How to drive organizational change is schools is a complex challenge to address for which there is no single answer: each school has its own formal and informal systems that leaders must navigate and put to work towards moving forward their agendas. (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016a, p. 88; Cawsey et al., 2016b, p. 103; Fullan, 2006, p. 9). Formal systems in schools include the hierarchies, departments, roles, tasks, planning and processes that structure and influence what happens and how it happens in a school (Cawsey et al., 2016c, p. 197-198). Informal systems in schools can be loosely defined as the ‘culture’ of the school; the shared beliefs, rituals, norms, expectations, and behaviors that provide a sense of identity in the school and are taught to new members (Cawsey et al., 2016d, p. 255; Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pp. 405-406).
There is no perfect formal system or organizational structure; every school’s organizational design presents hurdles to be overcome and challenges related to gaps or overlaps in duties among departments and administrators (Cawsey et al., 2016c, p. 214). Change agents must be aware of the systems and structures in place in their schools and how best to use them to get formal approval to support and legitimatize change (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pp. 218-219). Formal structures provide individuals and departments with the capacity to influence others and resources to support sustained change iniitiatives (Cawsey, et. al 2016d, pp. 251-253). Change agents should work closely with decision-makers and administrators to develop change plans that relate to the school’s vision, balance costs and benefits to multiple stakeholders, and align with budget cycles and other processes to enhance their prospects for approval (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pp. 219-221).
In addition to working with the formal systems and structures in their schools, change leaders must also leverage the informal systems and structures embedded in the school’s culture to bring change initiatives to fruition (Cawsey et al., 2016a, p. 88). A school’s culture can be expressed in visible and invisible ways as the physical appearance of faculty and facilities as well as in the values and norms that are publicly expressed and privately held (Cawsey et al., 2016d, p. 256; Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pg 406). Differing views on the nature of culture represent it as either an external, objective feature of schools that can be managed or as an internal, subjective construct that varies between individuals (Connolly, James, & Beales, 2011, p. 425). Regardless of the perspective taken, school leaders, as agents of change, should feel empowered to leverage symbols, engage subcultures within and outside of the organization, and examine and modify processes to ensure that the values that drive them manifest as artifacts and activities that will feedback in positive ways to build cultures supportive of change (Connolly et al., 2011, pp. 431-434, Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pg 413).
School leaders exert power to affect change in formal school structures that can affirm further positive changes informal cultural structures within their organizations. Formal leadership structures can be modified to distribute leadership among faculty to reinforce initiative and a sense of efficacy among teachers, and physical and time resources can be structured to ensure that teachers have time for collaborative professional development focused on advancing change visions (Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, p. 419). Though different schools have different needs, change leaders benefit from less formal, decentralized formal structures that support innovation (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pg. 211). Recognizing and leveraging the cause-effect feedback loop that exists between systems, both formal and informal, and the faculty they act on and who act upon them, is a powerful route to driving change in schools (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 198).
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016a). Framing for leading the process of organizational change: “How” to lead organizational change. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [ePUB] (pp. 67–100). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T., Deszca, F., & Ingols, C. (2016b). Frameworks for diagnosing organizations: “What” to change in an organization. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 101–140). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016c). Navigating change through formal structures and systems. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) (pp. 197-245). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016d). Navigating organizational politics and culture. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 246-282). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Leo, U., & Wickenberg, P. (2013). Professional norms in school leadership: Change efforts in implementation of education for sustainable development. Journal of Educational Change, 14, 403-422.
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.