Understanding responses to change is critical and with the predicted future of education increasingly being linked to innovative practices which prepare students for an unknown future change is a central theme. A short search online, through libraries or in book stores reveals a great variety of texts claiming to uncover the secrets of the change process while others claim that is a process too complex to be managed and that the best we can hope for is a subtle shift either towards our goals, away from our goals or in an entirely unexpected direction. Ignoring for the sake of the possibility of action, there are some broad trends which emerge from the research and a set of conclusions which may serve to guide those implementing organisational change.
The first understanding to emerge is that change is rarely accomplished easily and cultural change that reaches to the core of the organisation is very rare. Those who fail to understand this fail to lead successful change because they underestimate the level of input required at each stage and point of contact with the process. The change is introduced with insufficient fanfare, a sense of urgency never develops, ongoing support is sporadic or non-existent and the little steps are not celebrated. Readers of Kotter & Cohen’s work “Understanding the Heart of Change” will recognise these steps and recognise that underestimating the importance of each step can only result in a failed effort.
Kotter identifies and stresses the importance of a vision for change and the notion of a compelling vision that is articulated to its audience with clarity and passion is a common property of strategic approaches to change. Simon Sinek writes of the need for a compelling ‘Why’. A clear reason for why the change should be undertaken that is easily articulated and provides compelling motivation. Sinek’s ideas have been broadly adopted and like so many ideas promptly misunderstood and poorly applied. As with Kotter’s notion of a compelling vision the ‘why’ of an organisation must be one that has genuine significance and can be communicated in ways that individuals and groups of them are inspired and engaged to a far greater degree than is achievable with external incentives.
The next factor to understand is that individuals are motivated to a large part by the degree of autonomy they believe they have in a situation. Highly controlled, constrictive and micro-managed situations will only result in minimal levels of motivation. A compelling vision delivered prepackaged and with no scope for individualisation will be as morale damaging as any forced change. Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Dan Pink all show that autonomy motivates. For educators, this is particularly significant as we confront change efforts imposed from above by legislature, curriculum requirements, accountability and registration programmes and increasingly controls imposed through standardised assessments. Change leaders are encouraged to understand the importance of providing genuine opportunities for the voice, mind and heart of individuals to be heard and to influence change.
Balancing the desire for autonomy against the organisational desire for consistency is difficult. Those responsible for change in most instances are driven by a belief that their vision and the new ways of operating that come with it will bring genuine benefits for the organisation and those that it serves. A school may wish to introduce a new research based pedagogy, a change in technology or alternate reporting processes and to do so in a manner that brings consistency such that a continuum of learning is achieved for students across classes and year levels. Against this initiative is the need to incorporate into the change meaningful opportunities for all stakeholders to play a part in shaping the change such that it is not a top down imposition but an opportunity for individuals to exercise agency in how they shape their interactions with the organisation.
Lastly the importance of a sustained and broad effort to sustain the change effort is essential. The most compelling and engaging introduction to a change effort will produce no result if it is not backed by ongoing support and nurturing. Consistent ongoing messaging in alignment with the change effort from every point and every opportunity is essential to building and sustaining momentum. Where the change involves shifts in practices that require staff to operate in new ways appropriate and continual professional development is essential.
The manner in which these forces for change are approached will influence the response of individuals. Without a compelling vision individuals are likely to sense that the change has little to offer them. Change is broadly feared and with no compelling reason to change most individuals will resist it whenever possible. Metaphors derived from Newtons First law of motion and change are natural as just as is the case for the heavy stone, people are unlikely to move unless sufficiently compelled to do so. Resistance is also much more likely if the change is seen to be forced upon someone. Individuals are shown to be more likely to embrace change if they believe they played a part in designing the change. Interestingly, this applies even when the change that results from an organic process of ideation from within an organisation closely aligns with the strategy previously identified in a much more bureaucratic top-down manner. Applying a final metaphor, change initiatives can often be like a the ripples of a stone thrown into a pond, overtime they fade away and the pond returns to its natural state of rest. Spend enough time in most organisations and you come to understand that time is the ultimate panacea to uncomfortable change initiatives. Without ongoing communication and support change efforts will dissipate and while in the early days emotions may become highly charged, unsustained changes will die in a pool of apathy.
In no way does this cover all of the essential aspects to be considered when implementing change; however, these three factors of a compelling vision that is clearly articulated, opportunities for individuals to play their part in the process and sustained action for the change play an undeniably essential role. While the literature on change offers many insights and powerful advice on the process of managing change these factors stand out and change leaders underestimate their effect to their peril.
By Nigel Coutts
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.American Psychologist,55(1), 68-78.
Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London