Harsh Realities About Decentralized Decision Making

Despite good intentions, school leaders often start with a flawed sense of reality by JERRY PATTERSON

When it comes to leading the implementation of decentralized decision making, just about everything you’ve learned is wrong.


If you are typical of most well-intentioned educational leaders, you start with faulty assumptions about the reality of leading systemic change. Then you apply faulty strategies based on the flawed view of reality, and you end up months or years later wondering what went wrong.

To test my claim, try to think of one systemic change initiative designed to affect the norms, values and power relationships within your organization that has enjoyed sustained implementation for at least six years.

To increase your odds for success in leading decentralized decision making, I propose that leaders operate from a different set of realities about organizational change and then design appropriate strategies to create more resilient organizations. A comprehensive discussion of these dozen harsh realities is available in my recent book published by AASA, Coming Clean About Organizational Change. For now, let’s turn attention to three of the most pressing realities facing leaders committed to implementing decentralized decision making.

Overcoming Self-Interest
Reality: Most people act first in their own self-interest, not in the interests of the organization.

This doesn’t mean that people in the organization are bad, uncaring or disloyal. Simply, people want to know first, "How is this going to affect me?" They want to know that the organizational change being proposed is worth spending their own scarce energy points. If people don’t use this question to screen the changes being thrown at them, they find themselves chasing every change slogan that comes along and quickly depleting both their own energy and the energy of the organization.

Too often leaders of decentralized decision making start by building a solid case for how good this idea will be for the overall organization. Decentralized decision making will empower staff, move decisions closer to the action and give school communities more control over their future. I don’t recommend that leaders abandon these values. I do recommend that leaders start at a different point by asking the questions: Who are the various influential self-interest groups affected by decentralized decision making? Specifically, what are their self-interests? How can we meet their self-interests and, at the same time, achieve the organizational values inherent in decentralized decision making?

Let’s illustrate how this works by focusing on the self-interest group of principals. When the topic of decentralized decision making comes up, principals first want to know: What is my role in all of this and how will I learn how to do it? Is it going to mean more work for me? Who’s going to be held accountable for implementation at the school level?

Usually, superintendents spend their energy trying to convince principals how good the change initiative will be for their school and the entire school district. Instead, superintendents should start by anticipating the self-interests of the principals and design strategies to become responsive to the self-interests while, at the same time, remaining focused on the long-term core values underlying decentralized decision making.

To create more resilient organizations, leaders need to engage in "and" thinking rather than "either/or" thinking. In other words, one might ask, "How can I meet the principals’ self-interest of wanting to protect their own power base in the school and meet the overall interest of moving decision making closer to the classroom?"

Better Reasons for Change
Reality: Most people don’t want to genuinely understand the what and why of organizational change.

On the surface, this reality doesn’t make much sense. Why would anyone not want to understand decentralized decision making? As we dig below the surface, the answer shouldn’t surprise us.

Assume, first, that the initiators of decentralized decision making have legitimate, compelling reasons for the need to change. Assume also that the leaders do a compelling job of presenting their case. If the individuals in the organization acknowledge that the reasons are compelling and that they fully understand the reasons, they are left with few compelling reasons not to change.

Somehow those on the receiving end of decentralized decision making need to find a way out of this rational enticement to change. So they profess to not understand.

In a recent workshop on organizational change, a superintendent summarized her frustrations with trying systemically to implement the concept of decentralized decision making: "After five years of sending people to workshops and site visits, after five years of the district relentlessly talking and reading about site-based management, I still get requests from teacher, administrator and parent groups for me to tell them, one more time, what site-based is, how is it better than what we’re doing and how can I guarantee it will raise student achievement."

Leaders and followers alike contribute to the problem of professing to not understand.

Leaders often fail to recognize the distinction between receiving and understanding communication. It is natural for leaders to assume that if they have told people six times what is meant by decentralized decision making, then the leader’s responsibility is discharged. Unfortunately, leaders can convey information and employees can receive it without any real understanding taking place. Authentic understanding doesn’t occur until employees attach personal meaning.

Leaders have a responsibility to check regularly to make sure the organization truly understands what is intended to be communicated about decentralized decision making. In addition, the communication needs to occur in multiple ways, including one-on-one, town meeting formats, written updates by the leaders of the change initiative, as well as books and articles.

Followers contribute to the issue when they shift the burden of proof to the leaders. Some individuals reason that as long as the leaders fail to communicate effectively about anticipated changes and accompanying expectations, the followers should not be held accountable for meeting the expectations.

