaging with consultants who can assist in the process can also be a beneficial strategy.  

The key is to recognize that complex change is the new normal.  Organizing to effectively manage change is imperative for success and leveraging the potential of a collaborative, inclusive approach that empowers individuals and teams both underscores and reinforces the importance of relationships in learner-centered education.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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