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Assess The Scope: Tools for School-based Change Management

In this 6-week change management series, TLI staff share key leadership moves for managing successful school-based change. Catch the series introduction here or read earlier posts.

For school leaders, changemaking often brings discomfort and anxiety. Fortunately, research offers some clear guidance on successfully managing change: Start by assessing the scope and complexity. 

School leaders should start by determining if a change is technical or adaptive, terms first defined by Harvard University professor Ron Heifetz (1994) and later developed extensively with Marty Linsky.  

Technical Changes

Technical, or 1st order changes, are problems that “can be solved with knowledge and procedures already in hand” (Daloz Parks, 2005). If a school’s current procedures can be tweaked or the existing skills can fix a problem, it’s considered a technical change. 

Consider an issue with the 5th grade hallway clogging up after recess so classes are routinely losing work time. For a school that already has clear hallway procedures and a normed vision on hallway behavior, the change may be as simple as staggering the end of recess time or changing where a class stands for the bathroom. The change is technical; it can be solved with existing procedures. Staff probably don’t need to build new skills or develop new mindsets to solve it. 

In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linksy (2002) categorize technicals changes as the following: 

  • Extends or refines a past practice
  • Maintains the school or department’s way of working
  • Aligns with personal values or beliefs
  • Easily implemented using current knowledge and skills

Adaptive Changes

Adaptive changes, also called second order changes, often require significant changes to current realities, mindsets, or behavior patterns. Because adaptive changes usually mean significant changes to how people think or act, these changes are often surrounded with feelings of  discomfort, threat, or anxiety.

Leading schools through adaptive changes requires a thoughtful approach to the solutions and to the people involved in the change. John Roberto points out that leaders must help people “enter into that zone of risk” that breeds new habits, mindsets, reflection, and knowledge (2011). As people clumsily form new habits or wrestle with threatened beliefs, “organizational disequilibrium” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002) ensues.   

Consider a school that must increase authentic, complex text use in elementary classrooms in order to meet Oklahoma Academic Standards. If teachers are currently relying on simple worksheets, the switch to authentic texts may be difficult. Teachers may need to build new planning skills, change daily habits, and build mindsets around how students should practice reading comprehension skills. The change is adaptive.

In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linksy (2002) define adaptive changes as ones that

  • End past practices and require new practices
  • Demand new organizational ways of working
  • Challenge previously held values, mindsets, or assumptions
  • Require new knowledge or skills 

Context Matters

It’s not always possible to assess the scope of a change at a glance. Consider the earlier example of clogged 5th grade hallways. For the school with clear hallway procedures and shared behavioral norms, the solution is technical. But if a school has no shared hallway procedure or teachers are struggling to enforce behavior expectations in the hall, what was a technical change in one school may be an adaptive change in another.  

When leaders have determined if an adaptive or technical change is needed, then they can consider how to manage the change and how many changes can be managed at once. Pausing to assess the scope of the change helps school leaders plan the right timing, support, and invest people in the change. 

Daloz Parks, S. (2005). Leadership can be taught: A bold approach for a complex world. Cambridge: Harvard Business School. 

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Heifetz,R. & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Heifetz, R. & Linsky, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2002/06/a-survival-guide-for-leaders


Roberto, J. (2011). Becoming an adaptive leader: Based on the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy. Lifelong Faith.

3 Reasons School Leaders Fail At Change Management

This is the first in a 6-week change management series in which TLI staff share key leadership moves for managing successful school-based change. Catch the series introduction here.

When former Hamilton Elementary principal Tera Carr entered her new school, she felt the urge to make huge changes during her first year on the job. With rock-bottom test scores, constant discipline issues, and growing community concern, sometimes it felt like her new school post was more firefighter than school leader. 

Recently, Carr reminisced with the TLI School Leader Cohort about the process of moving from a novice leader to strong instructional leader. Although she wanted to tackle all the problems at once, she knew she couldn’t. Instead, Carr careful outlined yearly priorities and worked relentlessly towards those narrow goals, building staff skill, knowledge, and mindsets along the way. 

Unfortunately, not all school leaders manage change as carefully and successfully as Carr. 

To kick off our change management blog series, we’ve rounded up three of the main stumbling blocks for managing school-based change.

