Cultural Change that Sticks

Waiting to fly home from a Solution Tree PLC Institute in San Antonio last week, I picked up a Harvard Business Review magazine with an interesting article that most leaders of novice learning communities could learn a lot from. 

Written by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley, Cultural Change that Sticks details the efforts of senior leaders at Aetna and Arthur Andersen who successfully moved their traditional business organizations forward towards more meaningful new realities.

The authors argue that no matter how hard you try, cultural change just WON'T come quickly to any human organization — ESPECIALLY when it is autocratically imposed and/or divorced from the company's current reality.

Thier proof, interestingly enough, comes from statistics surrounding open heart surgeries:

"Studies show that only 10% of people who have had heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty make major modifications to their diets and lifestyles afterward. 

We don't alter our behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should.  Change is hard. So you need to choose your battles."

Think about that for a minute, would you:  If people who have nearly DIED because of their behaviors aren't willing to change, how in the HECK can we expect employees to willingly embrace new directions no matter HOW important those new directions may be?

What does that mean for the leaders of novice learning communities? 

It means that you have to work with the strengths — rather than grow frustrated by the weaknesses — of your school's existing culture.  Find behaviors that ALREADY neatly align with the work that you hope that your learning community will eventually embrace and concentrate on seeing those behaviors spread across your entire organization. 

As Katzenbach and company explain:

"You can’t trade your company’s culture in as if it were a used car. For all its benefits and blemishes, it’s a legacy that remains uniquely yours.

Unfortunately, it can feel like a millstone when a company is trying to push through a significant change—a merger, for instance, or a turnaround. Cultural inclinations are well entrenched, for good or bad.

But it’s possible to draw on the positive aspects of culture, turning them to your advantage, and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. This approach makes change far easier to implement."

So look at the core practices of a learning community and begin to find places in your building where those practices are already thriving. 

Do you have a team that is already providing additional time for learners?  Is there a strong mentoring program in your building designed to support struggling students?  Are their individual faculty members who are skilled at creating tiered activities that meet the unique needs of every learner?

Making that work public to others and encouraging those efforts to spread is more likely to lead to short term successes that can be celebrated simply because they've already been embraced by your building — and short term successes are vital momentum builders for anyone who wants to create cultural changes that stick.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Hand Washing?

Make Like and Obstetrician and Deliver

What CAN the Principals of PLCs Learn from Antarctic Disasters?

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time



6 thoughts on “Cultural Change that Sticks

  1. jen

    Hi Bill,
    Makes sense to me. The idea of amplifying positives really appeals to me – with colleagues and with students (heck, all relationships – actually).
    Thanks for sharing!
    Your blog has been a life line for me many times. I truly appreciate the time and attention you invest.
    All the best,

  2. Joan

    I find this article makes a lot of sense to me since my husband and I were just in San Antonio to attend a conference on eating better (thus changing our lifestyles). History of food production was mentioned and how the “tip of innovation” is way ahead of cultural and government acceptance and implementation. The same applies to our schools.
    You need to find those change makers in your school and use them as a model as you attempt to evolve into new realities (Common Core, et. al)

  3. Pam Thompson

    Yes, Bill, it definitely does make sense. It is good to be reminded to sit back and look at things from a distance and a different perspective. You are very much advocating not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but work on the strengths that our staff already have. Recognising the skills that they already have and then helping to build on them, for example by incorporating some ICT into that practice, is far better than just demanding that it be done.
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  4. Stanley

    This makes good sense. I would add that you must put aside personal feelings when you begin this venture. I’ve encouraged change from afar (with success) but had to fight results jealousy. This year I plan on encouraging change where successes happen, but a little closer to home 🙂

  5. BGruetzmacher

    I find it interesting to read your post and then the article on the involuntary transfers in the Chapel Hill District. It has been my experience as principal that moving people for curricular reasons (teaching a different grade level or subject matter) works and teachers typically understand and embrace that change. Moving teachers for “cultural” reasons is merely robing Peter to pay Paul. Changing the attitudes of adults AND students is the most difficult “thing” that exists in any profession. The greatest change in attitude for teachers/students happens when the teacher/student has a relationship with the teacher colleagues (teachers and administrators). Schools are emotion filled places and everyone needs to have people that they can dialogue with about their issues and concerns and ideas. Everyone needs a voice!
    Good post Bill. Take care.

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