Organization Change Management: Getting your district ready for the start of school and beyond

A structured change management process can help districts come up with a sustainable way to adapt to the current realities and create buy-in across the district
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.

School districts across the country have spent the summer recovering from their initial responses to the pandemic and planning for how the start of school will look. For most districts, the plan for the start of school was in the final stages until a trend emerged at the beginning of last week that resulted in districts resorting to plan “B.” That trend involves everyone starting the school year fully remote.

There is a quote from Paul Valery, “Every beginning is a consequence. Every beginning ends something.” Never has this quote had more meaning than now in relation to K-12’s response to what education will look like. The beginning is embracing remote learning and making it as purposeful and effective as face-to-face instruction. The consequence that caused this beginning is COVID-19. The real struggle K-12 education is facing lies in the second part of the quote. The beginning (remote learning) ends something. Have we as an education system come to terms with the fact that we will never go back to the way we did things pre-COVID-19? Or do we believe this is just a point-in-time crisis that will pass, after which we can resume educating kids as we have always done? If you were to ask this question, I am confident most respondents would say this is not a point-in-time crisis, this IS our new way of educating children.

So, what did we learn from our experience in March and April? Since there was no time to truly plan, all school systems were forced to react. This forced reaction dictated that we “push” change throughout our organization. As we reflect on March and April I believe we can all agree that pushing change, particularly a very disruptive change, isn’t an effective practice nor will it provide sustainable fidelity to the change over the long term.

Related: How districts can pressure-test reopening plans to account for all scenarios

Here is the million-dollar question: If pushing change like we were forced to do this spring wasn’t effective AND this truly is the new way of instruction for children, what are you doing as a leader to drive this very disruptive change and transform the culture of your district or department?

The answer to this very complex question is Organization Change Management (OCM). To really understand OCM, it is important to understand the three states of change: Current, Transition, and Future.

Current State:

This state is how things are done today or pre COVID-19. This state is like that old pair of slippers or your favorite T-shirt. It is comfortable, and well understood but most importantly it is KNOWN. For employees, current state is how they show their value to the organization and have been successful.

Transition State:

This state is chaotic, disorganized, and frequently changing (sound familiar?). This is a very emotional state for employees who are full of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and confusion. Now I want you to think about the emotional elements identified that are related to the transition state. At any given time, your employees could be experiencing these same emotions in their personal lives because of the pandemic. As a leader you must embrace the fact that in our current environment there are many other factors that can impact your employees’ emotional state other than learning how to operate in a remote setting. The Transition State is where we are today and, in my opinion, is where we will be for the entire upcoming school year.

Future State:

This state is what your employees have been told the future will look like. It is supposed to be improved and where promises of better days occur. The future state and what your employees envision is completely dependent on what has been the messaging around this new frontier, who is stating this message and how consistent, honest, and timely it has been. For your employees, the future state is also very personal. Everyone will be thinking about the future state and deciding if it is where he or she wants to be personally and/or professionally. It is these internal conversations that will cause the most apprehension. The future state is unknown, and we all must accept that fact.

Related: Expect heightened anxiety, behavioral issues in returning students

As I mentioned above, we are currently in the Transition State. To effectively navigate our way out of this state an OCM framework and set of practices will help guide as well as provide the leader with the best opportunity for success. OCM goes beyond a simple project plan or training schedule and instead provides supports and tools that will help each individual employee understand the change, the impact it has on them personally, and how they can successfully embrace and function. OCM also provides you as a leader effective diagnostics and analytics to quickly identify issues or concerns at a very granular level.

One of the biggest mistakes made with change, such as the one we are experiencing, is identifying an issue and assuming that this issue is district-wide. This results in a solution being identified and implemented throughout the district. The problem is the issue was isolated to a department or campus. By assuming it was district-wide your solution will in all likelihood cause more problems for the rest of the organization. You will have solved for the campus or department but disrupted the rest of the district. OCM allows you to not only identify issues quickly but also isolate them and create a solution that will address the issue for just those experiencing the problem.

One of the greatest structures you can implement related to OCM is a Change Agent Network. This is a group of individuals who will be your eyes and ears into the district. These are individuals who are open to change and are influential within their campuses or departments. One of the greatest functions of this group is to provide open and honest feedback to the leaders of the district. They must be willing and comfortable questioning and pushing back. Your change agent network should be comprised of teachers from the campuses and staff members from each department or division impacted by the change. As a leader, now is the time to identify your change agent network. The experience you had within your district in March and April highlighted individuals who would be perfect for this group. Identify this group, identify what they can message as well as how they can help you with the start of school, and then bring them together. This is a powerful group and one that can provide you great assistance as you begin the process of opening your school.

My final thoughts related to OCM: I have used this framework for about 10 years and achieved great results. Understand that change is personal. Leveraging a framework that embraces this fact and supports your employees on an emotional level is what makes change successful or unsuccessful. It is critical to remember that right now there is a lot more than change in a job role impacting your employees’ emotional state. As a leader, you should put yourself in the shoes of the people you are talking with when discussing change. How would you react to your message? I guarantee if you do this simple act, the narrative of your message will change. Lastly, celebrate your short-term wins. This is not going to be easy, and as such simple celebrations that recognize the heavy lift everyone is doing will go a long way to keeping your employees on the train to whatever future you have outlined.

Good luck with your start of school!

Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration's chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

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