If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you’re in the business of “organizational change.” Those words may not be the words you use to describe what you do. But a major body of work happening in K–12 education today boils down to organizational change.
Are you a proponent of high-quality curriculum? High-dosage tutoring? Blended learning? Competency-based education? Social-emotional learning? Project-based learning? Science-based reading instruction? Learner-centered education? Community schools? Building students’ social capital? Then you’re in the business of change. None of these ideas for improving education make a difference for students unless they are woven into the fabric of schools. That weaving—that’s organizational change.
Once you realize you’re in the business of change, there’s no shortage of change management frameworks offering useful guidance. But just as antibiotics work miracles for a bacterial infection but prove futile when treating a virus, many change management frameworks fail when applied to certain types of organizational change. This post offers a framework for getting the diagnosis and treatment right.
What defines an organization?
The first step to understanding which change management strategy will be the most effective for a particular context is to understand what defines an organization, like a school. Understanding the defining features of an organization before taking on change management is analogous to how a doctor needs to understand the anatomy and physiology of the body before trying to diagnose and treat a disease. Understanding how a system works is an important precursor to understanding how to fix or improve it.
All organizations—be they schools, businesses, nonprofits, or churches—can be described in terms of three key elements: resources, processes, and priorities. Resources are things or assets that organizations can buy or sell, hire or fire, build or consume. Processes are the established patterns of work by which organizations use resources to create value. Priorities determine the criteria by which organizations allocate their resources.
Consider a school. Its resources include not only physical assets like curriculum, benchmark assessments, classroom materials, computers, and buildings; but also its human resources—its teachers, administrators, and non-certificated staff. With its resources, a school then uses processes such as scheduling, lesson planning, classroom management, attendance tracking, grading, discipline policies, and curriculum adoption to both ensure the wellbeing of the children in its care and to provide those children with educational experiences. As a school fulfills its purposes, priorities emerge to guide its employees as they make decisions, such as what content to cover on a given day, which teaching and classroom management strategies are most effective and appropriate, which curriculum should be adopted, and how staff should be recruited and assigned to different roles.
The levels of change
All organizational change entails a change in resources, processes, or priorities, or some combination of these. Identifying the best approach to change depends on understanding how deep the change needs to go into these elements of the organization.
Level 1 change: New resources
The simplest organizational changes are changes in plug-compatible resources. They don’t require major renovations to the engrained processes or priorities of the organization. Essentially, they involve swapping out one set of resources for another—the organizational equivalent of replacing a light fixture’s incandescent light bulb with an LED light bulb. Examples of these types of changes might include updating curriculum, upgrading student devices, instituting a new master schedule, or adopting a new student information system.
The organizational simplicity of these changes doesn’t mean that they’ll be quick or effortless. Anyone who has led a curriculum adoption process knows that it can take a year or more and involve hundreds of hours of work running pilots, analyzing evaluation rubrics, convening committees, and meeting with vendors. What makes these types of changes simple is their compatibility with existing organizational processes and values. With most new curriculum, teachers may need training on how to navigate utilizing the various curricular resources, but they don’t need to completely relearn how to teach, and their goals and objectives will remain the same.
Getting a Level 1 change right is about ensuring that the new resources are compatible with the existing organizational processes and priorities. For example, when a school or district adopts a new curriculum, the hundreds of hours spent on pilots and committees affirm that the curriculum ultimately chosen will address instructional priorities and work well with teachers’ time-forged practices.
Level 2 change: New processes
If Level 1 change is like swapping out a light bulb, Level 2 change is more akin to installing can lighting fixtures in your ceiling. You can’t just rely on existing interfaces to plug in the new lights; you must cut holes in the ceiling drywall, run electrical cables through the walls and ceiling, and perhaps even set up a new circuit in your house’s main electrical panel.
Similarly, Level 2 organizational changes require redesigning engrained processes in the service of established priorities. Examples in a school setting might include shifting from A-F letter grades to competency-based grading, from conventional teaching to project-based learning, or from one-teacher-per-classroom arrangements to team-teaching structures—all (processes) in an effort to improve students’ academic outcomes (a priority).
A major reason some Level 2 efforts fail stems from not organizing people into the right team structures for implementing the change. Most schools carry out their day-to-day work using what our research refers to as lightweight teams. In lightweight teams, people work in functional departments. At a district office, these might be the human resources, finance, or teaching and learning departments. At a school, each classroom—a teacher, and perhaps a paraprofessional or other education specialist—typically has the independence of a lightweight team. Administrators then shuttle among the lightweight teams to ensure consistency and coordination. The functional departments, however, retain primary responsibility for the work. This arrangement is common because it is efficient—it lets people focus on doing their respective jobs with only minimal effort required for coordination. But it’s utterly ineffective when entirely new processes are needed.
When different processes need to be created, they require what Harvard Business School Professors Kim Clark and Steven Wheelwright call a heavyweight team. The term refers to a group of people who are pulled out of their functional units and placed in a team structure that allows them to collaborate over different issues at a different pace. Heavyweight teams are tools to create new processes, or new ways of working together.
