How Much is “Too Much” Change for a School District?

“Too much change!” is a refrain that every leader has heard. School district leaders often rely on their gut to tell them if they should proceed with the change effort and if the effort will be too much for their staff. Most leaders work hard to try to discern between the expected resistance that accompanies any change effort and whether their organization truly has the capacity to put in the effort required to change.

Why should we measure affinity and level of effort for change with school district initiatives?

Most leaders overestimate their capacity to support change efforts even as they identify initiatives and feel the urgency that accompanies their goals. Organizations that are subject to too much change will push back and modify those initiatives. Tolerance and trust dissipate when leaders overestimate organizational capacity for change.

Leaders can avoid organizational stress by:

  • limiting the number of people affected by the change,
  • being mindful of the affinity for the change effort and,
  • adjusting the depth, or magnitude, of the planned change.

Change makes people M.A.D.: The three variables that make up the “Change Value Unit” (CVU)

Frederick Douglass once penned: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” What if a school district leaders could reduce the impact of change, so as not to eliminate the struggle, but to evaluate the readiness of staff and dispositions toward the change so that progress was possible?

Too much change can create a toxic and unproductive environment. The greater the portion of the organization that has to change, the more profound that change. The more intense the change is disliked, the more difficult success will be and it will take more effort to achieve the desired results. I have found in my district and my work with leadership teams that there are three main variables to consider when making a change in an organization.

These main variables are:

1. (M)embership: the number of organization members the change affects.

2. (A)ffinity: The organization members’ affinity, or distaste, for the change.

3. (D)epth: The depth, or the magnitude, of change the effort represents.

I have developed a measure called Change Value Units (CVUs) that combine these three variables and assist leaders examine how much change is involved in the initiative.

How much change can a district handle in a year at one time?

“Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.” - Robin Sharma

Each change effort a district undertakes has a value for Membership, Affinity, and Depth. These factors are multiplied to determine the CVU for each initiative. The higher the CVU, the more organizational stress is associated with that initiative.

Membership is calculated by identifying the percentage of members of the organization that are affected or targeted by the initiative and assigning the analogous factor. The membership factor is calculated based on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 indicating more than 40-100% of the staff will be affected.

Affinity is a rating of how much dislike the change represents. The affinity for change is measured using a 5 point scale, with 1 representing Preference and 5 representing emotional or non-rational opposition.

Depth quantifies the degree to which members must change the way they do or think about things. The more fundamental the change, the greater the depth factor. The depth of change factor is measured using a 5 point scale, with 1 representing minor changes to routine and practice and 5 representing changes in assumptions of how and why members do their work.

Multiplying these three elements provides a change factor that can range from 1 to 125.

To work through the exercise, leadership teams should identify each proposed initiative, calculate the Change Value Unit (CVU) for each and then add these values together. The sum of all change initiatives should not exceed 225 at any single moment. Organizations looking to implement change that exceeds 225 Change Value Units, can expect that the organization may work hard against the change. Single change efforts that represent more than 80 CVU represent significant, disruptive and taxing events. They should be treated with great care and caution.

Worked Example: Customer Service Relations Systems

Let’s look at an example of a change a district may undergo when implementing a customer service relations system.

A school district is interested in instituting a new customer service relations system. They hope to take many functions that were done on paper or through e-mail are now going to be done with one integrated system. The implementation of this system will ensure that parental complaints and queries are addressed in a timely fashion and allow the district to track improvements in their parental relationships. This change not only affects the customer service staff, but also the managers that make use of that data. Additionally, the switch represents a major upgrade in technology. Many staff will not like giving up their handwritten notepads and having all their interactions recorded by the “system”.

The chart below shows how the magnitude of change is calculated for a moderate sized initiative like the implementation of a CSR database.

Image of the chart for calculating CVUs

This change will directly affect nearly 30% of the total staff, resulting in an M factor of “4.” Additionally, the members have a dislike for this change as it can be perceived as an increased level of monitoring. Initiatives that increase perceived supervision and accountability often have a high A rating, and in this case I would assume a factor of “4.” The depth of change represents a significant change in how work is accomplished, but not a complete rethinking. The basic premise of what is done is not changing, but almost everything about how it is done is changing – resulting in a relatively high D factor of “3.” I would anticipate this initiative taking roughly 20% of the capacity for change across the whole district to complete, with a total of 48 CVUs.

When considering the full impact of all change efforts in an organization, it is crucial for leaders to anticipate resistance that may derail initiatives. The CVU algorithm allows leaders and their teams to have a structured way to better plan for effective implementation and scaling of multiple change efforts. When leaders consider all factors that can impact effective implementation of change efforts, they are better able to determine the organization’s likelihood for success of new change efforts.

About the Author

Image of Laurence T. Spring Larry Spring is Superintendent of the Schenectady City School District. He has worked as a school superintendent for the past eleven years and a school administrator for nearly twenty years. The cornerstone of Mr. Spring’s work is to ensure that race, economics and disability are never predictors of student achievement. He maintains an unwavering commitment to addressing the needs of a diverse student population and is a relentless advocate for the disadvantaged and those living in poverty. Since 2012, under Mr. Spring’s leadership, the Schenectady graduation rate, student achievement and attendance rates have significantly improved.