Meaningful change is never easy. How to motivate and sustain positive organizational change is a challenge that all change leaders face and a question whose answer relies very much upon the context in which the leader operates (CawSey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 103; Fullan, 2006, p. 9). I say ‘positive’ organizational change as the idea of a static organization is a mirage; organizations are collections of people whose habits and actions change with every interaction and adapt to every new iterative cycle of the processes they enact (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 567). The challenge that change leaders face is reining in the constant change and directing it towards positive ends (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 567). They must also find means to sustain change to ensure that new knowledge and practice that results from initial drives to change do not dissipate or degrade over time and that new behaviors and practices become embedded in the culture of the school (Hargreaves, 2007, pp. 228–229).
One way in which motivation to change can be incited is through the emergence of a crisis, real or fabricated (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 161). Leaders should take care when creating narratives that over-amplify or create crises from whole cloth, as it may result in erosion of trust in school leadership. A high degree of trust is a precondition of collaborative decision-making and ‘bottom up’ visioning, both of which are powerful drivers of buy-in and long-term motivation for sustained change efforts (Cawsey et al., 2016; Tschannnen-Moran, 2013, p. 43). Keeping in mind the need for transparency and honesty to support cultures of trust, framing change initiatives with compelling narratives that combine logics and discourses can help bring together stakeholders with different agendas to work towards shared visions (Ball, Maguire, Braun, & Hoskins, 2011, p. 628). While self-interest can bring about complacency even in the face of crisis (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 142), a change initiative driven by a leader that acts as a ‘boundary spanner’ who engages the ideas and talents of diverse stakeholders towards a shared change vision can create fluid and connective opportunities that produce workable plans for action, cognitive shifts, reframing of challenges, and democratic, communitarian, and economic theories of shared leadership (Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011, pp. 120, 125; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 349; Starratt, 2008, pg. 89).
To ensure that momentum for change is maintained and that inertia does not slow down or halt work towards change initiatives, leaders should ensure that change visions support and are connected to the broader mission and vision of the school (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 173). As change processes are enacted, the context of the school will change along with it necessitating modifications to action plans and actors who are flexible and willing to redefine their positions and responsibilities within the school as novel interactions and new problems intersect the ‘fuzzy boundaries’ of our definitions of the roles and departments within the school (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002). The constant ebb and flow of change can defy simple analysis and categorization, and leaders who are able to ‘perceive change’ intuitively as well as ‘conceive change’ in a planning capacity will be well-prepared to deal with the challenges of sustaining change over the long term (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 572). Additionally, viewing shared visions as broad spaces that allow for varied interpretations by different stakeholders rather than one-way streets can ensure that visions can remain shared in spite of faculty turnover or changing conditions (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 179).
No single person can hope to sustain long-term organizational change in a school on their own. Engaging diverse stakeholders in crafting visions for change that are shared and meaningful to all allows leaders to access the strength of the entire school community to drive positive change to improve learning in their organizations.
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Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.