I recently finished reading Michael Fullan’s (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change and found it an excellent guide to thinking about organizational change. Fullan argues that change is too complex to be controlled, and instead needs to be understood and “disrupted” in desired directions. In other words, step-by-step recipes for success, whether top-down (Kotter, 1996) or bottom-up (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990), will never be adequate for managing change in every context (although they may contribute to an understanding of the process). Leaders should instead pay careful attention to what is happening within their own organization, focus on building the five core components of effective leadership, and try to influence the dynamics that are taking place within the organization to achieve the best results possible.
The five components of leadership at the heart of Leading in a Culture of Change include 1) Moral Purpose, 2) Understanding Change, 3) Relationship Building, 4) Knowledge Creation and Sharing, and 5) Coherence Making. Moral purpose involves acting “with the intent of making a positive difference in the lives of employees, customers, and society as a whole” (Fullan, 2001, p. 3). This cannot just be a statement, but must be include strategies to realize it in the organization. It must engage people both externally and internally, having them not only accept the moral purpose of the organization, but must move towards having them believe strongly in it and act upon it. It should not be easy, because people are diverse, and there will be questioning, disagreements, and even resistance if the engagement is genuine. This diversity of opinion needs to be recognized as an opportunity for relationship building and enhancing the clarity of the moral purpose. This can be a huge challenge when trying to move change forward, but ultimately can result in a better outcome.
A second component is understanding change. The change process needs to be understood as being complex, and easy answers must be recognized as problematic. As a result, simple checklists of “how to do change right” will never suffice. Successful change must also involve what Fullan calls “re-culturing”. Restructuring might be required to move an organization forward, but even more important is the hard work that needs to go into reimagining the culture of the organization, toward building new ways of seeing change, new ways of building relationships and embracing diversity, new ways of creating and sharing knowledge, and new ways of deepening the moral purpose of the organization. Fullan also warns about the inevitable “implementation dip”, where an initial decline in productivity and organizational self-confidence may temporarily be experienced. He advises against becoming discouraged and to understand that it will pass as new expertise is developed. Fullan also argues powerfully against change as being a process of having the most innovations or the most new ideas. Too much change at once will often be too shallow to be truly effective or transformational. It often leads to burn out and dissatisfaction with the entire change process that can actually set progress back significantly. Real change is deep, meaningful, and slow, not bright, shiny, and fast, so can take longer and be more even more difficult than initially expected. But if approached with patience and optimism, can yield more thorough, long-term results.
A third component is relationship building. Fullan argues that leaders must pay as much attention to people and relationships as to structures, strategies, and statistics. It is important to develop not only individuals, but also the relationships that exist between individuals within the organization. As a result, emotional intelligence becomes a key competency of successful leaders. This challenges the lone cowboy model of change, but for me reflects a critical understanding of how real, meaningful, long-term change happens. You want the changes to stick (and continue) once the cowboy rides off into the sunset.
A fourth component is knowledge building and sharing. All organizations create and use knowledge, whether it is explicit knowledge involving words and numbers or tacit knowledge, involving skills, beliefs, and understandings. Leaders must create opportunities for effective knowledge creation and sharing within organizations, allowing the power of collaborative team work to flourish. This cannot simply be enforced, however, but must become part of the moral purpose and re-culturing of the organization. Participation in knowledge creation and sharing needs to be truly respected and valued at all levels of the organization, and structures must be put into place to enable it to take place. Fullan includes several examples of knowledge building and sharing activities, including peer assistance programs, post-project “lessons learned” meetings, inter-site visits and consultations, and “learning fairs”, where sites come together to share and demonstrate their successes. Fullan has gotten me thinking about knowledge management in new ways, and is something I plan to write more about here.
Finally, the fifth component is coherence making. Fullan outlines the leader’s role as one of coherence making. Organizations and processes of change are highly complex. Every situation will have its own unique structures, personalities, relationships, and cultures. By avoiding simple solutions (e.g., follow these five steps, or innovate more, or just work harder), leaders can take the time (what Fullan calls “slow knowing”) to truly understand the dynamics at play and work toward “disrupting” the existing forces towards the desired direction.
Fullan’s framework fits into a large body of organizational theory that questions the management practices of the past (classical organization theory) and calls for an empowered, participatory workforce. Fullan is clearly indebted to previous scholars that have introduced concepts of human relationships, power and politics, and culture to organizational theory. His appreciation of the complexity of organizations and the change process makes his work stand out, however, as he avoids oversimplification. Although step-by-step recipes might help sell books, they do not allow for the deeper understanding required to guide the fundamental changes required to build sustainable, successful organizations.
One criticism of Fullan’s framework is that it does not discuss the institutionally fractious relationship between unions and management in many workplaces, including the public school system. From critical theory, we know that the interests of labour and capital are not always in alignment and may often conflict. This can make some of Fullan’s advice even more challenging than outlined in his book. Although this does not make implementing Fullan’s recommendations impossible, more explicit focus on the challenges of this would have been a useful addition.
As an adult educator operating from a social constructivist perspective, seeing a similar philosophical position applied to organizational theory and leadership was very compelling. I found that Fullan allowed me to take my existing experiences in developing learning experiences and apply it to how leaders can influence the success of their employees and their organizations. His concept of leaders being facilitators and context setters rather than authority figures and experts (“heroes on white horses”) very much reflects my own belief in the role of the adult educator. I would strongly recommend this book to others interested in creating deep, lasting, and meaningful change in their organizations.
Beer, M., Eisenstat, R. A., & Spector, B. (1990). The critical path to corporate renewal. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Fullan, M. (2011). Change Forces: Education in Motion. Retrieved from http://www.michaelfullan.ca/
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.