Change as Glaciers or Floods?

living as glaciers or floods_

The pace of change in any organization seems to play out one of two ways:

Glacial speed…

OR

Roaring flood…

Both have their distinct advantages and disadvantages, which are highly dependent on circumstances both internally/externally and the style of leadership present in the organization. The question I seek to pose is can we have it both ways? Can an organization such as a school (which faces numerous external pressures and internal turnover) be a dynamic enough organization to intentionally adjust the pace of change?

Schools get a lot of flak about the pace of change and it all depends on the perspective…

From outsiders, the approach to schooling and education are perceived as antiquated. I hear commonly that schools haven’t changed that much for over two hundred years. (Pace of change is glacial…)

From insiders, the approach to schooling and education seems aimless, flooding in all directions resulting in whiplash and a continual pile of paperwork that is meaningless within two years. (Pace of change is an overwhelming, aimless flood…)

Both perspective offer grains of truth buried in the rhetoric.


Glacial Change 

Advantages: 

  • A key advantage of glacial change is it provides the opportunity to plan ahead. If we take the time to perform long-term forecasting and a future needs assessment with school stakeholders we can navigate the urgent flooding waters that affect us externally while maintaining a steady vision forward.
  • Easier to assimilate into the culture. If the pace of change is not at break-neck speed from the word go, it provides time to learn the culture and build momentum as a team progressing into the future.

Disadvantages:

  • If a school culture is not healthy for staff or students, change at a glacial speed will not nearly be enough to reverse the fortunes and feelings of those in our organization. In the end the glacial path left behind will be littered with hurt, bitterness, and lost opportunity for positive impact.
  • Sometimes the system is broken. The path forward is clearly marked and there exists a narrow window of opportunity. Momentum is a huge factor in activating and maintaining the effort of change. By unnaturally or forcefully slowing the pace and excitement we can successfully put a halt on any movement forward. Be warned when someone’s passion and energy gets “iced” in they are much more hesitant to be a part of any future efforts of change we try to activate.

When Necessary:

  • Glacial change is a pace designed for future outlook. Best utilized when the immediate pressure is not high and all thoughts can be put on the table. Glaciers forever shape a landscape, our collaboratively formed long-term visions can do the same, how will we use such an opportunity?

Questions to Guide Glacial Change:

As you begin visioning for the future, there will be many more questions to ask, but these are meant to prime the pump.

  • What would a five year strategic plan look like for our school district? What about a twenty year plan?
  • Who needs to be a part of the planning process for such a long-term vision?
  • How might we structure acquiring feedback from as many stakeholders in the community as possible?
  • What potential partnerships have we been excluding that would benefit our learning community and students?

Lasting impact is the mantra of glacial change. This can be either positive or negative…planning intentionally for the future can help keep a positive perspective.


Flooding Change 

Advantages: 

  • When a toxic culture exists in our schools or organizations, it must be rooted out. This has to start somewhere and needs to start immediately. The good work that needs to be accomplished, and can be accomplished through education and learning can not be maintained in an unhealthy environment or culture. A sweeping flood within our organizations can help reset towards a new direction.
  • Can be used to set the stage for long-term change. It can create excitement and an infusion of energy towards new goals and visions. Creating initial momentum is a powerful attribute of flooding change, but it can disappear quickly without clear and early gains.

Disadvantages:

  • Flooding is unsustainable. It will lose its effect and we can lose control of its direction very quickly. Often it leaves a mess because of its own directionless force.
  • Its impact can be immediate, but when not connected with longer-term visions it will disappear and what will be left behind may be worse than what we started with.

When Necessary:

  • Flooding change can be utilized in cases where an immediate change in direction is called for. The need to start from square one. Changing a culture that is toxic and emotionally or physically harmful are examples of cases where such immediacy in action is required.

Questions to Guide Flooding Change:

As you prepare to unleash the flood, approach with caution and these questions in mind:

  • What about the organization or school are you trying to reset direction? Why is it important enough to call for immediate change?
  • What will you have in place when the waters of momentum recede to maintain the direction and energy towards a longer-cast positive vision?
  • Who will be affected by these changes and how can we support them through the changes?
  • What barriers do you foresee impacting the changes and how can we be proactive in addressing them?

Immediate impact is the mantra of flooding change. Be careful though and take note about how our organizations or schools got to a point where a flooding change was required. Creating a positive, dynamic school culture has to start somewhere, but requires continual buy-in and effort by all stakeholders. An organization cannot exist long-term in a flooding state…it will destroy itself.


These two paces of change lie along a spectrum. They are both on opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, both are not highly dynamic in their pace of change. There exists just one gear…slow or fast. As educators, students, and various stakeholders, we need a call for the healthy blending of these paces if we hope to enact long-term and positive change.

I’ll share these thoughts through another natural analogy…a river. In my next post I intend to explore how a river’s pace of change is how our organizations can act in a sustainable way to create positive, lasting change.

As always thanks for reading! 🙂

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