Monday, May 21, 2007

What Systemic Transformational Change Means to Me

Dear Colleagues,

The Association for Educational Communication and Technology (AECT) recently launched the FutureMinds: Transforming American School Systems initiative ( Dr. Charles Reigeluth of Indiana University and I are the co-directors of that initiative. The vision for FutureMinds is to develop the capacity of state departments of education to create and sustain transformational change within entire school systems in their states.

I'd like to share a few thoughts with you about what systemic transformational change means to me.

Systemic transformational change creates a substantially different organizational reality in a school system. Creating and sustaining that new reality is not an easy task because within each school district there are multiple realities encased in the mindsets of the educators working in those districts; not to mention in the mindsets of key external stakeholders who think they know what’s best for a school system.

The existing multiple realities need to be blended into a shared reality of a desirable future for a school system. But it is insufficient simply to create a unified and shared vision of a desirable future. The literature on transformational change repeatedly reinforces the need for people in organizations to change the way they think and act (i.e., to change their paradigms or mindsets) with regard to three change paths:
  • Path 1--their system’s relationships with its external environment,
  • Path 2--their system's core and supporting work processes, and
  • Path 3--their system's internal social infrastructure (which includes organization culture, organization design, job descriptions, reward system, etc.).
The way that educators currently think and act along those three paths represents their current mindsets or paradigms. If educators want to create and sustain transformational change, then they need to shift the way they think and act with regard to how they relate to their environment (Path 1), how they do their work (Path 2), and the quality of their system's social infrastructure (Path 3). Thus, three paradigm shifts are required.

But there is a fourth paradigm shift that’s required--there is a need for educators to change the way they think and act with regard to creating and sustaining change. Their dominant, controlling paradigm for change is what we call piecemeal.

So, now we are faced with the challenge of helping educators shift from four existing paradigms to four new paradigms for creating and sustaining systemic transformational change along three change paths:
  • Paradigm Shift 1: shift from a reactive stance in response to the environment to a proactive stance (Path 1: improve the system's relationship with its external environment).
  • Paradigm Shift 2: shift from the Industrial-Age paradigm of schooling to an Information-Age paradigm; and, include the supporting work processes in a school system within this shift (Path 2: improve the system's core and supporting work processes).
  • Paradigm Shift 3: shift from a command and control organization design to a participatory organization design (Path 3: improve the system's internal social infrastructure; which requires changes to organization culture, communication practices, job descriptions, reward systems, and other elements of the social infrastructure).
  • Paradigm Shift 4: shift from a piecemeal approach to change to a systemic transformational change approach (by moving along the three change paths to create unparalleled opportunities to improve student, faculty and staff, and whole-system learning that are substantially different than what is currently being done in the system).
Our first challenge in our efforts to stimulate and support four paradigm shifts is to convince educators that these shifts are needed. Telling them that they are needed will not be enough. They have heard these kinds of calls for change before. We need compelling data that not only point out the need for change, but also shine a bright flood light on the opportunities that systemic transformational change provides. “Need data” push people toward change. “Opportunity data” draw people toward change. Both kinds of data are critical for motivating people to make their mindsets malleable and therefore capable of changing.

In addition to the need and opportunity data, we will need to use an integrated set of communication strategies that have been documented as effective in promoting transformational change (see Nevis, Lancourt, & Vassallo, 1996).

These communication strategies are:

  1. Persuasive communication (the rah rah, let’s get going communication)
  2. Participation (involving people in setting a course to a desirable future)
  3. Expectancy (communicating to people our expectation that they can succeed in systemic transformational change)
  4. Role modeling (providing educators with real life examples of school systems and other organizations that have transformed or are transforming)
  5. Structural rearrangement (helping change leaders make key changes to the organization design of their school systems)
  6. Extrinsic rewards (helping change leaders re-tool their districts’ reward systems to reinforce desirable behaviors that unequivocally support their transformation journey)
  7. Coercion (communicating to change leaders that all examples of successful transformation have been shown to start with the use of positive coercion applied by senior leaders in the system).

Nevis, E. C., Lancourt, J. L., & Vassallo, H. G. (1996). Intentional revolutions: A seven-point strategy for transforming organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

I hope all this makes sense.


Adam Sterling said...

Very interesting initiative and very interesting ideas about systemic transformational change. I have read some of your articles and books, too. Your approach to improving school systems is strongly supported in the literature on improving organizations as systems. Thank you for all that you do to further the idea of systemic change in school districts.

Donna McCaw said...

I teach the change process and work with districts working hard on continuous improvement - the biggest obstacle is the complexity of it all. I love the term opportunity data. I use Appreciative Inquiry when moving districts toward their vision and your term fits well with building on strengths and drawing upon positive energy.