Developing a culture of change in schools through leadership and management – and deploying improvement strategies across the school community – requires an understanding of ‘the challenges of change’. Andrew Williams, education consultant and interim leader, explores the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to approaches to change management
Speak to most senior leaders in schools about the challenges they face and it will be no surprise that the management of change is typically near the top of their lists. Speak to a broad range of school staff about what frustrates them most and perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that the inability of change programmes to have a positive impact on their roles and their schools, is near the top of their lists. The failure rate for organisational change programmes, according to McKinsey and Company, is about 70% – a rate that has stayed pretty much the same since before the introduction of the classroom revolution that was the overhead projector.
So, why is it that we frequently get it wrong when we all know that, managed well, a culture where change is embraced can be a hugely positive catalyst for growth, development and innovation and will deliver improvements in outcomes for our students? Over my twenty years of experience across the public and independent education sectors I’ve witnessed and been part of my fair share of good, bad and down-right ugly examples of change management programmes. In all three, there are common threads that create the conditions that separate success and failure.
We are all leaders
The good recognise that change is not a force that is applied to achieve a shift in a school’s culture but an opportunity to identify, develop and recognise leaders from within the wider school community. Whilst it goes without saying that senior leaders in schools and colleges carry a significant responsibility for leading change there are frequently missed opportunities to enable ‘other’ leaders to step up and steer change from within.
One of the most successful examples I have seen of this in practice allowed a series of staff working groups to lead on the implementation of change programmes that were agreed annually through negotiation and collaboration with their senior team. Apart from the tangible changes brought about by these groups, the programme also encouraged a wider understanding of the need and benefits of change and innovation and allowed individuals not in designated leadership roles to develop the key skills that prepared them for progression within the school.
Keeping it real
The bad fail to translate their grand change strategies into operational priorities and plans and, as a result, people quickly become detached from the reality of change and, importantly, the reality of the impact on them personally – their roles, their teams or departments and the school. If this becomes a common occurrence the great enemy of change – cynicism – will quickly undermine efforts to move forward.
The good are highly attuned to the need to achieve this and will expend a significant amount of time, resources and leadership effort to understanding and planning the process and the impacts of change at an operational level. After all, change is very real and can be perceived as a highly disruptive force to the individual if it results in significant alterations to the working practices, management structures and organisational values that surround them.
The good ensure that change is firmly bedded in the reality of operational planning and this is shared widely, collaboratively implemented and rigorously monitored for impact and effect. Applying the basic principles of performance management to the management of change makes sense and delivers results.
Remove the blinkers
The ugly don’t recognise when change is needed, required or is actually happening around them without their involvement. They sit within an isolated, blinkered world of familiarity and ignorance and it is often only when factors such as negative inspection outcomes, falling student numbers and parental disquiet start to bite that they suddenly – and often desperately – attempt to engage.
Unfortunately, experience has shown me that, by this point, it is often too late to rescue the situation and more radical solutions are then sought by governing bodies and proprietors, leading to prolonged periods of upheaval and realignment with reality. Most eventually survive; some unfortunately don’t.
The good understand that capable leaders face outward as much as they do inwards to their schools and colleges. One of the most successful school leaders I was fortunate enough to work alongside spent approximately 60% of his working week engaging with his school community and the wider education sector. All the insight and knowledge he drew from this was fed back into his senior and middle management teams and used to shape the way in which the organisation predicted and responded to change.
The good also exploit every opportunity to develop their people and, importantly, they recognise the importance of turning the knowledge gained in to applied practice. The value of sending your people off on expensive CPD programmes will only be fully realised if they are given the opportunity to apply their newly gained knowledge and skills to change within the organisation.
Leadership of change
The leadership of change is complex and challenging even for the 30% of good organisations out there which achieve their intended outcomes. Leaders who understand the complexity and challenge of change because they engage with their people, share the leadership responsibility, stay grounded in reality and keep their fingers on the pulse of change, are probably more likely to be left standing at the end of the shootout than those who don’t. Unfortunately, the gunfight analogy suggests, as does the data, that there are winners and losers. What independent schools need is a much-enhanced ability to lead change programmes and ensure that change is embraced, positively deployed and sustained for the success of us all.