You are on page 1of 2

group wise / ROBERT J.


Anticipate change: Design a transition meeting

he school is small, the leader well-loved. The work is challenging, hectic, and performed in cramped quarters. Dedicated teachers have worked hard together for many years. Childrens work is evident everywhere. Harmony and emotional bonds are core values. People come first. Soon, much of this will change. Carolyn McKanders and I have been asked to design and facilitate a two-day workshop to herald and support this staff through impending change. Soon the school will have new leadership, a third of the staff will depart, new teachers will be hired, the student population will increase dramatically, and classrooms will be added. The challenge of change is common. Carolyn and I set three outcomes for this meeting: 1) Enhance the staff s capacity to cope with change; 2) Help them plant seeds to use change as an opportunity for school improvement; and 3) Increase their sense of power and control about elements of the change.


Schools regularly face daunting shifts: They adopt programs, change assessments, reorganize schedules, revise curriculum, reinvigorate instruction, or change personnel. Some schools encounter multifaceted change, others singular. The challenges are similar. William Bridges (1980) notes that it is never the change itself that is difficult. It is the psychological adjustments the natural processes of disorientation and reorientation that accompany change that are challenging. He describes three phases: endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings. For individuals to cope effectively with these stages, its useful to know what they are and to have ideas on how to deal with them. Endings. People make beginnings, says Bridges, only if they have first made an ending and spent some time in a
ROBERT J. GARMSTON is co-founder of the Institute for Intelligent Behavior and a professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramentos School of Education. You can contact him at 337 Guadalupe Drive, El Dorado Hills, CA 95762-3560, (916) 933-2727, fax (916) 933-2756, e-mail:

neutral zone. But most change work focuses on the beginnings with attempts to explain the new or to generate buyin for the changes. Leaders serve faculties and school efforts best when they understand in what stage of transition people are and then organize their information and learning experiences to be congruent with these transition zones. Our first task is to acknowledge loss. Every transition, even about joyful events, starts with an ending. My wife and I just bought a new house. We are thrilled about the new setting and envision time there with family and grandchildren. Yet, there is still an aching sense of loss at leaving our existing home. I will miss the porch on which I sat with my dad and watched sunsets. Sue will miss the hours of activity our grandkids had in a playroom she designed. In schools, a new program In each issue of JSD, or curriculum no matter how positively Robert J. Garmston writes anticipated brings an end to the old ways of about the challenges of doing things: the familiarity of texts and roucreating effective groups. tines, instructional strategies, patterns of relaHis columns can be found tionships with other adults, and perhaps changes at authors/garmston.cfm in status. It is normal for people to feel a sense of loss. It is sometimes a slow process, for we may have identified some portion of who we are with what is past. We may feel disoriented, disenchanted, angry, or depressed. Perhaps the most important service leaders provide is to let others react to the ending. Endings are, after all, experiences of dying, and in some sense we may feel that they may mean the end of us. Yet our logical minds know that an ending marks the beginning of a new life. During endings, leaders must expect and accept signs of grieving. People may be sad, angry, depressed, irrational, frightened, or confused. We must, without judgment, provide processes for them to express feelings. We might have pairs list all the losses involved in this change, or have small groups list the worst things, the best things, and the most probable things that might happen. Because letting go engages the right brain more than the left, we will develop metaphors or ceremonies that touch emotional cores. In one school transitioning from a nine-month to a 12-month calendar, the staff held a funeral for the old calendar. They designed a casket, the principal read eulogies, and later they met at a local pub for a wake. The neutral zone. Bridges (1991) calls the second
VOL. 25, NO. 4 FALL 2004 JSD 65


(800) 727-7288

phase a neutral zone because it is a nowhere between two somewheres. In organizations, anxiety rises and motivation falls. Performance declines. People get overloaded, signals are mixed, systems are in flux, and more things go wrong. It is important to foreshadow this so individuals do not think something is wrong with them or the school when difficulties arise. The critical task at this stage is to give in to the emptiness one experiences and trust that, metaphorically, a death and rebirth cycle is in progress. Normalize the neutral zone. Forecast its occurrence, processes, and benefits. Select metaphors with positive attributes to describe the changes that people are experiencing. Instead of a family breakup, speak of new chapters or expanded families. Use metaphors of life cycles, seasons, and growing things to talk about the changes. The neutral zone can be a hothouse for ideas. Carolyn and I will design processes to identify and develop ideas to address key challenges associated with the change. The neutral zone is the best place to generate and test new ideas. New beginnings. Genuine beginnings start within us. They are psychological phenomena that we come to, paradoxically, only at the end of something else. This is the time for action and the pursuance, step by step, of a plan to take us to the new place. Focus faculty on processStructured interview questions es that will lead to outcomes, What is over and what is not? not the outcomes themselves. What do you value and want to Daniel Goleman (2000) continue? As individuals and as a notes that the pacesetting group, what can we do to support style of leadership fixating ourselves through changes? on high standards nega What are some areas in which we tively affects performance. might need to tap into our creativiPeople get overwhelmed and ty? burn out. Foreshadow the What are some areas in which we normal brief decline in effecmight need to manage the chaos of tiveness that occurs when transition? working with any new strate If this phase of life for this school gy. By alerting people to the looks like clouds, what might be effort required to reach the some silver linings? stage of conscious competence in any innovation, you encourage them not to abandon ship during the rough seas so they can stay on board for the smooth sailing after.

Welcome, purposes, and overview Bridges work on transitions Structured interviews Refresh staff on dialogue skills Dialogue on essential elements from interview Identify and plan for action on selected items We set about the work in this way: In structured interviews, each member interviews others on questions pertinent to the changes. (See box at left.) Each participant records responses on interview sheets, and the group then organizes and summarizes the responses to each question. The summaries are posted on flip charts. An important point is that staff members are the listeners; people give voice to their stories. This format allows staff to hear from each other. Carolyn and I will facilitate the next portion of the meeting where the full group will study the charts and select ideas to pursue. We will help them refine dialogue skills (talking to understand, not to decide), then groups will identify areas in which they need action plans. In this meeting, we focus on teacher dispositions and strengthening the professional community to weather and profit from changes. These are two of the five elements of good schools (Newmann, as reported in Fullan, 2001, p. 64): Teachers knowledge, skills, and dispositions; Professional community; Program coherence; Technical resources; and Principal leadership. School leaders will want to identify specific behaviors participants need in order to accomplish the change responses they identify. They need to be explicit about and teach skills, then plan for implementation, mutation, monitoring, and redesigning. In all changes, everyone is urged to treat the past with respect. Frame whatever is passing as useful to what you are moving toward. Remember that people may identify with past practices in a positive way never, never, never demean the old way of doing things. While change is difficult, a thoughtfully planned process can turn problems into opportunities.

group wise


The Chinese symbol for crisis, we are told, is both danger and opportunity. We see this meeting as an occasion to plant seeds for school improvement and illuminate the staff s sense of power and control. Is there an established design that will help staffs turn changes into opportunities? We dont know. However, here is an agenda that reflects our thinking:
66 JSD FALL 2004 VOL. 25, NO. 4

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making sense of lifes changes. New York. Perseus Publishing. Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. New York: Perseus Publishing. Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Goleman, D. (2000, March-April). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, 78(2) 78-90. I