For example, consider a school that wants to figure out a new set of team teaching practices. The lightweight team approach—an approach unlikely to succeed—would just assign professional development, then combine teachers’ classes into a common learning space and send administrators to check in on them. In all likelihood, teachers (and I say this as a former teacher) would eventually arrange bookshelves as dividers to try to minimize how much their respective classes interrupt each other.
In contrast, with a heavyweight team approach, the school would first select a group of teachers to develop the practices and pull them out of regular classroom assignments. It would then give them time and space without the pressures of regular teaching duties to figure out how to operate differently together. They might spend a summer together studying and planning the new teaching practices, and then spend a semester trying out and adjusting those practices in a low-stakes setting like a new elective course.
Drawing new organizational charts or flow diagrams doesn’t create radically different processes. Rather, leaders build processes by giving a group of people in a heavyweight team a new problem that the organization hasn’t confronted before. After the team has successfully addressed the challenge, the team needs to confront a similar problem again, and then again. Ultimately, this new way of working will become ensconced within the team and then can diffuse throughout the organization.
Level 3 change: New priorities
In the realm of change management, certain changes are practically impossible to implement within established organizations. This isn’t just because resources are sticky or because processes are difficult to adapt. Effective heavyweight teams can overcome most obstacles that stem only from changing resources and processes. However, organizations can’t sustain change efforts that run counter to the priorities instilled in them by their value networks.
A value network is the environment an organization lives within—the collection of external entities that it interfaces with to establish and maintain its organizational model. A public school’s value network often includes local, state, and federal education agencies; students and their families; employee unions; voters and taxpayers; the postsecondary education system; community organizations; vendors; teacher preparation pipelines; and philanthropic donors. Because organizations depend on their value networks for both the authority and the resources they need to operate, an organization’s value network is the dominant influence on its priorities.
Unfortunately, many desirable changes in education just can’t happen within an established school because they clash with the crosswinds of competing priorities from the school’s value network. For example, there are strong cases for giving students flexibility from uniform pacing, allowing them to advance based on mastery rather than the semester calendar, focusing on deeper learning experiences over broad content coverage, or giving credit for learning that happens outside of classrooms. But time and again, these types of changes get sidelined by the priorities derived from the pre-existing funding, policy, and community expectations placed on schools. Most schools’ value networks compel them to prioritize daily in-person attendance, classroom-based instruction, seat time, and lockstep content coverage.
Changing K–12 education to address wholly new priorities requires creating independent organizational units that emerge and evolve within their own priorities-aligned value networks. These might be alternative schools, virtual schools, or career and technical education programs within a district that operate under different policy requirements and serve students who want something different from conventional schooling. They might be nonprofits or charter schools that operate independent from established school systems and serve children and youth whose needs are unmet in conventional schools. Or they might be microschools, hybrid homeschools, or other arrangements that operate completely outside of public education.
Unfortunately, leaders aiming to drive Level 3 reform in service of new priorities often overlook the importance of creating the changes they want to see through new organizational units situated within new value networks. Instead, they try to push their changes within established schools and their established value networks. They use community advocacy, grant funding, and other levers to try to get their new priorities added to the mix of competing priorities of established schools. They may even work hard to try to build community consensus for the changes they want to see.
But when new priorities must compete with established priorities coming from the value networks formed around established schools, it’s almost impossible to get the alignment of priorities required for overhauling established resources and processes. Trying to replace established resources and processes constitutes a threat, stimulating an autoimmune-disease-like response from the established organization.
For example, imagine trying to overhaul a community’s main high school to prioritize career preparation. You decide to implement a new model in which students learn basic content through self-paced competency-based online courses and then spend most of the day at off-site internships or extracurricular activities. Then imagine the pushback such a change would get from parents who are upset that the school no longer looks like school and are frustrated that students find internships more difficult than attending classes and turning in written assignments. Imagine the pushback from teachers who feel uncomfortable having their roles shift from what they’re good at (delivering whole-class instruction) to roles they feel are poor uses of their expertise (e.g., small-group ad hoc tutoring) or that are outside their expertise (e.g., advising students on how to manage work at their internships). And imagine the pushback from your state education agency when it challenges whether the school deserves funding for the learning that happens off campus and not under the direct supervision of certified teachers. Unfortunately, when changes run counter to the prevailing priorities in an established value network they are doomed to fail.
The importance of starting right
So much of success or failure in organizational change hinges on correctly diagnosing what you’re trying to change about school. Does the change you want to see involve a change in resources, a change in processes, or a change in priorities? Different answers to that question require very different approaches. Getting the front-end diagnosis right isn’t a guarantee of success. But getting the diagnoses wrong can mean expending massive amounts of time and money on an effort that is doomed from the start.
If you’re serious about change management—be sure to get the upfront diagnosis right.