the management mentor

For the chief executive of a large commercial organisation, managing change is second nature. It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge: once one project is finished, the next begins immediately, or even overlaps. And there’s no shortage of people offering to help the person in charge implement organisational change – normally at a significant cost via external consultants, training companies and the like.

Headteachers don’t have the luxury of such help, but they do now have a similar requirement for change management skills.

Change has become an all-pervading feature of our schools and the feeling of continuous flux is likely to persist. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in his classic 1958 book The Leopard, even for things to remain the same, “everything needs to change”.

Change can come in many guises. Heads will need to manage it in their school’s governance structures, IT systems, finances, staffing models and much more. So how should it be done? Browse through business and management books and you could easily get the impression that there are many tools, techniques and methods out there that can quickly bring you success.

Unfortunately, it’s not simply a case of applying an off-the-shelf strategy and watching change happen. If you look at the academic literature you will find plenty of case studies about failure in change management. Many of the leaders involved started out believing it would be a “simple” programme. Most of these failures do not come about because the new tool, technique or method is necessarily flawed but rather because the leaders of change underestimate the complexities of the environment in which the change is happening.

Indeed, as a researcher of organisational change, all the failures I’ve observed have come down to an insufficient grasp of the circumstances. For instance, I have seen a programme crash because its leaders failed to pre-empt the level of resistance from powerful actors in the organisation.

In another case, a very simple but important new budgeting tool failed to penetrate a key department because the change leadership was essentially anonymous. That, in turn, had much to do with a departmental culture that “doesn’t do budgeting”.

In these and many more cases, the failure was not the change per se but rather shortfalls and oversight in the planning of that change. School leaders have to be serious about change management: plan, factor in variables, force it through personally, and constantly monitor and evaluate.

Much (though not all) of the advice that follows in this new column for TES will relate to the potential for change in schools – new ways of working, new business tools and techniques, and a whole lot more. It is with this in mind that I have begun with a warning against complacent and unchallenged assumptions that quick-fix change will bring inevitable success. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

John Burns is professor of management and accountancy at the University of Exeter Business School

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