Balancing Tradition and Transformation

Spring 2019

By Christopher Starr

If one word could describe the current educational landscape, it might be change. To anyone in any part of education, and particularly within independent schools, an adaptive and evolutionary mindset is an increasingly important requirement.

And as independent schools face rapid evolution and develop strategies to remain relevant and chart their course for the future, they are thinking differently about the routines, tools, and practices that are pushing pedagogical methods and curricular approaches into wholly different spaces, both metaphorically and physically. At the same time, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are warranting a re-evaluation of time-honored traditions and annual rituals that have been sewn into the fabric of a school culture.

So, how can school leaders effectively usher in these kinds of changes and prepare for the unknown while creating a critical balance between tradition and change—respecting heritage and identity while still evolving? By thoughtfully evaluating, determining, and continually stressing what’s not going to change.

Continuity as Change Management

Conventional wisdom might indicate that savvy leaders are better change agents when they can best articulate what is wrong with the current state of affairs. By focusing on their vision for a better future, school leaders might be most successful in encouraging constituents to embrace change.

But recent research by Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam, and Daan van Knippenberg published in the June 2018 Academy of Management Journal and explained in their August 2018 Harvard Business Review article adds an important caution. In the HBR article “To Get People to Embrace Change, Emphasize What Will Stay the Same,” they cite several studies that illuminate an interesting paradox. “Leaders need to communicate an appealing vision of change in combination with a vision of continuity. Unless they are able to ensure people that what defines the organization’s identity—‘what makes us who we are’—will be preserved despite the changes, leaders may have to brace themselves for a wave of resistance,” the authors posit.

Resistance to change often springs from a genuine concern and care for an organization. Will our school lose touch with our core values? Will the momentum of change threaten the identity of our school? Will my expertise, skill set, and passions as a faculty or staff member continue to be valued and respected?

The researchers refer to these fears as threats to one’s “continuity of identity.” To test the impact of these fears, they embarked on two studies—one field study and one experimental study. The field study involved 209 employees in organizations facing wide-ranging changes to location, products, leadership, and mergers. A survey package was distributed to both employees and their supervisors. Employees rated the degree of perceived work uncertainty and their perceptions of how well their supervisors communicated a vision of continuity. Supervisors rated how well they felt their employees supported change. The more uncertainty employees faced at work, the more comfortably they rated their attitudes toward change when leadership was effective in coupling change-based communication with continuity-based communication.

The experimental study focused on business school students facing hypothetical changes to their school’s established curriculum. One subset of students received communication solely related to potential curricular changes, while a second subset received the same messaging accompanied by a vision of continuity. This study also added an additional variable by communicating to members of both groups either a high or low degree of certainty about change outcomes. Regardless of the participants’ level of confidence in change outcomes, support for change was higher in the subset of students who received change-related communication accompanied by continuity of identity assurances. The study’s obvious takeaway: When stakeholders are presented with potential “unknowns,” leaders are wise to continually reference the known.

Strategy in Action

When Andy Delinsky joined The Peck School (NJ) as the head of school in 2014, he was immediately tasked with overseeing the formation of a new five-year strategic plan. The planning process would need to engage a wide spectrum of students, staff members, parents, past parents, trustees, and alumni—all constituents who held the school’s traditions and history in high esteem. Peck has earned a strong local reputation as a values-based K–8 school since 1893. The school has a long tradition of honoring character traits such as comportment and consideration, and Peck has always placed a high value on respectful gestures such as firm handshakes and eye contact. From the start, Delinsky felt the community’s strong connection to the past would need to be treated with respect and consideration. Recognizing that the school was also at the threshold of significant campus and curricular advancements, his intuition was to balance tradition with transformation. The strategic plan and resulting campus master plan would need to build from strengths while ushering in significant change.

The resulting strategic planning, master planning, and rebranding process were comprehensive and inclusive—calling upon multiple focus groups with various constituents as well as community surveys. The process also drew inspiration from John Kotter’s “Eight Steps of Change” model, which calls upon change agents to “create a climate for change,” “engage and enable the whole community,” and ultimately “implement and sustain change.”

In 2015, the board of trustees adopted a new four-pillared strategic plan focused on “the belief that Peck should be a community that fosters exploration, that bursts with excitement, and that sparks engagement.” Not surprising, the first pillar was dedicated solely to continuity. “We promise to ensure Peck remains true to its core beliefs as we continue to prepare students to lead healthy, productive, and principled lives,” the plan begins. That first pillar, “Building from Strength,” immediately listed eight promises to the Peck community containing words like “remain,” “continue,” “maintain,” “honor,” and “embrace.”

