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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Change - Whether You Want It Or Not

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.


“Nobody likes change,

except babies with dirty diapers.”


Ready or Not, Here it Comes

     At this point in our discussion, and at this stage in your school improvement process, you have imagined a vision, anchored on a mission, constructed an appropriate database, identified goals that stretch, and adopted a view of a supportive culture. But now it’s apparent that change must occur if we expect to meet with success.       

     Change will occur whether you want it or not. Attempts to prevent change are as futile as the effort long ago of Canute, the Danish king who sought to demonstrate his power by commanding ocean waves to stop. We can heed the advice of two very different wise men. The ancient sage, Heracultis, who stated that “No man steps in the same river twice” (Gardner, p. xi) or cowboy philosopher Will Rogers who claimed that “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” (Moncur: Rogers) Once you accept the inevitability of change you can begin preparing for it by observing several precepts that form a foundation for change.

     Change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Many of the obstacles we face in adapting to change are self imposed barriers arising from fear of the unknown and the anxiety related to adjusting our ingrained behaviors to accommodate the change. As an example, try putting your coat on by switching which arm you routinely put in the sleeve first. Other daily tasks performed without thinking, folding arms or clasping hands(which arm/fingers is/are on top?), or tying shoes, will present unfamiliarity and discomfort by simply prompting us to alter well worn practices and habits. Now, take the awkward feeling you experienced when changing the way you do simple, habit oriented tasks, and magnify it to understand how challenging it will be for those people you expect to make significant changes in the way they perform complex tasks at work.

The Challenge of Change

     Here’s an example to illustrate how we induce anxiety in meeting change. Look at the dots below. Using as few moves as possible, invert the pyramid so that it is upside down.

    Row 1                    O
    Row 2                  O   O
    Row 3                O   O   O

    Row 4              O   O   O   O

     How many moves did you have to make? How about three? All you need to do is move the corner dots, the apex and two corners of the base. Move 1 = take the dot from row 1 and place it beneath row 4 about at the midpoint of the row. This now becomes the apex of the inverted pyramid. Take the dots at each end of row 4 and place one of them on either side of row 2. There you have it. See, what appeared to be a difficult change was fairly easy after all.

     Changes should emerge convincingly from needs and interests, occur over time at a pace that approximates the ability of people to adjust to the change, and adapt to internal and external variables that serve to shape the scope and degree of change.

     Change should be fluid and persistent like water that seeks its own level. Contrast the tremendous surge of force found in the wall of water in a flash flood that scatters large rocks, with the tenacious and persevering trickle of water that gradually seeps into the cracks of rocks, expands when frozen, and breaks those same large rocks. One power is visibly relentless and disperses boulders like litter over the terrain, leaving a tumultuous wake forever changed. The other power, subtler in its technique, evokes change without violently displacing the rocks.
     Despite well intentioned, systematically developed templates of change, with complex flow charts, thoughtfully designed spans of control, appropriate time lines, and analytical processes, … the nature of change tends to be organic, dynamic, and somewhat unpredictable. It is a process not an event. Tom Peters declares in Thriving on Chaos that “Most quality programs fail for two reasons; they have system without passion, or passion without system. You must have both.” (p. 74) This tenet holds worthy advice for change agents too.

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