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.
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.