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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.

Marissa KingMarissa King

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