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Exploring Organizational Change in Complex Systems

Pathways to Inclusive Education’s mission is creating and sustaining inclusive cultures in dynamic learning organizations. Schools who desire to create, continue developing, or sustain an inclusive culture find themselves immersed in complex change. Often, the current need manifests itself in a problem of practice in classrooms or as a gap in a structure or process within the program which is impeding the school’s potential to impact student learning. What we know about complex organizations is that the ripples which are felt in one part of the system often originate elsewhere. In this post, We will share one analogy for shifting beliefs, programming, and practices in schools and then over time connect this thinking to these book titles and topics:Leading Change and Accelerate by Kotter​Transitions by BridgesSprint by Knapp, Zeratasky, and Kowitz​Leading Modern Learning by McTighe and CurtisReframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal​​Posner’s Conceptual Change ProcessWe have the list cut out for us for a while. Our goal is to not only expand our own understanding but also support school leaders at all levels in thinking about ways to tackle the complex challenges they are facing each day.The Three Levels of an Organization  
A well-used but still helpful analogy in which to think about complex change is one of elevation. It is the 30,000 ft, 15,000 ft, and ground level thinking which supports us in paying attention to strategic alignment, programmatic clarity, and fidelity of practice. These intertwine together to create cohesion and clarity that captures “the way we do things around here” in the life of a school. Because schools are constantly in motion, they must solve problems and manage unsolvable tensions at all three elevations simultaneously. Often times, outside expertise can disturb the system and provide guidance in a way that cannot always be done internally given the many different demands school leaders face each day.At 30,000 feet, organizations are thinking strategically. This is where the concept which represents the complex change (The What) come together with the inspiration for it (The Why). It strikes at the identity of a school. Sometimes, The Why drives the change as a new or evolved identity emerges through strategic planning, accreditation, changing student demographics, or economic pressures. At other times, The What comes from below; it emerges from the status quo as schools realize new opportunities within their current student population. Discovering resources and barriers present system-wide supports schools in moving from their existing state towards their desired state. At this elevation, attention is not only focused on the school’s identity but also the beliefs of individuals as well.

A school’s perception of its identity and an individual’s perceptions of their professional identity (which may or may not be in alignment) manifest itself in classrooms each day. A lasting change in individual skill set comes only after changing mindset. Neither of these can really be shifted until someone’s heart-set, or beliefs about the change, shift as well. For all of us, emotion drives cognition. Advances in neuroscience support our understanding that certain stimuli can initiate powerful feelings of fear. The amygdala relies on the cerebral cortex to evaluate information as threatening or benign and the bi-directionality in the nervous system suggests that emotion and cognition are completely intertwined. Separating them is not practical or useful (Myers, et al, 2014). Supporting people in shifting those beliefs is delicate; helping them discover dissatisfaction with their own practice is one way to do that and I will be exploring the how behind that conceptual change in an upcoming piece. As leadership teams face transformational culture shifts, they must anticipate barriers and either remove those or plan around them. Patrick Lencioni suggests that people need to interact with a big idea as many as 7 times. Establishing and communicating relevance is key as some people struggle with feelings that are often associated with change. Designing processes which support people and groups in building a common clarity about The What and The Why empower them as the school develops The How.

Programming which supports beliefs and values of teachers comes in the form of systems, structures, and other mental models at 15,000 feet. Once The Why is clarified, existing systems can be projected against it as part of the desired state and/or perhaps new systems be created. Once clarified, these mental models or frameworks support people in their understanding of how they should put The What and The Why into practice at the ground level.

Some of these instructional models are very specific and others represent frameworks. Readers and Writers Workshop is quite tight in implementation, while content standards like the Common Core, NGSS or C3 provide teachers a structure to work within. Another framework that Pathways to Inclusive Education is collaborating with schools in developing is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.  So at 15,000 feet, the 20/60/20 lesson trajectory of Readers and Writers Workshop, the 3 Dimensionality of NGSS or the 4 Dimensions within the College, Career, and Civic Life aspects of the C3 standards provide teachers guidance as they create powerful learning opportunities for their students.
The academic (Response to Intervention) and behavior (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) aspects of the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework is a good example because it requires systems and structures both in and outside of the classroom. Tier 1 calls for high-quality core instruction for all students. The framework here might be Universal Design for Learning which is a unit and lesson planning mindset which recognizes learner variability and removes barriers from the curriculum for students. In Tiers 2 and 3 of MTSS, structures like the referral process for students of concern and the scheduling of intervention blocks are just a couple of examples of systems that need to be developed, understood, and used to impact student learning. Having clarity around these models helps teachers and other faculty understand how to navigate the system; it supports the connection between The What and The Why to The How of the practice at the classroom level.

On the ground, when we see teachers actively supporting the culture change it is because they understand the importance of The Why as a part of not only the school’s identity shift but theirs as well, Systems and structures are being developed at 15,ooo feet which are highly connected to the new way of doing things. This clarity of beliefs and coherence of practice creates a climate where people feel challenged and supported as a community of learners; together they are working to better understand how to use the mental models, systems, and structures in support of their classroom practice.
Regardless of the analogy, it seems that any leadership team preparing to embark on a culture-shifting endeavor benefit when they identify a model which guides their organization through complex change. When a model is not used we often hear community members talk about feeling confused, anxious, or frustrated due to false starts and this results in a momentum-killing resistance (Ambrose, 1987).  A leadership team which dedicates time to learn together, identify an approach and plan for the change both honors the group and organization by lessening the need for a major recalibration midstream.

We would welcome your ideas for other books to explore and also your thoughts in general. Please feel free to make those in the comments section below. Hopefully, our learning will support yours as well.