This commitment to a continuity of identity for Peck constituents led into the next three pillars of the plan, which outlined ambitious goals for integrated and inspirational learning, a culture of teaching excellence, and a transformative school community. From the strategic plan came a new campus master plan, which called for the demolition of the school’s cherished “Old Gym” and dining hall, the construction of a state-of-the-art Idea and Design Lab to bring student energy back into the school’s historic Lindenwold Mansion, the construction of a new multipurpose dining and event space, and a dramatically reconfigured main campus entrance.

Throughout the silent phase of fundraising for the new master plan, and after Peck publicly launched The Peck Promise Campaign in the fall of 2017, Delinsky continued to emphasize continuity. “Every time I would stand in front of faculty or speak to any school audience, including potential donors, I would restate the importance of school history and how traditions are at the core of who we are as a school,” Delinsky said. “I would define very carefully what has to stay in place at Peck, while also making the case for needed change and evolution.”

With so many hours spent in retrospection and introspection during the planning process, and the resulting intelligence gathered, the strategic communications team at Peck felt it was an opportune time to undergo a rebranding. Throughout the process, for which Peck engaged an outside consultant and gathered additional input from internal focus groups, the team kept the importance of continuity amid change top of mind. As a result, Peck developed a new tagline, “Timeless Traditions, Timely Transformation,” which was reflected in the revamped school website, admission communications, and marketing materials—all of which sought to aesthetically and thematically balance honoring the traditions of Peck while highlighting the transformational nature of a Peck education.

“Peck’s rebranding gave the school an opportunity to keep discussing what we really mean by traditions, which are those things that stand the test of time,” Delinsky said. “We should be careful, though, to not confuse traditions with curriculum. Timeless traditions are the core of what we do as a school—they bring students and parents together across grade levels.”

With the more dramatic campus changes underway, smaller changes to traditional class projects, event names, and grade-level signature experiences became the focus of community discussion. Forums such as headmaster coffee mornings with parents, faculty and staff in-service trainings, and regular internal communications served as sounding boards to gauge the ongoing balance between continuity and change.

With the school community on board, transformation is well underway. Financial support for the campaign is very strong, the new Peck Commons will be inaugurated in the fall of 2019, two design and innovation labs are buzzing with activity, and the curriculum is increasingly focused on integrated learning and design thinking.

Respecting Resistance

Traditions connect generations. They honor the past. They reinforce community. They can be a source of fun and allow for a unique and distinctive school culture. They can also play a very important role in actively ushering people into the future while embracing change.

So how can school leaders manage transformation while honoring tradition? Delinsky’s initial approach was to gain his own in-depth understanding of the school’s culture, strengths, and opportunities. He met with every faculty, staff, and board member within the first three months of joining the school. He asked them what they most cherished about the school and what they believed was most relevant to the school’s mission. He was inspired by the school’s mission statement that, “in life, knowledge must be guided by values.” In this case what constituents valued about Peck’s identity as a school, and their own intertwined identity as constituents. Above all, he listened.

In leading the strategic planning process and consistently engaging community members with a focus on communicating continuity of identity, he was able to assist the school in reframing how stakeholders thought about and defined traditions. He was also able to help the school separate tradition from curriculum. As a result, faculty were free to approach cherished grade level projects and signature experiences with a new lens—assuring constituents that a transformative curriculum was no longer a threat to the history and values of the institution.

With his deep understanding of the school’s past, Delinsky was also able to reintroduce a few “lost” traditions—such as the distribution of a Peck School pin to students at the beginning of their final year—drawing upon the past to build community in an evolving school.  

Communicating the Vision

For school communities and leaders alike, the key may be to alternate roles between being a change agent and a keeper of traditions and to understand the community’s threshold for change. Evolution without a sense of institutional “self” can be disorienting and counterproductive.

“Work uncertainty has been argued to be one of the most commonly reported psychological states in the context of organizational change,” according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. Visionary leaders understand that identity concerns are the underlying sources of resistance to change.

If school leaders want to better mobilize support for change, it would be wise to understand that “continuity” is a collective perception and “identity” can sometimes extend beyond the individual to encompass the organization. Of course, this requires patience, a willingness to dive deeply into the core values of a community, and a willingness to see continuity as an asset to evolution. “Who we are” as an institution is just as important to consider as “who we are becoming.”

Apparently, the more things change, the more they might need to stay the same. ▪

Christopher Starr

Christopher Starr is communications specialist at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey.