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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Organizational Moments of Weakness

Organizational Moments of Weakness

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

If a moment exists when a person improves, then a moment may exist when an organization improves.  If these are true, moments may exist when an organization becomes weaker, as well.  
Our better leaders are aware of moments when their organizations are about to become stronger and will protect those moments.  Yet, we would argue that it is rare, indeed, when leaders are able to discern when their organizations are nearing a point of becoming weaker and intentionally do something to arrest those moments. 
Comfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming weaker, while discomfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming better.  Discomfort strengthens organizational acuity.
Further, as we are comfortable, we perceive one’s becoming weaker as more a 10K walk, than a 100-yard sprint.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
People experience moments of weakness, perhaps when they are trying to diet and are surrounded by food, or while trying to quit smoking is in an environment full of smokers.  In just about any case when a person is trying to change a habit, it becomes difficult when others are holding onto that habit, even enjoying it.  It seems the person trying to change would be better off to avoid these places of temptation.  Maybe so, however, people cannot expect completely to do so for the rest of their lives.  
Those who are more resilient make it through, and those less resilient typically do not. 
What provides for the resilience people need when they face moments of weakness?  Can organizations develop resilience to help weather those times as well?
One way to examine this is to first break down what it is people actually do to improve, and to consider at what point in any training regimen does a person get better.  It seems that we may see gradual improvements over time, yet do not as often consider when “moments” happens.

The question posed here is, “At what exact point (moment in time) does improvement occur?”

·      When a person starts the training and an emotional change surfaces?
·      When a person continues the training after the initial charge has faded?
·      When a person begins thinking about the task in a new way?
·      When a person first finds the task getting easier?
·      When a person reflects upon his or her new capacity, thus, raising the bar?

As we reflect as authors about the personal and/or professional learning experiences that we have had in our own lives, we think back to such activities as playing sports, doing school, making friends, dating, teaching in K-12, assuming that first principalship, networking professionally, and more recently, chairing dissertations.  In all of these situations, we started with one skill level, then over time (in a training regimen, with intermittent bouts of becoming a bit weaker here and there, as implementation dips are to be expected), we more often than not, improved our skills to tackle the demands placed upon us.
We were seen as more effective over time. Something must have sparked forward progress along the way. 
A spark. A moment.  A very brief period of time. 

Can we make the conceptual leap to the organization with all of this?

When organizations attempt to change – change a habit/ritual, change a performance expectation, or change the outcomes of performance investments – what kind of structures may be necessary for the organization to have moments, and along the way, to become resilient to challenges (moments of regression) from internal/external forces attempting to draw the organization back to equilibrium?
To comfort.  
Whatever these structures may be, they exist as “moments,” and not in extended episodes, or even in windows really.  Our strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunity and threat from without, accord us only fleeting, oft-indiscernible, and hard-to-hold-on-to moments that are most crucial in leveraging what could be a year-long, or multi-year strategy for organizational improvement.
Is there a crucial point in time when the improvement is about to happen and those in charge of protecting it unintentionally sidetrack the progress?
Cluelessly, as well? 
Can a teacher teach something, then begin the next lesson component too soon . . . just (perhaps seconds) before the previous lesson was internalized as useful, or relevant?  
Just before it was learned? 
If that grain of possibility exists, then perhaps leaders need to think not only about the classroom implications as teachers dump too much content onto students, but also how this applies school-wide, to organizational learning among adults.

Consider principals who schedule professional development days for their faculties and staffs:
How much do they allow to be placed on their agendas? 
Are only so many minutes devoted to particular agenda items? 
How is this decided? 
How much do principals protect the necessary time for deeper conversations? 
Do principals resist the temptation of moving to the next roundtable prompt, as they notice time for lunch approaching, or a few tables waning in interest, discussing soccer games and checking their texting devices?  Just because we desire a collaborative culture does not mean people know how to collaborate.

Let’s now bring a very important “inverse” to the table: If the moments prior to learning are crucial, then aren’t as well those moments just prior to becoming weak?  

Again, we do not believe that only slow processes of atrophy influence a school’s decline over time.  We believe that actual steps backward take place quickly, and solidify themselves as the principal moves to that next agenda item or calls the group together to make the next big point, all because an agenda checked-off or a lesson plan followed is conceived as best practice in K-12.  All because of a principal’s perceived pacing guide, the staff may have come to the edge of internalizing a new mindset, only to have that moment of improvement stopped due to the clock.
We ponder how often schools create unknowingly, a pernicious moment lasting only a few seconds, through a leader’s action or inaction, as the organization is teetering on the brink of getting better or getting worse, and in that absence of good leadership, the organization then slips backward abruptly, for the longer-term.
Can a missed moment of improvement prompt an unwanted moment of weakness?


One will often see Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan standing far off to the side at professional development events for K-12 educators, watching the organizational learning taking place, or not, rather than walking from table to table listening to the conversations taking place.  What they wish to do at this point is to put research to their theories.  If you have anything to offer, please don’t hesitate to contact them at or at 

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