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Monday, March 28, 2011

Change Can Be Frustrating

Change often produces an uncomfortable feeling within people. It’s a word that may induce anxiety and fear in some people. Even minor changes can be awkward and unsettling.

Try this - put your coat on by changing the order in which you insert your arms. That is, if you normally put your right arm in the sleeve first, reverse it and put your coat on by placing your left arm in its respective sleeve first. I'll bet that was an unusual feeling. Cross your arms like you usually do. Now cross them again, but this time switch the arm that was on top with the one that was on the bottom. Sit down in a chair and cross one leg over the other just as you generally do. Now reverse that position by crossing your legs with the other leg resting over the knee. How did that feel?

Those were very simple and inconsequential changes that nonetheless left you feeling noticeably different. Just imagine how difficult it would be to change something very complex and important.

That’s the idea that prompted this Blog posting today. In as much as last Friday was refreshing and reaffirming, today was a test of emotional endurance. It was a reminder of the challenge of change. Our school has made considerable progress yet there are minor and inconvenient speed bumps along the way. There are hills and valleys in every journey. Today was a valley.

I’ve been struggling at school with unwritten policies and accepted practices that have existed over time from one generation of employee to the next to the point that perhaps few if any even recall how and why the policies and practices originated. These are challenging obstacles for a new person since the policies and practices are not found in written form anywhere. They must be interpreted, not translated. That's not been easy!

Here’s a story I am repeating from a Blog of two months ago to reinforce this mysterious process.

“One Easter, years ago, I observed my wife and young daughter preparing a special dinner. This was one of those great experiences whereby one generation passes along the traditions that collectively form the thread of a family to the next generation. My wife had cut off a thick portion of each side of the ham prior to baking it. This left a fairly small ham in a rather huge pan. That provoked the curiosity of my daughter, who asked her mom why she did this. I was sure that the explanation would reveal a special recipe or technique handed down through the family. But, my wife wasn't really sure of the reason herself except that her mom had demonstrated the same method when she was little. However, she was certain that it always produced a delicious ham. Upon my urging she called her own mom for specific reasoning. My mother-in-law was similarly dumbfounded and simply replied that her mother had always experienced success with the same method. Finally, fueled by my growing interest in discovering the reason, a call was placed to my wife's grandmother to find out why everyone cut off the ends of the ham. Grandma simply replied "I only had a small pan so I had to cut off the ends to make it fit."

Here’s another quote on the subject of change, this time from Leading for Innovation and Organizing for Results by Frances Hasselbein and the Drucker Foundation. “Learning to forget becomes almost as difficult as learning to adapt.”

In addition, where there should be policies in support of, and compliance with, externally imposed guidelines, there have sometimes been empty pages. This is not an intentional act of defiance or negligence. Rather, it’s likely an accumulated oversight. It is a perplexing situation that I do not attribute to anyone, or any design, in particular. I believe instead that it’s the result of an unguided gradual and imperceptible evolution. These beliefs and actions have continued unabated as part of the DNA of the organization, without a powerful enough reflection or introspection to modify otherwise.

The district has experienced a succession of superintendents who have worked their way up the organizational ladder from teacher to principal to superintendent. I am the first district leader in twenty years who has not started as a teacher in the system. There are many advantages to this form of succession, (predictability, security, consistency, an understanding of the culture of the district…) but one potential disadvantage is that without moderation these same advantages can unknowingly become hindrances. Traditions become as hardened as cement and unyielding to change when needed. Complacency can thwart or overwhelm progress. The absence of new perspectives can eventually blind the organization.

Not only that, these unwritten policies and practices have been encoded to the degree that some people are convinced that the policy or practice actually has a firm and real basis. It’s only when they are confronted by contradictory evidence that they reluctantly acquiesce and embarrassingly accept that the belief they held for years has suddenly evaporated in reality. The environment of the school and the terrain of the social, political, and technological landscape surrounding it have changed. Although there have been exceptions here and there, people seemed to have continued doing what they were doing and how they were doing it without anyone intervening with enough credibility, authority and clarity to alter the course and create a new direction with new expectations.

This is not an indictment on everyone or anyone. It is a testament to the influence of invisible factors sheltering against change. It can seem like carbon monoxide gas, a toxic gas that, because it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating its very difficult for people to detect and it eventually overcomes people.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, suggested that “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” He offered this tragic story told to him by a friend as an example of how some people respond to change with resistance.

While portaging around a small dam on an early spring canoe trip to Maine he noticed a young man who had been drinking. The young man's rubber raft went over the dam and overturned. The people on the river bank were unable to reach him. The man in the water struggled, desperately trying to swim downstream against the backwash at the base of the dam. In a few minutes he died of hypothermia, His limp body was sucked down into the swirling water and popped up seconds later. It was ironic that he would have survived if he had dived down to where the current flowed downstream instead of struggling against the force of the water. 

Author Roger Martin, in an article in The Harvard Business Review on Change, entitled Changing the Mind of the Corporation, stated that, “Crisis is the privilege of survival. Companies that fail to make the most of new opportunities fail because they are still doing their best to make the most of old opportunities.”

Folk humorist Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

Our small school where everyone knows everyone else – our “one big family” – had slowly and surely become insulated over time until it was exposed by the pronounced and imposing standards of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act and the state mandated regulations (such as the Annual Professional Performance Review) that supported it. This measure forced open the doors of the school through its requirements for regular assessments that prompted comparisons with other schools and consequences for not meeting certain performance levels. We became identified as a School In Need of Improvement. That attracted attention and provoked changes, even if they seemed harsh and unforgiving.

I believe that’s why I was selected as superintendent when the district had a vacancy. There was a need for a different (not better) vantage point and a new compass. I also believe that I won't be successful in leading the organization unless I find the proper balance between old and new, the ability to differentiate between what we need to keep and what we need to leave out. I need to distinguish between changing people and changing attitudes. There's a great deal of difference. I need to respect what works and work to cultivate replacements for what doesn’t work. I must also change. I could improve by becoming more patient and apply more empathy in understanding the intricacies of the existing organizational culture. It took a long time to form and it will likely take more than a little time to change. Although it may seem disconcerting to some, I am working at influencing and leveraging change because it’s easier for me to orchestrate it than to have litigation or legislation vigorously compel the change at a personal and financial cost to many.

If we expect to meet with success we will need to learn to change together and grow together. It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship.

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