Transformational Change

The Board and administrative team have had opportunities recently to work with an expert on how organizations tackle transformational change. We have all found it quite helpful, especially because it put words to some of the things we were experiencing as we undertake a major transformational change–elimination of race-based gaps in discipline, participation, and achievement. While the information we’ve learned is quite extensive, this post is going to focus on some of the big pieces.

One sobering statistic we learned is that failure to reach the desired objective of a transformational change is much more common than success. In fact, research shows that only 30% of change initiatives reach the goal that was originally set out to reach. While the remaining 70% may not reach their initial goal, they may still make considerable progress. This statistic becomes even more dramatic when you compare it with information we previously gathered and shared from experts around the country focusing on the particular challenge we are tackling. Those experts could not think of a single school district that tackled the issue of race-based disparities and succeeded in eliminating those disparities. They shared with us that what happened instead is that the school board members and superintendents in those districts were replaced with individuals willing to not tackle that issue. As we’ve also shared, we fully intend to make City Schools of Decatur the first district that successfully eliminates race-based disparities! That’s one of the reasons we have engaged with people who can provide expertise in that area specifically and in organizational change as a whole.

Transformational change requires a change in people’s mindsets, not just their behaviors. There is often no “right answer” and the change is likely to significantly disrupt the organization. Many incumbents (i.e., those present when the change begins) will be unable or unwilling to complete the journey to success.

In order for transformational change to occur, the price for the status quo must be prohibitively high for all involved. Leaving things as-is cannot be a viable option.

Some common pitfalls that sideline transformational change include attempting too much change too fast, not making necessary adjustments to the organization’s culture, and expecting deep resolve without paying the price.

Research shows that there are certain mindsets that contribute to successful change. Some of those include having a high tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to make tough decisions with insufficient information, and a willingness to delay, reduce the scope, or not approve projects that might compete with the desired transformational change. Leaders of transformational change must be willing to experience discomfort; their job is not to keep people happy. These mindsets are logical but difficult in real life. Most people will choose something dysfunctional but stable rather than something new and unknown.

The people who make up organizations can only handle so much change at once. A barrier to changing quickly is often not one of resources (i.e., having enough employees, having sufficient funding, etc.) but rather it is a matter of capacity. Like a sponge that can only absorb so much liquid, an individual also has a limit in absorbing change. Too often this is masked by having multiple projects operating simultaneously with demands that overlap for some individuals but not all.

Transformational change is possible, but it is not easy. If you are going to do it right, you must be willing to go as slow as possible while still clearing the tree line at the end of the runway.  CSD has spent a long time taxiing but now we are on the runway and throttling up for take off. It has taken a long time to get here. We cannot ignore our long history of racism, but we can learn from it. We cannot forget that we opened a high school for Black students two years AFTER the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are illegal. (Trinity High School opened in 1956 and Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.) Nor can we forget that is was only 50 years ago that we desegregated our high school. Many of our longtime residents alive today attended our segregated schools!

But, I have hope. I have hope because we are now tackling what has long been a taboo subject. We are now speaking freely and openly about the issues that lead to race-based disproportionality in discipline, participation, and achievement. We are now committed to ensuring that in our future, knowing the color of a child’s skin will tell you nothing about how their behavior will be managed, what they will participate in, or how they will achieve academically.