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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Adapting and Assimilating Change

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Cooking Without a Recipe

     I have initiated and facilitated successful transformations at different schools. I have also felt the frustration and agony when well intentioned, much heralded change activities that were successful in other venues become inexorably mired in quicksand. There is no sure-fire recipe. Change cannot be replicated in a cookie cutter pattern. In many cases the ingredients are similar but the amounts vary according to availability and the unique tastes of the cook and/or consumers, the cooking time is a function of your equipment, and the finished product is often a reflection of your culinary skills. Oh, there’s a lot of clean up afterward too!

     Speaking of cooking, Tichy and Devanna supply an interesting technique for boiling a frog that speaks to the proper method of assimilating change into an institution. (Tichy and Devanna, p. 44) If you place a frog into water that is either too hot or too cold, it will leap out. However, if you place the frog in a pot of water that approximates the temperature of its pond water you can then gradually heat up the water to the boiling point without the frog noticing the imperceptible change in temperature.

     Another view on change that involves temperature is the example of a double loop feedback system. A thermostat is a typical single loop system. It basically asks, “What temperature do you want?”  You set the gauge for the desired temperature, much like you establish goals for the school. Although the thermostat can direct the furnace to meet the requested temperature it cannot effect any further change, that is, if you no longer want that temperature you will have to manually alter the thermostat. It does not answer the question "Do we still want this temperature?" Constant interpretation of data will respond to the question, "Are we still on the right track?” (Waterman, pp. 147-148)

     Robert Kriegel, author of Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, supplies a story of ignoring the prospects for expanded options. In 1959 a small research firm, Haloid, arrived at a paper copier. They offered the sales rights to IBM. The proposal was rejected by IBM because carbon paper was inexpensive and they forecast a worldwide market for only 5,000 such copiers. Ten years later, Haloid, now known as Xerox, generated over one billion dollars in sales. Although Xerox had apparently outwitted IBM they were soon a victim of similar miscalculations when the advice of their experts steered them away from the small copier business. Japanese firms exploited the opportunity and created a burgeoning market for small professional offices, schools,… and subsequently reduced Xerox’s market share to fifty percent. (Kriegel and Brandt, p. 38)

     Management guru Peter Drucker provides a telling example of how a company can blind itself to opportunities for successful change. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, (p. 40) he offers an account of innovation versus bureaucratic maintenance when he describes the emergence of veterinary medicines. He reports that the leading veterinary drug company, a Swiss firm, has never actually developed a single veterinary drug. Instead, they secured the licenses from pharmaceutical companies that rudely dismissed the market. In fact, the medical director of a large pharmaceutical firm decried the application of drugs intended for humans but used for animals as, “a misuse of noble medicine.”

     The Swiss company exploited the disdain of the drug manufacturers toward the appropriation of drugs for veterinary medicine. Now, with price pressure and regulations impacting human medications, that opportunistic Swiss company reaps the financial benefits of a very profitable segment of the pharmaceutical industry at the virtual exclusion of those companies that loathed that aspect of application of the drugs.

     What’s the moral of the story? The same fate may await those schools who ignore the potential influence of policy changes (voucher system, charter schools,…) and display an indifference to consumer dissatisfaction (increased rate of children being home-schooled, more children enrolling in non-public schools, growing public despair,…).

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