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District Business Transformation Pt.3

by Namratha Bharadwaj and Terry Denoyer

You have likely used the term ‘Change Management’ before, and are probably familiar with aspects that need to be considered while undertaking a big change in general. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we talked about how to initiate and manage a large-scale PK-12 school district process transformation. In this 3rd and final part of this series, we’ll look at the art of Organizational Change Management through the lens of PK-12 district transformations, and we’ll explore how implementing large business transformations in school districts must consider the effects of the changes in people’s roles, business processes, and technology. 

By change, we are referring to those new and shifting policies and practices with which District staff are all too familiar. Examples might include a new textbook or curriculum, streamlined accounting procedures, a digitalized registration process, or when a new assessment is introduced. At Thru, we help district leaders guide some of their largest transformations - and one of the greatest challenges to successful change is enabling the cultural shift that effectively counters the innate human nature to resist change. 

For any chance of a long-term successful implementation, it is critical that we understand all the levers and drivers in the organization essential for the change to take hold. Districts need to incorporate these three essential elements into their change management plan: 

  • Stakeholder engagement

  • Communications

  • Training or professional development  

When a transformation project is implemented without a change management plan, the program often ends up feeling like a top-down mandate that employees must comply with - and that is not a recipe for effective change. Additionally, PK-12 offices traditionally have complex organizational structures and hierarchies, which is compounded by increasingly frequent turnover. Employees, especially those who have been with the district for a while, tend to start seeing any transformation initiatives as short-term change and don’t take it seriously, (believing that they just need to wait until the next org reshuffle or leader transition). 

We need to first acknowledge that change is hard, especially in education. Approximately 50 percent of all organizational change initiatives are unsuccessful. Without an understanding or a plan for change management, your well-researched, well-intentioned, thoughtfully-solutioned transformation project is likely to become another addition to the graveyard of good ideas that died during or after implementation. On the other hand, a well-managed change kicks-off a pattern of continuous improvement that can even outlast the tenure of any leaders or teams that initiated the change in the first place. 

Types of ‘Change Management’ Projects

When a project/initiative is designed to be a ‘change management’ project, the path can be more straightforward. For example, at Thru, we recently embarked on a project to help facilitate the buy-in of a new policy framework, via workshops, training and a specific communication strategy. The goal here was to manage the rollout of a major change to a policy affecting educators’ practices. Every step of the plan was focused on different changes resulting from the adoption of the new policy., This is all facilitated with the leadership team being onboard with the approach and prepared to carry the message. 

The goal of change management is to understand who will be affected by what changes. It is to co-develop pathways and foster the new processes that will impact the people involved. By assessing the specific changes and their impacts, leaders and district staff can prepare the necessary messaging or forums to facilitate the change(s). Often, this tends to get lost in the many competing priorities of running a PK-12 school district. In such cases, it is imperative for there to be at least a few members of the team (along with a Change Lead) who can focus on change management. The District will need staff that are thinking about the changes and who can structure a set of steps for moving from the old to the new.

An example of a major change to the organization is the rollout of a new data system, such as an SIS or financial system. In more than one instance, we have seen leadership dedicate an implementation workstream to the project, staffed to address organizational changes and facilitate ongoing communications and training with the community of stakeholders. Change management is not easy work, as it is hard to anticipate all changes to all stakeholders, but the practice of change management always supports adoption of the change in some way. In many other instances, we have seen this concept ignored and the rocky implementation that ensues.  

Critical Steps in the Change Management Process

  • Convey the rationale for the transformation - why here, why now, why this - and lean into the “why” behind the path ahead. Provide clarity on the intended end result, (how this helps students, schools and the District in the short- and long-term).

  • Inventory which upcoming changes will impact which stakeholders.

  • Identify the supporters and skeptics - explore how to get to supporters to promote the transformation and how to get the skeptics on your side. Ask for input, and listen to what people have to say.

  • Craft a plan to facilitate the change. Identify quick wins and prioritize them, (starting with wins is always good for morale and building trust!). But be honest and transparent about the pros and cons. Acknowledge the losses.

  • Implement the change - make it a part of the school district’s culture. Communicate, Collaborate, Coordinate!

  • And last but not the least, monitor the change - track progress, analyze outcomes, and continuously improve as needed. 

Transforming a school district can be challenging, but possible when you have a team, (we like to call them change agents), committed to doing the work that will ensure people feel included and informed as the changes are rolled out. In doing so, the District can more effectively meet the needs of students, teachers, school staff, district staff, families, and their communities as the world around us continues to evolve, (aka, change!).

Namratha Bharadwaj and Terry Denoyer work with school district leaders around the country as they embark upon initiatives that impact their communities and staff. They can be reached via the contact information below or on Linkedin.


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