Navigating Whole-District Change

Eight principles for moving an organization upward in times of unpredictability by Francis M. Duffy

Real-life change doesn’t happen in predictable stages. In their book Facilitating Organization Change, Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang tell us the “future of an organization is not a linear projection of the past.”

Reality, as most of us know, has an annoying way of interfering with good plans for change. Unexpected events and unintended consequences create an unpredictable change path that is river-like rather than linear. Good intentions and inspiring visions flee the confusion of an unpredictable reality causing people and their organizations to revert quickly to their old ways of doing things. The consequence of this experience is captured in the eloquent French folk wisdom that says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Despite what we are learning about the nature of real-life change, educators often respond to external pressure for change by using linear improvement models that expect school system leaders to (1) create a vision of the future, (2) assess the current situation, (3) compare the present to the desired future and identify the gaps, (4) set goals and objectives to move from the present to the future and (5) move straight forward toward that future. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work.

The Puzzle

Many school systems today find themselves in amazingly complex and puzzling environments. They are increasingly expected to turn direction quickly in response to changes in their environments, but they can’t change direction because they are bound by the arthritic bureaucratic designs of their systems, by old mental models of hierarchical power and control or by their inadequate knowledge of how to change direction. Combine this observation with the fact that whole-district change is never a straight shot forward to the future. Whole-district change always follows a river-like path to the future.

Another piece of the change puzzle is that the old concept of managing change doesn’t work any more. Change needs to be navigated, not managed.

Stan Herman, a respected organization development consultant, suggests that navigating change in complex organizations often requires seizing opportunities at the intersection of anticipatory intentions (strategic plans) and unanticipated events (reality). Unanticipated events, such as an election that results in an unexpected yet significant change in the school board composition or the sudden departure of a superintendent, occur in unpredictable ways and in unlikely places. The appearance of unanticipated events requires an extraordinarily speedy and effective response if school districts are to thrive. This nonlinear and unpredictable reality seems diametrically opposed to traditional school improvement and strategic planning models built on the foundation of strategic planning that assume change is mostly linear and sequential.

Navigating Principles

I have been studying approaches to large-scale change for almost 30 years. Over the years, I have learned a lot about core principles for creating and sustaining large-scale change. What follows is a summary of eight key principles that I think should underlie any effort to transform an entire school system into a high-performing organization of learners.


Principle 1:Three paths to whole-system transformation must be followed.
The literature on whole-system transformation is clear about what needs doing to change an entire organization. Three winding paths must be followed simultaneously to transform entire school systems: (1) improve how work gets done; (2) improve the district’s internal social “architecture”; and (3) improve the district’s relationship with its external environment.

Principle 2: A school district’s external environment is complex and unstable.
One factor contributing to the challenge of navigating change in school districts is the nature of the environment within which educators find themselves. Given the complex and unstable environments of school districts, it is not good enough to plan for the future—districts also must be redesigned to achieve sufficient flexibility and agility to respond to unexpected events.

Principle 3:The change path from the present to the future is not a straight line.
Traditional change models assume a relatively straight and sequenced path from the present to the future. But we now understand that change paths are more like winding rivers with Class 5 rapids. Given the nature of complex, rapid and nonlinear change, people specializing in change processes now talk of navigating change, not managing it.

The problem with trying to follow a straight change path when it is really winding is that people and systems soon find themselves off the path and lost. When off course and disoriented, people and systems predictably return to their old ways of doing things, thereby living the experience of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Self-Optimizing Goal

Principle 4: The capacity to anticipate the future and respond quickly to unanticipated events is partially a function of a school district’s internal social architecture.
A school district’s internal social architecture includes its culture, communication patterns, reward system, pay schedules, career ladders and organization design. This architecture influences people’s capacity and willingness to work effectively, their ability to respond to pressure for change, their motivation and their job satisfaction.


A new social architecture for school districts that would positively influence the aforementioned variables would favor skill-based work, professional knowledge and peer relationships; be anchored to a network of teams—their knowledge, their talent and their resources; create opportunities for participation and collaboration that are deep and wide while maintaining the voice of leadership; and be a network that connects people to each other and to resources in ways that help a school district as much as possible to become self-regulating and self-optimizing (as opposed to being externally regulated and externally forced to improve).

Principle 5: Biological metaphors most accurately describe how social networks function.
The biological metaphor that may work best for school systems with a networked internal social architecture is ecosystem. An entire ecosystem does not have to change simultaneously for one species to change. Yet some proponents of systemic improvement argue that the only way systemwide improvement can occur is if the whole school district ecosystem changes at once. I disagree. Like a natural ecosystem, systemic school improvement can start in clusters of interconnected schools (for example, a high school and all the middle and elementary schools that feed into it) and then spread to all remaining clusters until the whole district is redesigned. Meg Wheatley, in her essay “Bringing Schools Back to Life: Schools as Living Systems,” which appeared in Creating Successful School Systems: Voices from the University, the Field and the Community, makes this argument too. In commenting on creating change in school districts, Wheatley says, “Start anywhere and follow it everywhere.”

