A Framework for Leading Change in a Post-COVID Environment

In my last post, I used the print to digital shift in media as an analogy to describe what might be happening now in education. I wrote:

When print-based newspapers first moved to the internet, they tried to force the internet to fit their print-based context. Websites were clunky and slow, and navigation was awkward and ineffectual. That was their 1.0 effort, or even their beta initiative, just like the last few weeks have been for schools everywhere. Now, the successful media publications start with a digital and mobile-first mindset, designing first for the medium where they will find their audience.

With hundreds of millions of kids globally pushed into a distance (or remote) learning environment because of the coronavirus spread, teachers and schools are doing things within days and weeks they wouldn’t have touched pre-2020 without years of discussion, debate, compromises, and training. If everyone feels like a rookie, it’s because decades of teaching in a physical classroom and campus have not prepared us for this dramatic and abrupt transition. This is no snow day. We didn’t contemplate, or take seriously, the possibility of an actual pandemic that would radically disrupt our lives. For many of us, it’s challenging our workplace identities as we grapple with a medium that is both flexible and limited in its uses for teaching, learning, and creating connections and community. For educators, almost all who take their work personally, this disruption is no less than a transformation of their philosophy and practice. For schools and colleges, this will simultaneously affirm and undermine current missions, core values, and value propositions. If onsite learning cannot be replicated online, then the same is true of those missions, core values, and value propositions. Each of those was contemplated and approved for a pre-COVID world. Whenever we can safely return to our campuses, we will find we are not the same institution anymore; there’s some familiarity but some things have been forever altered in us. The coronavirus, whether we catch it or not, has already made its presence felt in all of our lives, infecting our sense of self and value as individuals and institutions.

If we know now and accept the landscape is dramatically altered, then what can we do to better prepare ourselves for the next disruption? This post, as the ones before it, is less about giving concrete solutions; I myself can currently see the outcomes more clearly than the paths leading to them. Instead, I hope to offer again provocative questions and a framework we can use to determine possible pathways to whatever solutions we will need over the next several months to sustain and strengthen ourselves and our institutions.

Eighteen years ago, two Harvard professors, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, wrote an article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” in the Harvard Business Review. In it, they discussed two types of changes, adaptive and technical. Adaptive change “demands that people give up things they hold dear: daily habits, loyalties, ways of thinking.” Heifetz and Linsky use words such as “difficult but necessary” and “wrenching” to describe this type of change. Adaptive change will “upset an organization’s equilibrium.” Technical change, on the other hand, “can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes.” It’s clear to me, four weeks living and working in the brave new world, that we must stop searching for and applying technical solutions to these adaptive challenges. Our technical muscle is necessary but not sufficient in a post-COVID world. As Heifetz and Linsky write, “adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organization to alter their ways.” Like the media industry’s 1.0 efforts when they went from print to digital and mobile, educators everywhere began with technical solutions that would not fix their adaptive problems. Many schools took their whole schedule online in the first week, expecting students would log on and attend classes on Zoom or Google Hangouts like they did on campus. That didn’t work; students and teachers were exhausted, and engagement and community suffered.

To further illustrate what I mean, I’ll use the same example Heifetz and Linsky use in their article. A car with mechanical issues has an easy fix. Take the car to the mechanic and s/he will change the oil, replace the filters, install new brake pads, etc. If the problem, however, is with the driver, no technical fix or replacement will repair the underlying issue because the problem is not with the car. The problems with distance (remote) learning, as teachers discovered within their first few days of going remote, are not about ease and training with the technology with a full, or near-full, online transfer of the physical schedule. Instead, distance learning, because of the medium’s flexibility and limitations, challenges the fundamental assumptions upon which every physical classroom and campus, school calendar and class schedule is currently based. What works in one context won’t work in another, and the solutions are not simple fixes but require a radical rethinking and redesign of what we value and how we learn and teach now.

This crisis is going to redefine our institutions. In one of his daily briefings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said people keep asking him when we will go back. There’s no going back, he replied, there’s only going forward. The coronavirus spread has already turned, to use Heifetz and Linsky again, life upside down in every organization. The question is no longer “if” but “when” we can expect to face these challenges again. As one association leader recently said to me, families just want to make sure that our remote learning implementation today “doesn’t suck,” however, they will be less gracious next year if we go remote again and do not show adequate preparation, execution, and communication. Any technical fix we have employed thus far is just a patch that will carry us through the short-term. Next time, those won’t be enough.

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