The Trouble with Change Management in Schools

With the new Science and Technology Curriculum in New South Wales, teachers have been asked to teach students Systems Thinking. This in itself brings challenges but it also invites teachers to investigate their school as a system and to then consider what perspectives this lens invites. What becomes clear quite quickly is that schools are inherently complex systems. Imagine creating a systems map of just the people involved in a school and you see that there is great complexity emerging. To this web of the schools immediate human connections one then needs to add layers for curriculum, finance, physical resources, community connections, political factors, historical influences, pedagogies, government authorities, climate factors, technology, infrastructure etc. etc. etc. 

It becomes clear that typical systems thinking when applied to whole school efforts related to culture are going to require a theoretical approach capable of explaining this level of complexity. Thinking and reading about complexity theory opens a number of questions for me. The degree of complexity or organisational scale required for applicability of the theory within a system seems to make it relevant to change at a whole school level (Mason, 2008) and particularly to cultural change. 

Complexity theory points towards the importance of exploring the interactions between the intentions and effects of agents within organisations and reveals that the exponential scaling of these connections brings greater degrees of complexity than may be managed or readily understood. The question is at which point does the level of complexity within an organisation produce relevant degrees of unpredictability? or at what point does the level of complexity become too great to predict reliably the outcome of any change effort. Evaluating this is made more complex as the number of agents and constituent elements within an organisation also seem to defy simple measures. It is unlikely that each agent (human or other such as a mandated curriculum or piece of infrastructure) acts with true independence. Collectives of individuals and closely connected elements (a curriculum that requires a particular pedagogy) may be best seen as single actors within a network with effect sizes not always directly related to the number of component parts. The total number of actors and influencers within even complex systems may be significantly less than what a simple calculation estimates and yet the net effect of all of these factors remains difficult to predict.

Taken simplistically there could be a feeling that due to the complexity of large systems change becomes an uncontrollable beast with a mind of its own. 

If change can only occur where every element of the organisation is continually shaped through ‘massive interventions at all levels’ (Mason, 2008 p43) and even with intense effort the inertial momentum of the organisation means change is hard achieved, how can we hope to negotiate times which require ongoing, rapid change? This then seems to be the challenge confronting schools as the societies in which they exist appear to be racing towards ever greater levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, change becomes the norm and yet change management seems to be increasingly ruled by chaotic drivers. . 

Mason does offer some hope:

‘despite complexity theory’s relative inability to predict the direction or nature of change, by implementing at each constituent level changes whose outcome we can predict with reasonable confidence, we are at least influencing change in the appropriate direction’ (Mason, 2008 p46)

This is perhaps why most change management strategists choose to keep to a more technical rationalist perspective at least early in the change process. The plan put forward by most change analysts centres on placing faith in the establishment of conditions which are conducive to change. By approaching both the small details and the bigger picture thinking of vision and purpose with rational thought and a well-informed plan the hope is that the initial momentum moves the organisation at least somewhat in the desired direction. As the process moves forward it becomes feasible to allow ideas to emerge from within At this stage it is hoped that continuous gentle steering of the change in the desired direction will produce the desired effect. This requires organisations to be open to embracing or tolerating a degree of chaos along the way and being open to unpredictable elements and acts. If it all goes well the organisation will be able to navigate towards a desired goal and be ready for the next challenging change. It is also likely that the whole effort can be derailed by a combination of factors which could not have been predicted or planned for. 

Looking to a hybridized model of complexity theory, humanist approaches and technical rationalist perspectives the appeal of design thinking approaches comes to the fore. In its flexibility and structure founded on a desire to understand the human factors within change it seems to offer a workable solution that can scale. I like that it is a process driven by questions and accepting of failure through rapid prototyping and that it is a cycle with no beginning and no end. It includes scope for input from multiple sources and indicates the importance of feedback and reflection on both the results and process. It also has sufficient flexibility to include elements of systems analysis of an organisation where the interactions between agents are included in the response. 

Daniel Wilson of Harvard’s Project Zero speaking in Melbourne noted that designers achieve greater success with complex problems than others. Designers have a capacity due to their thinking dispositions to cope with complexity and to adapt solutions as needed while working towards a vision or shared goal. Daniel indicates that complex situations, such as those which schools increasingly confront as a result of rapid change and previously unencountered challenges, require emergence as a path to solutions. A bubbling forth of ideas which may be transformed into plans and drivers of change from all areas of an organisation is seen as the best approach to change where the answers do not exist and cannot be passed down from above. 

By Nigel Coutts

Mason, M. (2008). What is Complexity Theory and what are its implications for educational change? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), pp. 35-49