To Change or Not to Change?

There is a large body of work on managing the change process which has become mainstream in the realm of leadership development in recent years.  One of the most well known authors on the topic is John Kotter who outlines 8 steps for leading a successful change initiative.  The focus of this invaluable research is on how to guide an organization successfully through the change process with the assumption that a change needs to take place.  Unfortunately, many school leaders misdiagnosis the elements that need to change within an organization and go about implementing the wrong changes.

Successful school leaders first spend time getting to know the school community before pursuing broad scale changes.  They get to know the underlying group assumptions, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that make up what we refer to as the existing school culture.  The change management process is deeply intertwined with organizational culture.  The barriers and resistance that we face when implementing change are because we are swimming against the culture.  Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker state that culture is not inherently good or bad, but is better defined as strong or weak.  Strong cultures are more difficult to change while weak cultures are more easily influenced.  The pace and cadence of change depends on many factors, but the strength of the culture will determine how fast is too fast.

My personal experience leading change in organizations has varied greatly based upon the context.  Kotter describes creating a sense of urgency in his 8 steps.  The sense of urgency during my first Principalship had already been established due to the fact that the school was one of the lowest performing high schools in Georgia and had a 19% cohort graduation rate.  Not every situation is this dire and much more time and attention may be required to create a sense of urgency that makes change possible.  Leaders must spend time getting to know their context so that they accurately identify what needs to change prior to worrying about the process for execution of the change.  Change is also not inherently good or bad.  Changing the wrong things or even the right things too quickly can have a negative impact on your school.

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