Principle 6: Creating a web of accountabilities using networked teams does not mean that authority and control are surrendered to the networked “mob.”
In all school districts the voice of leadership still must be present and heard even though significant steps are taken to increase worker participation and collaboration. Kevin Kelly, in his 1998 book, New Rules for the New Economy, suggests that without some element of governance and leadership from the top of an organization, bottom-up action freezes in place when too many options are considered. The creation of a new social architecture within school districts that honors and uses formal leadership roles while simultaneously creating and sustaining networked teams will provide strange and wonderful moments for seizing opportunities at the intersection of anticipatory planning and unanticipated events.

A Chain Reaction

Principle 7: A networked social architecture stimulates creativity and innovation.
Creativity and innovation present opportunities for breathtaking districtwide improvement. The more opportunities generated and taken, the faster new opportunities arise. This is called compounded learning. The more educators create improvements that work, the easier it becomes to create more improvements.


Each opportunity seized by a school district can be compounded if it becomes a platform to launch yet other innovations. Like a chain reaction, one well-placed innovation can trigger dozens of innovation progeny. New opportunities are created in a combinatorial fashion just as people combine and re-combine the 26 letters of the alphabet to write hundreds of thousands of words. Therefore, change leaders in school districts need to help people link their individual success to the success of others which, in turn, creates compounded organizational learning.

Principle 8: Peak performance is an illusion.
In nature, successful organisms adapt to their environments by evolving to a peak of success at which the organism is maximally adapted to its environment. Successful school districts are like this too because they have evolved to their current performance peaks, whatever those peaks may be.

For today’s school districts, however, the multiple peaks evoke images of the Rocky Mountains where some peaks are higher than others. What if the peak a district sits atop is low compared to others, but folks inside the district don’t realize it? Wouldn’t this lack of perspective create a false sense of success? Is it possible for a school district to be at what it perceives as peak performance when it is actually on a suboptimal peak? Educators in these districts might cheer themselves silly as they sat atop their suboptimal performance peaks.

All school districts sit atop a performance peak, no matter what that level of performance might be. The path to the next higher performance peak is not a straight shot forward and upward. Only one way exists to get to the next higher peak—a district has to go down hill before it can go back up. It has to become temporarily less effective, less skilled and less successful. This is a basic principle of learning theory. For example, when people get a new job for which they are not fully prepared their performance level declines as they learn the new job. At some point their declining performance curve bottoms out and they climb up the curve toward new and higher levels of performance.

Systems behave in similar ways. The problem for school districts is, however, that the more successful a school district is the less inclined it is to let go of what it does and move down the performance curve toward the edge of chaos—a phrase coined by Roger Lewin in his 1992 book, Complexity: Life on the Edge of Chaos. This capacity to let go has to be built into a school system.

The “first down, then up” journey happens when educators start questioning their success. Not everything they do has to be abandoned completely, but everything they do needs to be questioned completely. During this questioning, they must be open to stunning opportunities for innovative ideas to improve student, teacher and system learning. Searching also allows educators not only to anticipate future events but also to recognize and respond quickly to unanticipated ones.

In commenting on the need to question what school districts do, William Svoboda, the former dean of the college of education at Arizona State University West, told The Arizona Republic: “Arizona has the opportunity to be a model of substantive educational change. Or we can continue to ask the same wrong questions and come up with the same wrong answers. If the past is any indicator, our next well-meaning attempt to improve schools will fail again.”

Imperfect Methods

Navigating change is an extraordinarily complex task for change leaders and their followers in school districts. The challenges of creating and sustaining whole-district change are enormous. But the outcome of whole-district improvement is worth the effort. After all, this effort is intended to create unparalleled opportunities for student, teacher and system learning.


The 214-student Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, proves this point. Through the leadership of Superintendent Richard DeLorenzo, this small rural district experienced the above eight principles of navigating change firsthand although the district didn’t know it at the time. Chugach educators were able to navigate complex change and win one of the first two Baldrige Awards ever given to a public school system. The whole-district improvement journey was certainly worth all the risk and effort for this district, their staff, their students, and, of course, their community.

In seeking whole-district transformation, educators should not seek a perfect methodology for creating and sustaining systemic school improvement. There isn’t one and there never will be one. Instead an imperfect but effective change methodology centered on these eight principles can illuminate a general direction for a school district to take toward high performance by shining its beam of light toward the direction of change. But like a real flashlight the beam will only run ahead so far and the darkness ahead will not be illuminated until practitioners move farther down the path they are on—a winding, river-like path that must be navigated, not managed.

Francis Duffy is a professor of change-leadership in the department of administration and supervision at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002. E-mail: duffy@thefmduffygroup.com. He is the author of Courage, Passion and Vision: A Guide To Leading Systemic School Improvement and founding editor of the Series on Leading Systemic School Improvement (ScarecrowEducation).