Saturday, December 27, 2008

Misconceptions of change management

Two major themes permeate much of change management. The heroic enlightenment of managers and leaders as the proponents of change and the undermining resistance of staff as the opponents of change.

Firstly, management and leadership are two different and disparate functions. Management is largely based on authority associated with a delegated role whereas leadership is usually based on (working) relationships. Few managers are actually leaders because of the likely conflict between role and relationship. Similarly few leaders are actually managers.

So how do those in charge (those with authority) change organisations? The most common approach is to produce a plan and communicate it to staff. The 'short-cut' version of this approach is simply to use direct force, often in the form of changed policies and structures.

Sometimes this approach seems to work, at least in part. Of course, this implies that the plan was, to a certain extent, well thought out and comprehensive, and hence. The manager is, usually to a greater extent, a heroic and insightful leader.

Closer examination will usually show that the outcome differs significantly from the plan. What has emerged is different from what was initially proposed, due to unforeseen circumstances or the resistance of those who are required to implement the plan.

In reality, it is not possible to predict what will emerge from a change initiative. Afterwards, the difference between intensions and outcomes are often readily explainable through 'retrospective coherence'.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Student at the Centre: student as client?

Most organisations tend to identify their clients as those people and groups outside the organisation who use the services or products that the organisation produces.

Student at the Centre is a good example. Paradoxically, Student at the Centre actually places the student outside the Department (and even schools) as shown by the lack of student voice in the everyday conversations from which the Department emerges. This paradox creates a dilemma for schools as reflected in their need to serve (educate), train, manage and report on students. So despite everyone's best hopes and intentions, it is possible that 'Student at the Centre' is like a nicely labelled but empty paper bag.

The client as an external role arises from the almost universal production paradigm that has the organisation as 'factory'. A more aggressive form of the production paradigm might be the organisation as 'army'. In either case command and control are frequently in use.

Minimal examination will show that it is clearly a nonsense to assign a fixed role of 'client' to particular persons , groups or other organisations. It just isn't that simple. In any organization, the best interactions occur within working-learning relationships. Everyone is both a client and a provider and these 'aspects of any working-learning relationship change from moment to moment in everyday interactions. Consider another example: the patient provides the doctor with information that he/she then uses to make a diagnosis and design a response. And this not really a linear process, rather it is an iterative process in which each party moves from provider to recipient on a moment by moment basis. 'Patient' and 'doctor' refer respectively to particular needs and specialist capacity within the working-learning relationship.

Thus client’ is better understood as a momentary ‘role’ within dynamic working-learning relationships. It is not a fixed personal role, the 'client' is simply the next person,… in the process.

Clients and providers may exchange ‘roles’ from moment to moment as in the doctor-patient example above. This iterative movement occurs in everyday conversations in which knowledge, arrangements and actions are constructed. The collaboration of teachers and learners is another prime example. Rather than 'Student at the Centre' we need to make the success of teachers and learners working and learning together the centre of the Department.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Top down approaches

One of my sad experiences this year came from a conversation I overheard in a school. A parent asked about a minor aspect of the school's future arrangements. The senior staff member replied: "We don't know ... the Department hasn't decided yet."

This informal exchange illustrated the extent to which the Tasmanian education system has become a top down system. In earlier times, such minor matters would have been decided by the school as a matter of course.

Few Tasmanian schools are the purposeful creative places they used to be before the system became the client. This latter development is the inevitable outcome of the recent unchallenged top down approaches.

Despite their rhetoric, top down systems do not support leaders at all well. They may talk 'leadership' but the system constraints reduce leadership to management (implementing the system's decisions) and compliance. But there are still leaders in spite of this. And the leaders are paying a very high price in those schools that are trying so hard to be purposeful and creative. Many school leaders are quite exhausted by the competing demands of the Department and governments and the needs of the staff and students. An indicator and outcome is the low and shrinking number of applicants for Principals' positions.

And then there is the paradoxical phenomenon in top down systems that

  • The less well top down interventions work, the more likely they will be applied and increased.
The common flaw in top down approaches is that they treat most things as simple when in reality most are not. See It is not personal and it is not simple below.