Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can Dissolution Processes Fuel Systemic Change Innitiatives

During my vacation this week I have been trying to jot down steps in my conception of systemic change design process. trying to pull in some psychological tools for group dynamics has ended up being more of a minor technical detail than I had originally thought. The piece that I am finding the most challenging is finding a way to include the dissolution of overly matured & top-heavy group dynamics into the mix.

Most designs focus on the fueling the change process. In some wise designs you can see how the change process itself is meant to mirror an enduring structure. In other words, static solutions are out and the dynamics of the entire change process are repeated, albeit in less traumatic steps.

I personally tend to this two-in-one approach. Why undertake an immense change initiative when all it does is move you to a place where a stable solution can be implemented. I doubt very much there will ever be a feasible window of opportunity for the "final solution".

This leaves me wondering how to frame the natural dissolution of overly mature, bureaucratized structures as fuel in an overall change process?

The usual way seem to involve building on the shadow systems that are already in operation, fueling them with resources, and connecting them to larger contexts. The connection process produce systemic alignment via collaboration creating and implementing a common vision and mission.

This strategy is fine - but, almost by definition - it involves always creating something new. One alternative is to see if refinement of routines can cycle one out of an overly mature organizational space. Munby, Hutchinson & Chin has an article on refining learning routines that deals with this on the level of individual workers. However, the problem is no administrators ever refine themselves out of their own jobs. Thus the learning leaders and collaborative bodies that are created in well user-designed systemic change initiatives end up either 1) fading naturally in a way that doesn't add to larger system dynamics, or 2) morphing into quasi-administrative roles that increase a district's eventual overly mature organizational space.

As we move toward sustainability, we need to keep this tension in mind," [cycling through uniformed professional judgment to uniformed prescription to informed prescription to informed professional judgment back to uniformed professional judgment]. It is the classic centralization-decentralization dilemma. Any solution that aspires toward sustainability must reconcile this dilemma (Fullan, 2000, p. 9)

I've been struggling to find some insight from the life cycle of new religious movements. The question in effect becomes - how would one use something akin to a Protestant reformation to fuel the continued existence of an enduring system? Human dynamics usually rely on radical transformation to sift out free-loaders. D.S. Wilson lightly touches this process in "Darwin's Cathedral", while David Smith's book "Why we Lie" does an overly popularized account that provides some general background to the issue without actually getting to group-level reformations. Scott Atran's "In God's We Trust" approaches things from a fully religious angle. He brings up hard to fake commitments and moral Big Brothers. Moral Big Brothers are embodiments of moral landscapes whose articulation is fuzzy but whose judgements to novel situations dichotomize believers and fakers quite efficiently.

An overly mature organizational system needs to get back in touch with its roots and core work. In a dynamical environment contexts may have changed so much that those on the inside are likely to purge the system in ways which are too reliant on out of date clues. Using newcomers to purge the system is very risky - it has the benefit of having potential to remove overly "mature" leaders, but it has the risk of uniformed tyranny. The only thing I can think of right now that can softly purge a system while adding energy to a system comes from spirit in the workplace field of inquiry.

Part of this field focusses on balance between one's work and one's whole life. One of the ideas is that work is such a large part of our existence that it can't be compartmentalized from other aspects of our life. Thus to improve work we must also improve other aspects of our life and vice versa.

As organizational routines are sustained and refined, I suspect that focussing on balanced life for employees is one way to provide the necessary relaxation for the system in a way that maintains or fuels a larger system. For example, if a district has engaged in a systemic reformulation process, it will have spent some time in a sustainable phase. Eventually factors outside of its control will produce an overly mature system. As this happens, focussing on the larger well-being of employees will assist dissolution while adding fuel to the larger, general mission of education, overall well-being for students. In effect the dissolution process is modeling a soft aspect of education - healthy being and well-roundedness. I'll have to think on this for a bit.

Fullan, M. (2004). Leadership and Sustainability: Systems thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

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