What’s In Your Way: People or Process?

Posted on April 14, 2016

We live in complex school communities where we interact with our colleagues not just professionally, but as we raise families together, work through discipline with our advisees together, share meals together, and navigate crisis communications together. When you live alongside your coworkers, it changes the dynamics of your working relationships.


We also live in dysfunctional communities. We love our schools (in fact we probably each think our school community is the best), but let’s be realistic, we are far from highly functioning organizations. It is the nature of the beast, as it is with so many not-for-profit institutions. We are not finely tuned corporate machines and because of that, our communities are often messy, inefficient, and staggeringly confusing.

This is why it can be so difficult to affect change in our schools. We are afraid to upset the delicate personal/professional balance we constantly strive to maintain, all within a dysfunctional community. But, fear not! Creating change is not impossible!

Before you start banging your head against a wall in frustration, here is a suggestion: take time to identify whether or not the barriers to progress are related to people or processes. This is not new idea in management (see here), but is often overlooked in our school communities, and is an essential step in helping move a school forward. Because our work lives are so complex, separating people issues from process issues is essential to maintaining a level head and focusing our efforts where there will be the most impact. Often, people and processes at our schools are intertwined, but as you work to unravel these situations, you will be able to see where the root issues lie, and how to best create a way forward.

Strategies for Overcoming People Issues:

If you are faced with people issues, you need to tap into your EQ and start working with the people involved to understand their situation. Here are three ideas that may help you overcome the ‘people’ issues you are facing at your school:

  1. Understand why someone is doing what they are doing the way they are doing by putting yourself in their shoes and understanding the stresses and threats they may feel by your desire to create change.

  2. Work to provide rationale for change to those it will affect and have face-to-face conversations with those individuals so they understand your motivation and intentions.
  3. Look for opportunities to provide training or professional development to enhance the skills of those people involved with your barrier to progress.

Strategies for Overcoming Process Issues:

If you have identified you have the right people in the right roles at your school, the barriers to your progress probably lie in inefficient processes. Of the two types of challenges you can face, process issues are far easier to navigate and won’t strain the personal relationships nearly as much as people issues will, so consider yourself lucky to be in this situation! Here are three suggestions to help navigate ‘process’ issues at your school:

  1. Work to understand the history behind the processes in place and why they were put in place? Often we oversimplify a process without doing the proper research.

  2. Identify the impact of a process change on individuals within your community. Undoubtedly, there will be a ripple effect that takes place when a process is changed, and you will want to make sure you understand the levels of impact it will have on others within the school community.

  3. Think macro, and then micro when it comes to process overhaul. If you do not think about the big picture first, and instead focus on micro process changes, you will create unintended inefficiencies that will undermine your efforts to move your school forward.

These suggestions serve as a starting point as you begin to muster the strength to affect change at your school. You can do it! But make sure you first take time to understand what it is you are trying to do.

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