People Who Drive Change Have No Clue How it Happens

Adaptive ActionIn this week's sticky issue, the question is about change and how we can make change happen in organizations. The question was asked: Things like outcome evaluation, high stakes testing, and change by fiat imply that if you tighten the screws enough, people will change. That reveals lots of false (and often insulting) assumptions. How can we introduce a more effective way to think about and act to support change?

Adaptive Action provides us a way to explore this question to find informed and useful ways to respond in a system that's trapped in old ideas about change.  


We want organizations and institutions to perform well--to provide effective service, to produce desired outcomes, and to be good stewards of the resources we invest in them. As an example for this question, let’s take one US institution in particular--public education, which is under close scrutiny and critical debate because it is not seen as doing well in any of those arenas in any consistent way.

In decades of school reform untold resources have been spent in search effective change models. Different approaches have offered ways to support, foster, create, engineer, and manage change. Models explore strategic and/or operational change, and look at top-down and/or grassroots approaches. Yet individuals and groups inside those systems continue to be mired in a struggle to increase outcomes for students. While there are pockets of success for students and teachers alike, there has been little or no real sustainable way to generalize those solutions.

So what?

When change is happening this fast and at so many levels at once, we have to shift how weconceptualize change itself. Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) views change in terms of levels of complexity, which can help us think differently about current education reform activities to identify more effective and sustainable options for action.

The lowest level of change involves “simple” or “static” change. At this level, we only think about the before and after of change, without considering anything that came during the change process, itself. Outside forces act on an object and make it change. We move the desks in an office. We assign students to grade levels according to their ages and move them from one grade to the next. Static change can be a valid way to accomplish a simple task. Sometimes we need to move desks to make room for filing cabinets. Students need to move forward on their educational paths. On the other hand we need to consider the impact on how people do their work or how they relate to others as we re-arrange their workspaces--both as we interrupt their work to accomplish the move and as they re-orient themselves to the new arrangement. Students do need to move forward, but when they advance as a group according to external decisions and expectations, there is less consideration of individual progress, needs, and assets. In simple change accountability is assigned according to generalized and large-scale outcomes.

At the next level of complexity, we talk about “dynamic” change, when we can know enough about forces effecting change to predict and control the speed, path, and direction of that change. Football kickers build their skill as they learn how to think about distance and wind and force. Developmental theories describe dynamic change in that they assume predictable stages of growth or development that should be common across any situation. Dynamic change can work in systems that are predictable, when the forces can be known and measured, and when each act is independent of what went before. Machines and other physical systems work in this way. Just as with theories built on simple change models, dynamic change theories that may appear accurate at the largest scales may or may not help us know how to take action in an individual situation, since human systems are far more complex than the most complicated machine. 

Today’s schools are highly diverse, open systems where yesterday’s experiences shape today’s responses and tomorrow’s outcomes--they are complex adaptive systems. Change emerges from the system itself, and forces that act outside or inside the system cannot be fully known or measured. In HSD, we call this high level of complexity “dynamical” change. In such a system, long-range plans that assume highly stable and predictable actions and outcomes are of little use as systems deal with constant and overwhelming shifts. Change at the global level is totally dependent on the action at the local level. Top-down, coercive change is unsustainable. Measures on narrow-gauged, specifically-designed assessments cannot reflect knowledge and skills needed to function successfully in a highly complex world.

So what this means is:

  • The ways we have tried to implement change no longer work.
  • We have to find alternative ways to plan and take action toward change.
  • We have to use our energy to learn about and influence the forces at play rather than trying to predict and control those forces.

Now what?

The next step is at the local level: Begin the exploration of your assumptions to see where that takes you as you examine policies, practices, and procedures across your system. Then you can step into the next cycle of What? to further explore behaviors and constructs that make up your system. There is no one answer that fits across the broad spectrum of complexity in today’s world. Finding that fit is local and essential.

This So what? points to three very powerful options for action.

  1. Begin a conversation inside your system to consider the ways assumptions about "change as static" and "change as dynamic" have shaped your work.
  2. Inside your own context, consider what might be other ways of setting the conditions for change, given your new understanding of dynamical change.
  3. Consider carefully the work you do in public education--or any other industry--in light of the three types of change. Be clear that you choose the most effective approach to change according to the level of complexity in the task.

Given these insights, we can no longer think of having the ability or responsibility “to drive change”. Rather we have to think about how to set conditions for people to change their systems. In education, how do we support any change effort that enables individuals and groups to see, understand, and influence the patterns of teaching and learning? How do we find meaningful ways to assess progress within any of those patterns? How do we work together to take take informed, wise action based on what we learn to strengthen future patterns of teaching and learning? What will move us forward into the next iteration of seeing, understanding, and shaping conditions to support effective patters in our complex systems?

And this level of exploration and dialogue is possible, not only in education, but also in any of thepublic and private institutions where change is critically important and yet cannot be driven from the top down.  In healthcare, how do we set conditions to generate patterns or health and healing? In government, how do we set conditions for patterns of ethical and democratic governance and service? In industry, how do we set conditions for patterns for innovation and productivity? Take action today. Begin by engaging with others, using these questions in your own context and business sector and see what you can recognize about individual and shared assumptions about change.

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