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Strategic Change by Committee

A systems approach turns a problem into triumph


Greg Shea
Greg Shea, a management professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and consultant Cassie Solomon are co-authors of Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work.
Cassie Solomon

Peter Stock had been in the superintendent’s job at a large and affluent school district in New Jersey for more than a year. Overall things were going well. Stock had exciting new teacher union leadership at his schools and a good working partnership with both his school board and parent community. He also had made visible strides toward a more collaborative relationship with one of the strongest teachers’ unions in the state. Still, Stock was worried.

The school district’s special education program, headed by a director responsible for implementing sweeping changes in policy and practice, had generated enormous tensions. In the past year, the teachers’ union had filed more than 20 grievances concerning special education students who had been included in regular classrooms after having spent most of their time in segregated settings. The costs of educating these students had risen instead of fallen, parents complained of a lack of vision and direction for the program, and teachers in the regular classrooms complained of feeling overwhelmed. Complaints about communication were widespread.

Stock (a pseudonym, although the circumstances are factual) wanted a fresh look at this complex part of the public education system. He realized a few minor tweaks would not resolve the issues before him. He needed something more radical and systemic. Otherwise, the problems in this one area might doom all of his hopes for the school district.

He had heard the two of us address a professional conference about taking a whole-system approach to change using the work systems model that one of us (Gregory) had developed. The superintendent contacted the other author (Cassie) to discuss the problems, hoping that expertise from outside the education world and a set of fresh eyes could see a way to bring people together around a common vision.

Alternate Approach
With Cassie’s help, Stock created a committee, the special education design group, to represent multiple stakeholders, including special education and general education teachers selected by the union president, parent representatives, members of the district’s child study team, special education paraprofessionals and administrators from the elementary, middle and secondary levels.

Stock followed Cassie’s advice and assembled this microcosm group of only 12 people. He gave them the following charge: Create a shared strategic path for a new special education system in the district. In response, the group planned three summer retreats, each a full day, and retained an expert facilitator, a recently retired administrator, to help guide the group’s work. The superintendent did not attend the meetings; he held his breath.

At the heart of the group’s work was an approach presented in our new book, Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work. The work systems model centers on behavior or “observable acts.” For example, at the front desk of an operating room, you might observe how a charge nurse and physician talk together, move to the computer and then end up making a phone call. In a school system, you might observe a member of the special education administration accessing a student’s individual education plan before discussing it with the teacher.

Envisioning an organizational change begins with this question: You will know you have accomplished change when what types of scenes occur regularly in your organization? Who is doing what with whom, where and using what props? Imagine looking inside your ideal fully inclusive classroom. How do the teachers interact with the students? How does the special education teacher conduct a discussion with some of the class while the general education teacher works one on one with students who need individual attention? Describe the scene as if it were real.

Creating this scene together, as a group, can yield multiple benefits — positive collaboration, a concrete vision and a powerful means of communicating that vision to others. The scene (or scenes) then provides the focus for determining the changes necessary to produce the desired behaviors, over and over again.

To create that change, you must alter the environment in ways that will enable the desired behavior to make sense to people. This approach involves more work up front, namely conceptualizing a concrete vision (the scene or scenes) and then altering work systems, but the approach provides a clearer focus and useful concrete illustrations.

The Work in Practice
The work systems model identifies eight key drivers of change in organized groups — organization, task, workplace design, measurement, information distribution, decision allocation, rewards and people. The more we change these key drivers to align with the desired scenes, the better our prospects for successful change. Changing these aspects converts them into change levers.

The special education design group used the eight levers of the work systems model to think about changes they wanted to recommend, including transitions between schools, early intervention, classification of special education students, placement of special education students, the design of the child study team and professional development for general education and special education teachers.

The child study team provides a useful example of how to apply the model. In the New Jersey school district, the new director of special education had split up the child study team so each staff member worked in a different school. This helped boost communication with school leadership, but made it more difficult for the team members to collaborate. In addition, the new director cancelled the regular team meetings, decreasing communication and increasing personal tensions.

The special education design group created scenes to address this question: “If our goal is to enhance collaboration and communication among the child study team and its stakeholders, what scenes would tell us that we had accomplished this and then how would we construct the system to support it?”

Scenes constructed, the group focused on how to pull on each of the change levers in the work systems model to promote those scenes.

Organization: Wanting to keep both the reporting structure and the child study team building-based, the group recommended regularly scheduled meetings among team members and between the team and special education teachers.

Task: The design group suggested the child study team relinquish responsibilities such as truancy/residency so it could focus on special education. Additionally, the team needed to clarify the role of guidance versus the role of the school psychologist in analyzing students’ counseling needs.

Workplace design: The design group wanted a designated meeting place in every school district building where members of the child study team could meet confidentially. The team also created a split role so some team members worked in both the middle schools and high schools to facilitate student transitions.

Measurement: Members of the design team answered the question, “What three to five things will we measure to track our progress/success?” by devising metrics for each area they addressed, such as early intervention, transition and inclusion.

Information distribution: Addressing the questions “What reports would be helpful in tracking the behavior of the system, and who should receive them? How often is information distributed?” led the team to design a system of reports that helped ensure everyone who needed information had it in a timely manner.

Decision allocation: The design group used the RACI tool (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) to refine how the organization would actually function — people’s respective roles in producing work and in making decisions.

Rewards: The design team asked, “What rewards can we offer to people in the system who do a great job of communication, implementing our special education plan, or going the extra mile to teach our students with special needs?” The group could not offer financial rewards, so it focused on designing special recognition.

Additionally, the group recommended each teacher’s annual review include an evaluation of the teacher’s support of the special education program.

People: Stock instructed the design group not to think about the talent and skills of people in the system. However, based on the group’s recommendations, he restructured the special education director’s job. When she decided to leave, this change in leadership significantly changed the overall system.

Stock had a shared vision and agreement on needed changes. He implemented the design team’s plan over the course of the next year with the help of an interim director. By the time the search for a replacement director began in earnest, the district’s special education program provided an exciting and attractive career opportunity for the next director.

Commitment to Change
In the fall of the new school year, it was time to present the plan to the school community. About 350 people gathered in the school district’s largest auditorium.

The design team accepted Cassie’s recommendation that the full team take the stage together and take turns presenting the highlights. (The design team’s full report ran too long to present, so it was posted on the district’s website.) The sight of the multidisciplinary team — including outspoken union representatives, teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators and parents of students in special education — demonstrating shared commitment proved powerful. The team received a standing ovation.

And what happened next? The members of the special education design group, proud of their work and committed to the plan, asked the superintendent if they could continue to meet as a group to monitor implementation over the next year. The group became a de facto board to ensure the scenes it had envisioned and the system it had designed would become a reality. The following year saw no union grievances filed because of special education in the school district. Not one.

Greg Shea is adjunct professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. E-mail: sheag@wharton.upenn.edu. Cassie Solomon is the president and founder of The New Group Consulting in Philadelphia. They are co-authors of Leading Successful Change (Wharton Digital Press).


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