A colleague at a nearby school took part in an all-hands-on-deck professional development day to discuss how schools could become more innovative. As a groundswell of excitement was building, someone finally addressed the elephant in the room: “If we genuinely desire to create change and we earnestly want our school to be more innovative, shouldn’t we change our school slogan?” Murmurs in the room grew in volume. Eventually, a senior administrator belted out, “We cannot sacrifice our school’s core identity for the sake of innovation. We must continue to protect the tradition.”
Many leaders are driven by the desire to protect the tradition. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserted an opposing mantra nearly 2,500 years ago: Change is the Only Constant. Considering the timeline, the paradox of these mantras is quite baffling. Regrettably, many leaders’ feelings about change are yet one more area of polarization. Leaders tend to be either change-resistant or change-addicts, and both approaches can cause waves.
A Theology of Innovation
Some Christian leaders may use the Bible to justify digging in their heels. Unfortunately, many in Christian education have experienced cringe-worthy moments when unfounded theology was weaponized to advance a leader’s agenda or lack thereof. For instance, one might assert that “God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so we should be as well!” There are serious consequences when leaders use baseless theology to protect human-made traditions, an argument that often leaves innovation and change as victims in the wake of its destruction.
Whereas Christian schools must protect the biblical traditions they hold dear, they must also be cognizant that innovation and change are woven throughout the fabric of scripture, beginning with the creation narrative and traveling throughout scripture all the way to Revelation 21:5: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” If Christian school leaders believe humanity was made in the image of God, then consequentially, they too must embrace and celebrate innovation since God is the supreme innovator and leader of change.
Barriers to Change
Research on change management is a blossoming field in academia. Ironically, the education sector may be the most delayed at implementing effective change management strategies and systems, but this pandemic has surely pushed us along the change path.
What keeps change from happening in the school setting? Is it the disturbance of the status quo? A threat to the faculty’s vested interests in their jobs? Or an upset to the established ways of doing things? Lack of energy? Resources? Or is it a leader’s inadequacies? Likely there is a cacophony of barriers to change at each of our schools, making it difficult to isolate reasons.
What Peter F. Drucker argued in his classic book The Practice of Management (1954) is still true: a significant impediment to organizational growth is managers’ inability to adapt their attitudes and behavior as rapidly as their organizations require. Even when leaders intellectually understand the necessity for innovation in the way they operate, they sometimes lack the mental or emotional capacity to implement change. Sometimes the most significant barrier to change is a leader’s deficiencies.
Fear of the Unknown
The greatest enemy of innovation for many school leaders is the fear of the unknown. What if this idea does not work? What if this change upsets key stakeholders in our community? What if this is not the right time?
Are there hold-outs or, worse yet, silent naysayers to the proposed changes? Was the proper time taken to create buy-in? Are all changes coming from the top down? Or is the school feedback friendly, a place where students, faculty, and even non-board-member parents are invited and encouraged to contribute ideas that lead to real changes?
Some but not all resistors can be won over by communicating a clear vision, leveraging the support of early adopters and influencers on campus, and explaining to faculty and students how the changes will create value for them. Still no traction? The next course of action is to create short-term wins so that detractors begin to see the value in the new idea or way of doing things.
This eight-part series of posts will provide a roadmap to leading change and cultivating innovation within Christian schools.
In this series, research will be heavily referenced because the findings create such unique value within this field that they must be shared with others. John Kotter’s eight-step model for leading change is the most cited and referenced of all change models. When it comes to change, Kotter calls leaders to create a sense of urgency, create and communicate a vision for change, possess a powerful coalition, remove obstacles, create short-term wins, focus on the need for continuous improvement, and institutionalize the implemented changes. The forthcoming articles will illuminate these steps as foundational elements for effectively implementing change in Christian schools.
Schools take great risks when they quash innovation. To go nowhere is to go backwards. Of course, these advances are not made for their own sake; the goal of change should always be to better serve students, families, faculty, and staff. Lead and implement change with personal conviction, the support of a strong team, and a clear guiding vision. Remember that God is the greatest innovator of all.
This is the first installment in the Rising Leaders’ Guide to Change and Innovation. Subscribe to the CACE newsletter to be alerted when upcoming pieces are published.