Be the Change

A pathway to organizational renewal — via personal learning and professional growth

By Bari Walsh, on July 8, 2015 2:43 PM
Be the Change: A pathway to organizational renewal — via personal learning and professional growth #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

As anyone who’s been part of a challenging work culture knows, internal dynamics can be remarkably hard to escape. Organizational culture affects individual performance, happiness, and sense of purpose. 

But the reverse is also true. Individuals can collectively push an organization toward new goals and higher achievement. For educators, working in an era of reform, accountability, and shifting curricula, this is an important possibility. What does it take to create change? Identifying goals and setting benchmarks is one part of the change equation, but there is another essential ingredient: you.

That’s the notion underpinning the work of Professor Robert Kegan and Lecturer Lisa Lahey, the architects of the Immunity to Change learning process. Kegan and Lahey are leading a new initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — an online professional development program called Including Ourselves in the Change Equation: Personal Learning for Organizational Performance. The 12-week program, for individuals and groups from a variety of K–12 to higher education settings, will be offered twice in 2015–16, once starting on September 21, 2015, and another starting on February 8, 2016

Usable Knowledge asked Lahey and Kegan to talk about the power of individual change to push organizational growth — and about the obstacles to both. 

What are the common obstacles to change, even among people who really want to embrace it? What defeats our good intentions?

Identify a self-improvement goal that feels important, and then ask --What am I doing and not doing that works against that goal?-- RObert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, HGSEIn a nutshell, it’s that people go about change by focusing only on their behavior. Sometimes that can work (though even then, like in losing weight when dieting, the change is not always sustained). But more often than not, it doesn’t. This is because most change efforts combine technical and adaptive elements. Technical challenges require changes in our skill sets alone, adding to our behavioral repertoire. Adaptive challenges, by contrast, require changes at the level of our skill sets and our mindsets. The single most common error is trying to solve adaptive challenges via technical means. The fact that most professional development offers only technical skill development contributes to this error.

The Immunity to Change approach is unique in that it focuses exclusively on mindset transformation for enhanced professional practice, allowing it to help participants tackle adaptive challenges. Mindset transformation requires overcoming blind spots, unearthing our competing commitments, and freeing ourselves of limiting assumptions.

What are the common characteristics of low-achieving work cultures?

From our perspective, a significant contributing factor to low achievement is the disconnection between what people, especially leaders, say and what they do.  Educational leaders can say, for example, that they want their schools to provide an excellent education for all children, and yet they behave inconsistently with that goal without being aware of their inconsistency. The Immunity to Change (ITC) approach is designed to help people see those blind spots and then overcome them.

You say that individuals have the power to effect change not only within themselves, but in their organizations. How does that process work?

The most predictable and powerful way change can occur is through a process where many individuals within the organization are working toward a shared goal, and within that, each person works on his or her own self-improvement goal.

Let’s say a school, for example, made a commitment to improve its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program as one of its top priorities and is looking to improve integration across classrooms in the use of socially relevant practices and cutting-edge technology. Individual teachers involved in this initiative will likely need to change different long-standing behaviors. Some teachers will need to get better at taking more risks in employing new teaching practices, whereas others will need to improve their ability to collaborate with teachers outside their area. Still others will need to focus on giving students more effective feedback on their learning. And so on. When individual teachers make these changes, their efforts collectively add up to the school succeeding on its initiative.

Talk more about educators specifically. What are the challenges, goals, barriers that you imagine teachers, principals, and other education leaders might bring with them into this experience?

Since we have used the ITC approach with educators for years, we can share their actual goals. Here are a few examples of what we’ve heard from principals: to get better at leading an improvement process that is relentlessly focused on just a few critical priorities; to make instructional leadership the center of my work as principal and limit the time and energy that I spend on peripherals; to be a better listener; to being more patient; to communicate my expectations more clearly; to get better at holding others accountable; to get better at having courageous conversations.

And here are a few examples of teachers’ goals: to more consistently draw on student data to inform my teaching; to employ high standards for all of my students, not just the ones I easily relate to; to be more open to experimenting with the new technologies in my classroom; to working more collaboratively; to getting better at saying “no”; to giving supportive and constructive feedback to my colleagues; to be more open to my colleagues’ feedback about my teaching.

Take us through your process. How would you guide someone who wanted to launch a new initiative but felt unsure about how to win support — and felt daunted about how to change culture? 

Our process starts with identifying a self-improvement goal that feels important. In the example you pose, we can imagine someone wanting to get better at sharing and discussing his initiative ideas with people in his organization.

  • The next step is to answer the question, “What am I doing and not doing that works against that goal?” This person would then do an honest self-inventory and list his counterproductive behaviors, which might include: I don’t make appointments to talk with people; I don’t tell anyone about my ideas, even when they ask; I avoid the topic; I don’t have a few talking points at the ready.
  • Next, he answers this question: “Imagine yourself doing the opposite of those behaviors. What are the biggest worries or fears that arise for you?” We’re imagining this person might say, “People will think my ideas are foolish and I’m a loser; they’ll reject the ideas and me; I’ll be ineffective.”
  • This next step rests on the idea that we don’t just have those worries or fears, but that a part of us is actively devoted to making sure they don’t happen. These are our “hidden, counter commitments,” our blind spots. To continue the example, those fears yield the following “commitments”: “To not be seen as foolish or as a loser; to not be rejected; to not be ineffective.” At this point in the process, we have a picture of the person’s immune system. You can see it in the tension between his starting goal and the hidden goal he just discovered.
  • The next step is to identify the big assumptions he’s making that keep him at the mercy of his hidden goals. Those assumptions might include: I am my ideas; if people don’t like my ideas, then they don’t like me; I assume it’s better for me to stay the course with the status quo than to take the risk of appearing foolish.

Once this person has a picture of his immune system and the assumptions that keep it at play, he can begin to take the next steps, which often include testing the accuracy of one or two big assumptions.

Our new program offers a highly structured environment to support a person like this to create a picture of his immune system and, more importantly, to learn how to productively break it open. We do this via providing brief videos, an interactive custom-built Change Diary, quizzes that respond to individuals’ answers, a Wiki archive filled with a variety of optional resources for those who want to dig deeper into any aspect of the program, and a forum for participant interaction. The design also incorporates a means to assess impact — at the individual and collective level — via before-and-after surveys (and an “after after” survey, administered six months to one year later to assess whether changes are sustained).

Additional Resources:

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Topics in this article

Learning, Education Reform

Faculty in this article

Robert Kegan

Robert Kegan's research helped pioneer the field of adult development. Building on this research, he and HGSE colleague Lisa Lahey, created a deliberate practice — the “immunity to change” approach — which helps people make lasting improvements by overcoming limiting mindsets.

Default Faculty image

Lisa Laskow Lahey

Lisa Lahey was most recently the associate director of the Change Leadership Group, a national project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop greater internal capacity for leading organizational improvement in U.S. public school districts.