To shift the burden of proof, at some point leaders need to say to the followers: "We’ve been trying to implement decentralized decision making for almost three years. I realize that some of you still claim not to understand what we are attempting to do. So I need to know what each of you, individually, does not understand, and what support, information and resources you need from the organization to help you move ahead as a leader of decentralized decision making. I will pledge that we will do the best we can to meet your needs. You also need to know that each of you has a responsibility to close the gaps in understanding and if this doesn’t happen in the next six months, I will view it as a performance issue."

By acknowledging people’s natural tendency to profess confusion about change, leaders can implement strategies to strengthen their own communication about decentralized decision making. They also can develop strategies to make sure others share responsibility for understanding the proposed change.

Pain as Motivation
Reality: Most people engage in organizational change because of pain, not because of the merits of the change.

Traditionally we have been taught that people will change when they realize that changing is the right thing to do. We’ve also been taught that the role of leaders trying to implement decentralized decision making is to convince others of the merit of the change. When resistance is encountered, the typical strategy for leaders is to talk longer, louder and with more conviction to sell the proposed change.

Unfortunately, leaders are selling the wrong thing.

Leaders need to be sellers of pain. They need to sell others on the realization that the long-term pain of clinging to the status quo will be more painful than the short-term pain of changing.

Before moving on, let me underscore the point that I am not talking about inflicting pain on others. I am not advocating the concept of leading with the fear of pain as motivator. I am talking about the extremely crucial leadership skill of helping others see that they will experience more pain, in the long run, by clinging to top-down decision making than the short-term pain they will experience as they change to a decentralized decision-making environment.

People naturally cling to the status quo. This tendency to resist change initiated by outside forces helps to preserve people’s vitality. Imagine what would happen if people chased every proposed change that paraded before their eyes. For the followers, a major source of confusion occurs because most of the parades are led by individuals who are convinced of the merits of their own parade.

Leaders are confused about how to convince others that the leaders have a parade worth following. One superintendent described his confusion this way: "Over the past three years, we have moved a tremendous amount of support, information and resources to the school level. For example, schools now have a lot of discretion on tailoring their budgets to meet the needs of their individual schools. Then, yesterday I received a call from one of our most respected principals, who pleaded with me not to give schools so much discretionary funds. The principal asked me to just make the budget decisions centrally and let the principals and teachers carry out the decision. Frankly, I don’t get it!"

Basically, what the superintendent doesn’t get is the natural tendency to return to the status quo. He forgets that things seem more comfortable there.

To move people out of their comfort zone, leaders need to shift the emphasis away from rational discourse and toward the urgency of change. Authors Noel Tichy and Ram Charan, in their article "The CEO as Coach" in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, describe this sense of urgency as the "burning platform theory of change." The job of leaders is to help people see that the platform is burning, whether the flames are visible or not.

For instance, leaders can help people realize the positive trade-off of decentralized decision making versus centralized decision making by asking questions such as the following:
  • What will our organizational life be like five years from now if we lose our opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect our professional lives?
  • What will life be like five years from now if we go back to the system of the top telling the middle to tell the so-called bottom what to do?
    How painful will it be for us to accept the directives of new, unknown leaders at a time when education is being yanked in so many different directions that we don’t personally support?
  • To what extent will the short-term pain of changing to decentralized decision making be less painful in the long run than the long-term pain of reverting back to the top-down, authoritarian style of leadership where our voice gets lost?

By carefully constructing forums to achieve authentic, candid discussion posed by these questions, leaders can help people come to terms with the likely conclusion that the proposed change, even with the inevitable discomfort, will be worth the effort.

Bettering Your Odds
Reality: Most people and organizations do have the capacity to develop resilience in the face of the other realities.

As already demonstrated, people and organizations do have the capacity--the ability plus the will to make something happen--to increase their resilience as they implement decentralized decision making. To review the major points leaders need to remember when trying to effect systemic change:
  • Invest ample time in understanding the various groups’ self -interests related to decentralized decision making and find ways of meeting those interests while, at the same time, remaining true to the core values of decentralized decision making.
  • Engage in redundant communication in multiple ways to help others understand the what and why of decentralized decision making. Also, build into the system specific procedures that require people to assume personal responsibility for understanding their role in leading decentralized decision making.
  • Create a sense of urgency for decentralized decision making by selling the change on the principle of pain. Expose the reality that the pain of holding on to a top-down decision-making model will be more painful in the long run than the short-term pain of changing.

By confronting these harsh realities of organizational change and designing strategies to strengthen organizational resilience, you can increase your odds of successfully implementing decentralized decision making in your own organization.

Jerry Patterson is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, 901 13th St. S., Birmingham, Ala. 35294-1250. E-mail: jpat@uab.edu. A former superintendent in Appleton, Wis., he is the author of Coming Clean About Organizational Change, published by AASA.