Building the capacity for change

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

“When a wise man points at the moon the foolish man examines the finger.”


It’s becoming cliched now to say that we’re living in times of unprecedented change – but it’s true. Some of the most difficult changes to understand and adjust to are the ones that are unexpected and out of our control – a recession, a global pandemic or a major disaster, for example. 

Change of this nature may force us into new roles and new ways of It may challenge us to give up established and valued ways of functioning. Many of us find our sense of identity is linked to these established behaviours, and so change can lead to us feeling fearful, resentful or simply avoiding taking part – hoping it wall all go away and we can get back to normal.

One part of coping with change is to recognise and understand these behaviours in ourselves – and those around us. Another part is acting ahead of time to ensure we are building the capacity to change, in ourselves, in those around us and in the organisations we belong to.

The quote from Confucius at the top of this post highlights the challenge we have. Too often, when confronted with the challenges of unexpected change we become focused purely on the present and become consumed with coping with what is facing us in the immediate. It’s like a surfer struggling to maintain control on the wave she/he is riding, without watching for the wave that is about to crash behind her/him.

To build the capacity for change we have to become adept at ‘looking at the moon’ as well, and not becoming focused only on the finger. Yes, in the midst of unexpected change we have to act immediately to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those around us – but in doing so we will draw from the reserves of ‘change readiness’ that we have developed over time. This capacity is shaped by our experiences of the past and our ability to scan the future.

These thoughts were brought home to me this week as I have interacted with a number of school leaders and system leaders, and listened to how they were responding to the current Omicron spread across New Zealand. In reflecting on this I also surfaced a video I made a few years ago on the topic of change and how we build the capacity for change. In it I highlight five things that I thought important at the time – and are still relevant today…

Be informed

To ensure we are not caught by surprise we need to ensure we keep up with professional reading, and professional conversations. We need to expose ourselves to a wide variety of ideas and in puts, including political, social, economic – as well as educational perspectives. If we have some understanding of what lies ahead on the horizon our capacity to respond is significantly increased.

Understand the culture

Working to establish and then working within the norms of the organisation’s culture will go a long way to help the organisation and the individuals within it cope with change. A key thing here is to appreciate the power of agency among both teachers and students as change agents. A characteristic of a change-ready culture is one where there is an appetite for risk – with a ‘fail-fast, fix-fast’ mentality, creating a more agile and change-ready environment.

Develop leadership capabilities among all involved

We must be focused on the idea that everyone in an organisation has leadership potential and thus the capacity to create/lead change. Learner and teacher agency is key here – where people have the ‘power to act’ and to do so in the interest of the community.

Develop strategies for coping

Being intentional about change requires that a common language is shared by all members of the organisation, and that there are common ‘ways of working’, supported by the use of shared frameworks and tools to guide activity and the measures of success of what is being done.

Don’t go alone

Building the capacity for change is a collaborative activity – it is about collectivity or community owned outcomes. The capacity for change in any organisation is profoundly increased when the responsibility is shared by the collective, with all members empowered and taking responsibility for contributing to the change.

The video clip below provides a more detailed overview of each of these things…

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