THE SO WHAT TEST: A Case Study of Strategic Educational Change

By Burns, Sheila T. | Organization Development Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

THE SO WHAT TEST: A Case Study of Strategic Educational Change


Burns, Sheila T., Organization Development Journal


Abstract

This case study answers the question, "Can strength-based whole systems change benefit educators?" The project follows a group of educators on a 15-month journey from an appreciative inquiry into their most positive future and the creation of a strategic dream to the enactment of that dream. As a result of the initial phase of the implementation process, the group achieved more efficient communication processes, better working relationships, and the creation of more collaborative capacity. The study explores several reasons why implementation took place. The dream and the struggle to survive in the midst of crisis created energy for the work. Management supported the coordinating committee with sufficient resources, constancy of purpose and accountability. The most important outcome of the journey was the radical transformation in the way the group learned to relate to one another. The result was an authentic learning community.

This is the tale of an educational transformation. It is the story of a strategic plan that got implemented. Like most stories of great change, it begins with a crisis-in-fact, a near death experience. Death focuses the mind, as Samuel Johnson observed, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." (Boswell, 1934, p. 167).

In the spring of 2002, the Governor of a great and political midwestem state threatened to abolish his 45 regional Offices of Education, fire the regional superintendents, and zero out their budgets. He declared these intermediate education agencies "a needless and bureaucratic luxury that the State could no longer afford." Regional superintendents are the only elected education officials in this and many other States. Created by State law as a part of county government, they deliver a variety of programs to schools ranging from GED testing to professional development to compliance monitoring. In response to this threat to existence, 10 of the regional office located in the northwest part of the State responded in an unusual way to ensure their survival in an increasingly hostile environment.

Fortunately, they had already developed a technology, a philosophy and a way of navigating hostile and ambiguous environments. During the previous year, the Positive Change Corps, a global strategic planning volunteer group, had trained key staff from each office in some of the basics of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and Strength Based Whole Systems Change (SBWSC). Described by David Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry challenges at change from the strength side-unleashing energy by celebrating what's right about the organization. Another key characteristic of this technology is recruiting diverse stakeholders so as to dispel the drag on the organization of gossip and negative stories told in isolation. (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2003).

On April 6, 2004, one of the superintendents courageously and for the first time ever convened the group to envision the most positive future they could imagine and described a path for attaining that most remarkable possibility. He invited key staff members in the 10 regional offices in the northwest part of the State to join the conversation at this First Annual Strategic Planning Retreat. Now 15 months later, the same individuals returned to reflect on the journey so far and set the next milestones along the way for the second Annual Strategic Planning Retreat. Strategic plans can be mere theater, empty rhetoric, or worse do harm by overwhelming the system and sabotaging essential functions. In this case study, however, the strategic plan got implemented. The question is why? And, perhaps more importantly, how?

Martin Luther King did not say, "I have a strategic plan!" Instead, he said, "I have a dream!" (King, 1963). A strategic plan may create paperwork and compliance; a dream creates energy. The dreamers then commit that energy to make the possibilities they have envisioned real. …

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