Leadership managing change

The best-seller I never wrote

Heritage Tree in Godinton ParkIn the early days of The Simpsons broadcast in America I watched it while on holiday and bought a t-shirt of Bart with catapult which read “Underachiever and proud of it, man!” My choice in slogan wasn’t so much a personal biography or mission statement but an ironic comment on the state of management in the education system.

I am reminded of this slogan when I hear criticism repeated by the Secretary of State for Education (England) that the main fault in the school system in low expectations. Whoever declared they were not aiming at achievement of higher standards? I consider his claim a very convenient elitist cop-out and I am deeply suspicious of the personal and political motivation.

My mind also casts back to one of the radical shake-outs of the local education advisory service I experienced in the late eighties. The mantra was taken from Tom Peters’ Thriving on Chaos. The bulleted-message was made clear to those who did not wish to move with the times: they should ‘learn to love change’ or move on. And some read what was in it for them and did take their cue to retire early. There was a thrusting new wave of post-holders called advisory-teachers for certain subjects. Elsewhere there was duplication and certainly tiredness. If you weren’t part of the solution you were part of the problem.

Now, two stories about the advisory service which shows that I do not have rose-tinted spectacles about a by-gone era:

1. While teaching I attended, in my own time, subject meetings run by two Inspectors (as they were called at the time) and one would routinely fall asleep and this would receive no comment at all.

2. When I joined the advisory service I would meet my line-manager in an empty office in a disused building in a school’s grounds. In addition to an office in County Hall, he had an unknown office with a phone line for outgoing calls, but no-one else knew the number, where he would work and have meetings undisturbed. This was before email or mobile phones, of course.

You see how this was incompatible with the fast-moving, ‘loads-a-money’ times. We have since learned, of course, that the pace of change is even faster. We now respond to global change like no-one is in charge anymore, it just happens.

So, this is where I missed my chance to complete the money-spinning riposte that would sit alongside business and self-improvement books on railway stations and all good booksellers. I anticipated that a pendulum would swing and I would start a bandwagon rolling (clichés are required for this type of book) with the title:

Stability: the new dynamic

I realised this satire could be interpreted as intensely conservative and would require defence of how things were rather than how things could be. But that misses the point: there is no destination in mind. It is about the process, the decision-making, the means are more important than the ends. It is a about fast-paced innovation for the sake of change.

Think how powerful it could be for ‘remaining just the same’ to be a default position. Change brought about only through tried and tested experimentation with proper controls. Alterations could be bedded-down before seeing what the effects were. Reflection would be valued over knee-jerk reaction. It would be a scientific method not a business-driven profit model of change.

It is now called the pre-cautionary principle but I didn’t know that at the time. This is an “approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” (Wikipedia)

I don’t intend to dismiss Peters entirely for his call for total customer orientation has been powerful and democratic. He still hangs around at and on Twitter @Tom_Peters

Ten years later there was another global bestseller, an allegory, called Who moved my cheese? also purporting to show people how they must manage themselves for a new business climate – but, in fact, advocating structural reorganisation and cost-cutting. These things have away of coming around.

This week a Department for Education statement included the claim “the status quo has never been an option” which harks right back to Tom Peters. What was this urgent change? Yes, pensions. One issue we have had to consider and to understand for years, for a whole generation. The action was required years ago and now they make political capital about the failure to see the need for change earlier. In other words they spend so long tinkering with short-term change and ignore longer-term planning.

Furthermore, in his preface Tom Peters’ writes
“The winners of tomorrow will deal proactively with chaos, will look at the chaos per se as the source of market advantage, not as a problem to be got around. Chaos and uncertainty are (will be) market opportunities; capitalizing on fleeting market anomalies will be the successful business’s greatest accomplishment.”

Is this ‘opportunity’ really what drives Michael Gove and the tory-led coalition on the school system?

All my life I have been striving for positive thinking. Maybe, after all these years, I have written the introduction to my management book.

Peters, Tom (1987) Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, Harper.

Johnson, Spencer (1999) Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, Vermilion.

Written Ministerial Statement on teachers’ pensions, 20 December 2011
and as this link will not remain for ever (see what I did there) here is the quote:
“Reforms to public sector pensions are essential – the status quo has never been an option.”

Bart Simpson on Wikipedia

Willson, Angus (whenever) Stability: the new dynamic, Pannage


Stability will raise standards in schools, not constant reform

Reducing the amount of government-led change and creating greater stability for teachers would be a better way to improve schools, writes Jon Coles

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
T. S. Eliot, The Rock (1934)


I have been reminded of this 2,000 year old observation. I first saw it in the late 1980s or early 1990s at one of the occasions when the Kent Advisory service was “re-organised”. The shake-outs mentioned above. The powers-that-be learnt to use geography as a basis for organisational structure. So it went from divisions to Kent-wide, and then to six areas and then back to central organisation. In truth, it allowed them to make everyone redundant and then recruit who they wanted to be in the “new” posts. It was truly dispiriting.

“We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”
Petronius Arbiter

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