Sustaining change in any organisation hinges on distributing the key elements in order to create a shared system of leadership. Schools often face the challenge of sustaining and developing change due to staff turnover or long term absence. It is in those organisations that, prior to any change, there is a need to have multiple change agents, people, and tools. So often schools have passionate change agents that end up holding much of the power to effect substantive change. They upskill, develop, and modify their skill set to assist in shifting whole organisation mindsets. And then, inevitably, they move on to a new challenge. It’s what remains that is the true reveal of an organisation’s capacity for sustainability. Worse still is the challenge left when the agent is an organisation’s leader, leaving not only the task of finding someone new, but also the difficulty of maintaining and extending their work.
I’ve blogged recently about “lone nuts, disruptors, and followers”, and truly believe the three are quite distinguishable from one another. However, by their very definition it is their passion for difference and change that drives them, while setting them apart from their peers. It stands to reason that when change has been affected, they will seek out a new challenge, and this could well be within a new organisation.
Sustainability — the capacity for continuous improvement
“I define sustainability as the capacity of a system to engage in the complexities of continuous improvement consistent with deep values of human purpose” (Fullan 2004)”
Fullan lends a new perspective to the concept of sustainability in his use of the word ‘continuous’. The change agents within an organisation have the potential to develop their leadership and grow the understanding of their colleagues through guidance and support. But, what happens when the goal is reached? Who decides on the next step? And, perhaps most importantly, what happens when the direction changes? Top-down leadership and hierarchy will always exist. As a colleague of mine recently said, “If we consulted on every decision we made, change wouldn’t really happen.” We need to find the balance between informing and empowering. Therefore, the concept of driving change from the top is still valid, but when that person at the top decides to move on, does it mean that change ceases? Not if the leadership and strategic direction is shared.
“School leadership and management (often equated with school principals’ work despite empirical evidence calling for more inclusive perspectives) are thought critical for successful schools. School-level factors matter when it comes to improving student learning and maintaining these improvements over time.” (Spillane et al 2015)
Continuity over time appears to be the key to successfully reaching a sustainable model for change. Spillane goes on to remind us of the importance of having various lines of inquiry, multiple paths leading to a shared vision. So, I return to my title and a look at the need for distributed leadership to successfully underpin a culture of sustainable change. This, in itself, has many challenges and requires in-depth collaboration to achieve, but simply taking a step outside of one’s comfort zone is a positive start.
Negativity and the need for collaborative distributive leadership
Further unpacking of the journey requires leaders to look carefully at the effect of negativity on the process of change. Fullan accurately describes this when he states:
“If we want sustainability we need to keep an eye on energy levels (overuse and underuse). Positive collaborative cultures will help because (a) they push for greater accomplishments, and (b) they avoid the debilitating effects of negative cultures. It is not hard work that tires us out, as much as it is negative work.” (Fullan 2004)
The resistors to change (blogged about here) often provide a greater level of work than the actual change. The constant struggle with those that hold an alternative or negative perspective can be extremely wearying and, should change leadership rest with an individual, a debilitating factor. However, a collaborative and distributive leadership system means that any battle can be fought on multiple fronts simultaneously, helping regulate the expenditure of energy and time as well as providing multiple perspectives. In achieving multiple perspectives with the shared goal, an organisation’s leadership is able to actively engage with a wider staff and effect change on multiple levels. Should one leader leave, the sustainability is relatively unaffected. Should they be replaced, a new perspective can be gained and the shared vision can potentially be modified. And in that moment, not only is there sustainability, but also continuity, evolution, and even a new breadth of understanding.
Make sure you're ready for change
Whatever the organisation and the desired change, the establishment of process and structure without trapping the habits of old remains key. The racing driver checks his car, fuel, and tyres before driving, the pilot checks his aircraft before flying, and the leaders within an organisation must check the readiness of a staff before pushing them forward. They must avoid assumptions. Assuming an organisation is ready for change could be quite different from it actually being ready for it. Once resistance has been validated or a vision has been reshaped, staff at all levels can begin to push beyond their limits and train in a way similar to athletes (Fullan 2004), giving “the extra” needed to effect a lasting change. To start with trust and inclusivity must guide the initial decisions.
Key factors for sustainable and continuous change
I see the key factors for establishing a culture of sustainable and continuous change as:
- Collaborative development of strategic goals with an openness to further development.
- An environment that highlights resistance and validates it over dismissing.
- Shared responsibility for outcome with regular strategic ‘check-ins’ to ascertain whether a task requires further review or sharing.
- Visual representation of the change, whether language or ongoing collection of successes and case studies.
- Motivation for staff, opportunities for replenishment and learning.
- Clear organisational structure and workflow, showing clarity and representing a scaleable vision for the change desired.
- Resourcing and procurement of the necessary tools to enact the change.
- High trust in all levels of management and leadership with opportunities to address multiple audiences.
- Model the expectation desired.
This list clearly isn’t exhaustive, and any change needs to be underpinned by a supportive environment in which risk taking is promoted. I think the bigger question is one that directs those engaged in change and looking at sustainability, towards asking them to delve further by probing the breadth of continuity and evolution within a shared vision.
Fullan, M. (2004) Leadership and Sustainability, Institute for Studies in Education University of Toronto. Prepared for Hot Seat, Urban Leadership Community, England
Spillane, J and Diamond, J (2015) Distributed Leadership in Practice. Hawker Brownlow Education, Australia