Change Fail 1: Taking on Too Much

We hear from lots of leaders eager to implement a litany of changes to improve student outcomes and address community concerns. Other times, a long list of changes is a result of district-level mandates, initiatives, and “roll out plans” influenced by parent groups, district leadership, and the ever-changing legislative changes. But taking on too much change at once is a recipe for failure. 

Successful change management must include cut-throat prioritization to make time for crucial skill building, protect faculty from initiative overload, and avoid making new changes feel like “just one more thing.”

Change Fail 2: Not Planning for the Change

Tulsa’s hometown hero Will Rogers quipped that “vision, without a plan, is hallucination.” Successful changes require a plan that considers culture, people, fear, pain, resources, and deep analysis of the change itself.  

Consider the Oklahoma district that invested $200,000 in student-facing devices. Two years later, a quick walk through the school revealed unopened boxes of devices stuffed under counters and stacked in closets. Resources alone weren’t enough to float a technology initiative.   To avoid this pitfall, school leaders must establish a clear plan for how to accomplish a proposed change and deeply invest stakeholders at every level.  

Change Fail 3: Forgetting Competence-Building

Effective change management keeps an unrelenting focus on people. After all, the risks are high. Poorly managed change could alienate teachers and contribute to an unhealthy school culture, especially in Oklahoma’s already-precarious teacher context. Oklahoma State Department of Education points out that  a declining work environment is one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession (McFeron, 2018). A full 40% of teachers reported a lack of support by school-based administrators as a major factor for leaving. 

Instead of assuming that staff can adapt to a proposed change without support or parroting phrases about “trusting teachers” or “letting teachers figure it out,”  create a plan to offer teachers the support and feedback mechanisms they need. After all, good intentions and great ideas alone don’t give teachers and staff the support they need to successfully navigate change. 

Remember that change often requires new skills and habits. Forgetting about competence-building during a change leaves staff feeling unsupported and unsuccessful.     

Although we’ve observed plenty of changes gone the way of the unopened device boxes, school leaders like Carr remind us that even the biggest proposed changes can be managed successfully. Fortunately, research and experience offers a plethora of wisdom to manage school-based change at any site. Follow the blog series as we unfold specific leader moves and resources for managing change. 

References: McFeron, P. (2018). A Survey of 5,487 Holders of Oklahoma Teaching Certificates Not Teaching in Ok Public Schools Under the Age of 65 Online surveys conducted September 26 – October 16, 2017.  https://sde.ok.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/Teacher Survey Report – CHS and Associates_0.pdf



School-based Change Management Kick-off

By Dr. Joanna Lein

Schools leaders are constantly thinking about change. Whether it’s new standards, resources, priorities, or curriculum, school changes require thoughtful roll-outs if you want the new change to be successful.

Change management is such a prominent part of the school leader job that Oklahoma’s most prevalent principal evaluation tool, McRel, uses “Managing Change” as one of its three main rubric areas (along with “Purposeful Community” and “Focus of Leadership).

Still, managing change is tricky. During a recent social media conversation, I watched as teachers and administration batted around examples of failed changes in their schools. The results varied from frustrated staff members to initiative overload, burnout, and even all-out mutiny. It wasn’t all disappointment though. Sprinkled throughout the conversation were stories of enduring change. 

One teacher excitedly recalled the year her principal pushed teachers to integrate an ambitious set of differentiation strategies. Step by step, the teachers learned about the idea, researched strategies, practiced implementation, observed their colleagues, and received principal feedback. “At every faculty meeting,” she wrote, “we drew a name of a teacher to observe, fill out a reflection, and turn it in. Eighth grade teachers and kindergarten teachers had to observe each other.” Not even the grumpiest of teachers was exempt. The most amazing part for the teacher writer? How quickly the principal invested an entire faculty to take ownership and be accountable for differentiation strategies in every lesson at every grade level. 

At TLI, we spend a lot of time helping leaders strategically plan for change. Now, we’re excited to bring a taste of that work to you! Over the next six weeks, we’re rolling out a series of blog posts to introduce you to the big pieces of school-base change management.

Whether you’re still a little gun shy from a botched change, eagerly planning for innovation next semester, or barely making it through a difficult change right now, join us for some weekly change management wisdom. 

Looking for a specific post? Check out change management posts on assessing the scope, greasing the skids, and top reasons change management fails.



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