3 Signs of System and Organisational Distress

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It seems to me that the sea of opportunity in education is littered with shipwrecks. Each represents a particular change initiative or strategy implementation that has foundered or sunk before reaching its destination. Each has set off with the best of intentions and sights fixed on the distant horizon, only to find themselves beaten back by relentless waves of resistance, merciless winds of discontent, a craft that is not fit-for-purpose or a crew that is inadequately prepared or trained for the journey.

Sound familiar?

So what are the signs we could be looking for as warnings of another shipwreck likely to happen?

On a morning bike ride I was pondering my experience in education over several decades and the reasons so many change efforts fail. The point of my reflection is that, despite the most obvious lessons from the past, organisations and systems continue to pursue the same (unsuccessful) strategies for change.

As I contemplated the myriad of reasons for this I ended up identifying three that came to the top of my list based on personal experience and observation (and, yes, there are definitely more that can be considered). Here, then, are three signs that almost certainly lead to a failure at either an organisational or system level. (Please excuse my playful experimentation with alliteration in the titles 🙂

1. Deficit-thinking Determines Direction

For so long our approach to strategic planning has involved focusing on the problem areas and planning to address them. Literacy rates are falling, so we focus narrowly on programmes to address that. Truancy rates are rising, so we create positions for people to coerce students back into classrooms. Engagement in classrooms is a problem, so we endeavour to ‘spice things up’ with rewards and games.

None of these things, in and of themselves, are bad. The problem lies with how focusing myopically on a problem results inevitably in a deficit-mindset – where everything becomes a problem to be solved, and we begin to see problem behaviours as a characteristic of certain students or groups of students.

Deficit thinking sets a low bar for strategy. It robs it of its future-focused potential, and of its optimism for better outcomes. We begin to mistake equity for ‘sameness’, and

I’m not saying we should ignore the problems – quite the opposite. I am an advocate for implementing strategies for using data to identify areas we need to address to improve outcomes for learners.

If, however, we allow our problem-solving mindset to descend into deficit thinking, then we will find ourselves constrained when it comes to future-focused, strategic planning, and instead of liberating learners to realise the potential that lies within, our programmes of learning will focus increasingly on ensuring the fit the box of expectation that has been set for them.

A useful litmus test here is to examine the strategic goals in a school’s plan – or do the same with government policy for that matter – and ask ‘what’s the emphasis here? Is the focus on ‘fixing’ a problem, or is there evidence of a BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal) driving this?

The answer will suggest what is determining the direction being taken.

2. Inertia Inhibits Innovation

The biggest impediment to transformational changes is inertia. This involves the strong persistence of existing practices, functions, beliefs, processes etc. that defines the organisation.

Consider the response in a school community when even the smallest changes are made – a change in uniform expectation met with cries of ‘but we’ve always had green as our uniform colour!’, or when moving to an open learning environment – “where will I put my desk, and which wall will my whiteboard go on?” etc.

These responses can become the cause of significant inertia – to the point where they can become full-blown resistance – generally of the passive, ‘I’m simply going to keep doing it my way’ variety, more than the active ‘I’m going to protest violently’ nature.

The fact is that for the vast majority of people, having routines and commonly understood ways of working are what provide a sense of personal security and can, collectively, enable things to run more smoothly. These individual and collective norms help us maintain what makes for a well functioning society.

The problem occurs when we are forced to make change because, ultimately, the way we are doing things currently are no longer efficient, effective or are unlikely to sustain us (and future generations) into the future.

An organisation in distress is one that has failed to take account of the degree to which organisational norms influence behaviour, and have therefore failed to take into account the need to address these things early on in any change process. Simply tolerating the ‘cynics’ in the back row of staff meetings is a sure-fire way of ensuring any change effort will be undermined and ultimately fail.

Further, if we’re serious about creating a culture of innovation in our organisations, then we must work hard, with all of our staff, to create an innovation mindset, where it’s OK to talk openly about the systems/structures/processes that are being challenged and understand why.

Innovation can only thrive when there is openness to change, and an openness to change will only develop when there everyone is involved in the conversations around what is happening, including how it is going to affect them personally.

Innovation affects the whole system, and cannot be conceived of as simply ‘adding another layer’ to an already overwhelmed way of working.

3. Restructures Result in Resistance

There’s an oft-quoted phrase; “Organisations don’t change, people change”. When said aloud in any context this statement will usually be accepted with the nodding of heads in general agreement.

In practice, however, people are often the last to be considered. Sure, there may be lots of consultation and communication – but how much of that is to do with changing minds and winning buy-in? More often it’s about conveying information about new ways of working, new processes and new structures – and the people are left to figure out how they fit.

In the past few decades it seems that we’ve seen a common pattern of activity in large organisations – including schools. When looking to improve organisational effectiveness, the leaders pick up the phone and call a big consulting firm, and upon their advice embark on a major restructure.

The problem is, restructures don’t always work. For example, a Bain & Company study of 57 reorganisations between 2000 and 2006 found that fewer than one-third produced any meaningful improvement in performance. Most had no effect, and some actually destroyed value. 

This is not to say there’s not a place for any form of re-structuring an organisation. If the current systems, processes and structures are no longer fit for purpose, then they need to be changed. The problem arises, however, when the concept of a blanket restructure is used to increase organisational effectiveness and outcomes without first, more deeply understanding the root causes of the ineffectiveness and poor outcomes in the first place. Sometimes that may be due to the poor performance or decision-making of a particular staff member or team. A re-structure may simply end up moving the problem behaviours to a different part of the organisation, rather than address the problem or issue directly.

So what is the alternative to a restructure? Many writers are now suggesting that such an approach is out of date in today’s world as the thinking is premised on the idea that there is an ‘ideal structure’ and that if it can be achieved things will run more smoothly. Such thinking assumes that the ideal state will somehow be a stable one, where future change is unnecessary.

One alternative is to consider an organisation in a state of constant change, where everyone is continually re-assessing the ‘fit-for-purpose’ thinking behind how things are working. This is what has become commonly referred to as characteristic of a Learning Organisation. Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, defines a “Learning Organization” as one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” 

Seems to me that operating as a learning organisation is far preferable to the restructure route – particularly as it places emphasis on people being actively a part of all decision making, and thus mitigating the level of resistance experiences when change is ‘done to’ them.

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