Three Tips for Managing Complex Change in School Districts

Adam Anderson

5-minute read

How is your school district evolving to prepare today's students to succeed in an uncertain future? How are you managing and leading this complex change in your district?


The reliable adage that “the only constant is change” has never been more true than it is today. Every organization—public, private, and non-profit—is facing external and internal conditions that are pressuring them to change in more extreme ways and in more frequent cycles. This is especially true of public school districts, which, in addition to being composed of diverse stakeholders with multitudinous interests, are seeing continually shifting demographics, student needs, criteria for success, and technology. While many of these factors have been contributors to change in the past, it certainly feels like they are more dynamic and pressing these days, right?

The good news is that “Change Management” has been studied for decades, and there are some great thought leaders and processes to guide transformation—John Kotter’s “8-Step Process for Leading Change,” Jeanie Duck’s “Change Monster,” and Kurt Lewin’s “3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing, Changing, and Refreezing” to name a few of the most well-known ones. The bad news? It hasn’t been enough. A McKinsey and Company study showed that 74% of transformation efforts in companies across a wide range of sectors failed. Despite significant access to proven processes, only about one in four change efforts, usually critical to the ongoing success of an organization, are successful. 

Here at DMGroup as we have reviewed existing research and commentary about why change efforts often fail and what can be done to increase the odds of success, one overarching theme resonates: the focus has been on process management as opposed to leading people and the required cultural changes. In fact, the same McKinsey and Company study showed that organizations that had strong communication from and commitment by leadership had a significantly higher success rate.  

Key Success Factors for Change Efforts

Based on our research, DMGroup encourages superintendents and school district leaders to focus on three key success factors to improve the likelihood of success of change efforts in their districts.

  1. Choose the right change effort
  2. It may sound simple, but too often leaders choose to prioritize an effort that is doomed to fail from the beginning. DMGroup has identified five key considerations to keep in mind as you are selecting a change opportunity to focus on in your district.

    Five considerations for identifying a high priority change effort: 1) supports a district-wide strategic priority, 2) core to your passion and beliefs as a leader, 3) requires involvement from and transformation of multiple functions and departments, 4) clear path to buy-in from senior leadership, and 5) direct and compelling impact on student outcomes, resource allocation, and/or operational efficiency.

  3. Hold yourself and your senior leadership team accountable to key leadership enablers
  4. As noted above, a critical point of failure is when leaders fail to, put quite simply, lead the change and model the behaviors and shifts expected of the rest of the organization. By focusing on four enablers throughout the change process, you and your school district leadership team will increase the likelihood of success.

    Four leadership enablers: communicate and motivate, remain steadfast and focused, role model the change, and be engaged and connected.

  5. Balance process management with a focus on people
  6. Don’t get us wrong, managing a rigorous change process is important. Equally important, however, is demonstrating strong leadership and thinking about people and culture is just as much a recipe for failure as completely ignoring it. The best approach balances process and people so that they complement each other along the way. 

    To illustrate this, we have adapted Kotter’s change model to provide a comprehensive approach to managing change in school districts.

    DMGroup's Change Management Framework for School Districts

A Recipe for Successful Change

As Jeanie Duck so eloquently says, “Change is inherently and inescapably an emotional human process.” As Billy Crystal so simply says, “Change is such hard work.” These two thoughts definitely go hand in hand, to which anybody who has attempted to lead a change effort can attest. To overcome the barriers to change and be successful, superintendents and school district leaders must respond to both the rational and emotional aspects of change efforts.

As public education leaders, we must identify the right changes to prioritize, lead with a focus on the right competencies, and manage a process that is balanced with people and cultural changes. By doing just that, we will more effectively meet the needs of students, teachers, staff, families, and communities as the world we live and work in continues to evolve.


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