The Dean as an agent of change
At a recent conference on leadership I was again struck by how the level of energy (anxiety?) in the room increased when the topic focused on change. This is natural, of course, since one of the critical functions of leaders, including deans, is to bring about positive change on several levels. In fact, it is
likely that a new dean will begin her or his term of office with a mandate to make changes in the system----notwithstanding that any attempts of consequence to do so on his or her part of the leader will likely meet with resistance if not outright sabotage.
The resistance to change is natural in that the nature of emotional process in any system includes the force of homeostasis, and homeostatis resists change at the most fundamental levels: those that upset the balance of dynamics that have established patterns of relationships, structures of power, and those systemic structures and processes that inform identity (like culture and practices).
It can be helpful for theological school deans to not only understand the nature of change in organizations, but to discern the type of change needed during a particular stage in the life of the theological school. Deans are well served to understand the nuances in understanding the types and levels of change necessary and possible. An important question for the dean is, “what kind of change am I trying to bring about in my school at this time?” The list below depicts different kinds of change according to their level from easy to bring about to harder to achieve. From top to bottom these levels of change take a short time to bring about (e.g., programmatic) to a long time to realize (e.g., cultural and evolutionary). The lower on the list the type of change the more it is a type of “fundamental” or “adaptive” change.
Change at any level invites anxiety if not reactivity. However, change at the more fundamental level often is perceived as threat, so deans should expect a higher level of reactivity and resistance to the change. Depending on the resilience of the system, change at any level may bring a minimal or a great deal of anxiety and reactivity. Systems with a low tolerance for change (like seminaries) can experience major crises with attempts at even benign programmatic changes.
Few of us remain in the office of the dean long enough to bring about change at the more essential levels, those that impact developmental or evolutionary change, which shifts the emotional process in the system, including homeostasis. The typical tenure of most deans is five to seven years. This has dire implications for the health and vitality of seminaries living in a current age of swift technical changes, drastic cultural changes, and multiple external stressors. My hunch is that the theological schools that will service and thrive over the course of the next two decades are those who can be resilient enough to embrace change at the more fundamental levels while maintaining their core mission. The role of the dean as an agent of change will be a critical factor in this.
Deans, who lead from the center, need to discern the right kind of change needed for right time. To mistake programmatic change for developmental change is a potentially costly blunder. To force organizational change in an attempt to bring about cultural change is ineffective.
Effective deans know the type of change they need to bring about, and they understand the processes necessary to realize those changes, including, dealing with resistance and sabotage. Of course, seasoned deans also know not expect to hear, “Thank you for all these changes you are making around here.”
What level of change are you currently trying to bring about in your school?
How do you deal with resistance to change?
Sarah B. Drummond says
Just today, I met with our two librarians, one of whom informed me earlier this week of her plans to retire. We had good conversations about the change that will come. But both librarians were surprised at first to hear that we wouldn’t simply replace the retiring librarian but would rather take time to consider the vision for the library’s future. Surprisingly, I actually had to slow a process down rather than pressure faster action.
Richard Weis says
Thanks for a great start to this new blog. (And thanks to Wabash and the first dean’s colloquy for setting it up!) Change is certainly an appropriate topic in these times. I’m wondering if you would be willing to unpack the definitions of each level of change in the diagram. Some seem clearer than others. I also would say that in my experience these layers are not always neatly separable. For example, I might aim at a change of culture by means of a set of administrative changes, and that change of culture, which necessarily affects relationships (emotional process?), might be needed to make a programmatic change flourish. Sorry if this is still keeping us the abstract level when you want to get to the concrete.
Israel Galindo says
Sarah, thanks for sharing that experience. It seems a good example for the insight that while we all know that change is difficult, we often don’t appreciate just how difficult it can be. Recently I became aware that despite confronting significant challenges that have been requiring change at many levels, and despite constant “education” about seismic changes in the field of education and theological education, and despite messages from seminary leadership about the need for change, some were assuming that we are making changes in some areas in order to “stay the same” in others. That is, they were fine accommodating changes at one level as long as changes did not happen at other levels. Or, “I’m fine with change in general as long as I don’t have to change.”
Thank you, Rich. The categories offered are illustrative, but below are brief descriptions of each (these are off the top of my head so you can come up with better):
Programmatic. Change related to delivery methods or content focus. Ill.: Adding a degree program, a concentration, or eliminating one. Or, changing facets related to a program (refining program goals, or requirements, etc.).
Administrative. Change related to how processes are handled or structures are managed. Ill.: initiating a new procedure for handling tasks or decisions.
Organizational. Change in the organizational structure. Ill.: adding a staff office, eliminating a position or office, adding the organization needed as a result of programmatic changes.
Structural. Change related to organizational models. Ill. changing from a family-style congregation to a pastoral-style congregation, or, a pastoral-style congregation to a programmatic-style congregation, etc. Perhaps, changing from a free-standing seminary to a university-based theological school.
Cultural. Changing communal values, habits of practice, attitudes, assumptions, predilections, prejudices. Ill.: Bringing about an attitudinal and behavioral change as a result of a clarification or adoption of a corporate value.
Developmental. Change that assumes natural “progress” or “growth.” Ill.: growing larger as an institution (the same, only more and bigger), or, successfully navigating an institutional lifespan stage (e.g., from adolescent to mature).
Evolutionary. Change that impacts the nature of the organization and reframes its mission. Ill. Changing from “college” to “university. In contrast to developmental change where a college or university retains its mission but merely grows larger. ” For a congregation, changing from a neighborhood-family church to an Urban church.
There is more nuance to seek for each beyond those simple descriptions. You are correct to identify that change has systemic integration. A change at one level impacts, to some extent, change in another. And you correctly identify the pragmatic importance of understanding the dynamic. Indeed, very often one needs to bring about or address change in one category, level, or domain in order to bring about change in another. Often, a direct assault is not effective. The more common error, in my experience, is not clearly identifying the kind (level) and nature of change one is working toward. Typically it leaves one momentarily satisfied with the evidence of change at a surface level only to later realize that no real change has actually occurred where where needed.
Posted 3/2/12; submitted again 3/8/12
Amy Oden says
I would love to join this conversation but don’t feel like I understand enough to even dive in. That’s one of the reasons I want to participate in the next deans colloquy. Israel’s description provides a helpful model and I grasp it conceptually. But as I try to imagine illustrations in my own context I’m a bit lost. It helps to see examples from others to get me thinking concretely. Thanks all.
Katherine Kott says
Your model looks to me like it is informed by Bowen theory, which I use in my organization development work. It is an interesting model and I would love to learn more.