Leading change (Fullan vs. Kotter)

Leading Change

As a leader in any team, understanding the type of change that you are implementing will always help you strategise how you are going to implement it. 

In this module we will talk about Adoptive vs Adaptive change and how these relate to leadership style. And then we will have a look at a comparison between the Fullan and Kotter models of change; two models that have been derived from successful change within schools. At the end we will try to identify characteristics in the Fullan and Kotter models of change that may align to adoptive or adaptive change types. So what do these terms refer to?

Adaptive Change refers to how organisations ‘adapt’ to changing circumstances. It often stems from challenges that are not clearly defined and require a trial and error approach to solving them, Take team performance for example. To improve team performance there would be a need perhaps for coaching, mentoring, adjustments to the appraisal system and even additional CPD input in the areas that required it. In this way the team adapts slowly over time to a changing set of circumstances. Because of inevitable levels of collaboration that will lead to successful change, the leadership styles are more likely to be democratic, affiliative or coaching. 

Adoptive change, on the other hand, often applies to changes that are very clearly defined and simply need to be taken on board by the team. Take a change in curriculum for example. This is a clearly defined adjustment to the way that things need to be done. Changes in what material is delivered to students, or indeed approaches suggested in the curriculum outlines, are often simply given to staff to implement, there is little need for trying to adapt slowly to this sort of change and therefore it could be said that the organisation simply has to ADOPT the new instructions. Often the more appropriate leadership styles for adoptive change would be pace-setting, coercive or authoritative.

The style of leadership, as we have seen, can adjust depending on the type of change that is required. There are several examples of successful change management but two that are used commonly in this sort of training are the two models put forward by Michael Fullan and John Kotter. These two models of successful change management in schools look quite different but this is because they have been developed for different contexts. Nevertheless it is interesting to examine the characteristics of each and see where we can personally identify with the styles.

The Fullan Model – Embedding Change in Education

This model was derived through the examination of many schools that had implemented change effectively. Fullan identified ten key factors that he said “…promise(d) continued success and at the same time make(s) turnaround part and parcel of changing the system.” 

Here they are:

  1. Define closing the gap as the overarching goal: Schools that make this the purpose of the change put the idea of improvement at the centre of their agendas. This allows the team to align any small changes required of them, to the larger goal of school improvement.
  2. Attend to the basics: literacy, numeracy, wellbeing: These are clear goals that all educators can identify with, and agree with. Who would disagree with having to really deliver on those three items. Jim Collins, in his book ‘Good to Great” talks about “Focus on your core business” and these three basic elements are the basics of any school environment.
  3. Tap into people’s dignity and respect: Educators are professionals and should be treated with the respect and dignity that this professionalism deserves. By now we should all really realise that a team who feels valued and listened to, is a team that is likely to perform at its best.
  4. Ensure the best people are working on the problem: A central theme to this platform is the idea of distributed leadership and this is really the same principle that applies here. If the right people, those who are skilled in a particular area, are allowed to lead in areas that match their skills, success is most likely to follow.
  5. Change by doing rather than planning: Fullan talks here about change being a process rather than an event. This implies that even if a solution is not perfect, try it and then work on removing the teething problems, rather than waiting to formulate the perfect solution before doing anything. “Better done than perfect” as my coach would say.
  6. Build Capacity: once again this alludes to the idea of distributed leadership. Leaders that focus on the development of the skills, knowledge and capability within their teams are more likely to be in a position to effect sustainable change.
  7. Develop sustainable leadership: By developing the leadership skills within the team as a whole, and not just in those who hold leadership titles, capacity for managing change is increased, making it more sustainable.
  8. Build internal accountability linked to external accountability: Accountability is linked to responsibility. This is about teams accepting responsibility for their outcomes and progress. It is about linking moral responsibility to deliver the best education that they can.  
  9. Sustain positive pressure: Leaders who remain focussed on the goal and who apply a constant pressure on their teams through attention to goals, through positive reminders, and through celebrating milestones with their teams will ensure that positive change is sustained.
  10. Build public confidence: Change, as we have already discussed, can lead to negative responses. Leaders who lead positive change do so by being open, transparent and responsive to their team’s needs.

Overall this model is one that is quite closely aligned with the adaptive approach to change. There are also clear similarities to the affiliative, democratic and coaching styles of leadership. Now let’s have a look at John Kotter’s model of leading change within organisations:

Kotter holds the development of strong leadership at the centre of the ability for organisations to drive change. He also maintains that organisational inertia and resistance need to be overcome before change can occur. In this way his model comes across as more combative that Fullan’s model.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency:  Leaders should create a sense of urgency, particularly amongst the decision makers and influencers within the organisation. In this way they gather support for their agenda, and as this support base grows, so does their ability to enact change. Additionally, the stronger this base grows, through this sense of urgency, so the complacency within the organisation shrinks.
  2. Create a guiding coalition: The leader focuses on getting people on side, as well as creating a ‘power house’ of decision makers that have a common goal or vision. Once this coalition reaches a certain size, it can start to drive powerful change.
  3. Develop both a strategy and a vision: We talk about vision throughout this material, and the importance of making sure it has crystal clarity for all stakeholders is important in providing the image that people can work towards.
  4. Communicate the vision: Good leaders communicate their vision consistently and clearly. The vision has to be lived by the team, not simply be some words on a website or a wall in the main office.
  5. Generate short-term wins: Good leaders recognise that change is often a slow process so in order to keep up enthusiasm or generate momentum, they seek to find short-term wins. Good leaders actually plan for these and don’t wait for them to happen by chance.
  6. Remove obstacles: once again this is in line with the idea of distributing leadership throughout the organisation. By empowering people to act in line with the organisational vision and objectives, the good leader removes barriers to implementation and allows creativity to be a driver of change.
  7. Anchor changes in the culture: Leaders within an organisation ensure that any changes that are made are embedded as part of organisational culture. Changes in behaviour should always be encouraged to be sustainable through celebrating when people adopt them, employing people who would naturally adopt them, and ensuring that they are communicated on a regular basis until they become the ‘norm’. If changes are seen as temporary measures they will not end up being sustainable. 
  8. Build on changes: Leaders who implement change effectively ensure that changes become the building blocks of development. Quite often in organisations, near the end of an implementation, enthusiasm can drop off and projects can start to fall apart before they are properly completed. Good leaders ensure that the momentum is maintained right to the end, and then that these become the basis for more change or development so that any change becomes cemented in the culture.

In 2019, the Education Endowment Fund produced a paper on Implementation Policy for schools. Many of the principles from both these models can be found in this policy. In another module we will go into a basic breakdown of what this advice entails. 

For now it is interesting to compare the two above models to understand the various elements that leaders take into account when implementing change. It is difficult to identify which one is more appropriate or better because they are both designed for different contexts. Nevertheless each point raised provides food for thought as you take on your leadership roles and are tasked with implementing change within your team. 

Point of Reflection: In your experience, which of the two strategies to lead change resonates more with you? Can you draw any parallels with your personal leadership style? Personal Development Activity: Both Fullan and Kotter talk about getting people on side. Kotter talks about building a guiding coalition and Fullan talks about building capacity and confidence in your team. Leading change is often made a lot easier by making sure that your team is on board with the vision of where you are going, and that they are kept in a positive frame of mind whilst getting there!  Task Find an opportunity to meet with each of your team members, informally or formally, to let them know what a great job they’re doing. Make it light and friendly, and witness what happens. Bring your findings to the Facebook community.