Theory, Theory Everywhere and Not a Drop of Use!

I offer my apologies for massacring an old saying, but for many years I have encountered lots of change theory, often applied poorly.

However, since 2003, I have used Michael Fullan’s theory with excellent results in my consulting practice. It is, perhaps, unfamiliar to you. Here, I would like to share why and how I use it in practice.

The core of Fullan’s change theory

At the heart of Fullan’s change theory lay five practices. I described three of these in my January post — relationship building, knowledge creation, and sharing and making coherence.

The remaining two practices are defining a moral purpose for the change proposed, and correctly understanding the change process or journey you will take.

Using Fullan’s theory in practice

As an interim manager in South Lakeland, I worked to rebuild a shattered youth work team. They were damaged by the loss of longstanding leaders, budget pressures, internal self-doubts, and diminished self-confidence, brought about by an ongoing and poorly understood change process.

My starting point with the team was to re-define their moral purpose by emphasizing that we were there to serve young people, underpinned by providing quality youth work. I underlined my commitment to and belief in that moral purpose by engaging hands-on in direct work with young people. This surprised most, if not all, of the team. They initially thought of me as a manager, not a worker.

I wanted them to see that, though the change process thus far had been painful, they had not lost their skills, knowledge, or expertise in working with young people, nor had I any lack of confidence in their ability to do it very well. From that early engagement, they stopped questioning our moral purpose, and it became our touchstone whenever other issues arose in the rebuilding process, like limited staffing or resources.

Using Fullan’s theory to understand change

Likewise, correctly understanding change is also essential. I took time with the team, especially in the first few weeks of my tenure, to identify where we were, why and how we arrived there, where we needed to be, and how, collectively, we might do that. The strategic direction of our organisation determined much of where we needed to be, but I took that macro perspective and demonstrated how it applied in both the "here and now" and for the future for my local team.

To do that required clarity, focus, and repetition, utilizing the proverbial "broken record" approach and taking care to explain and translate the big picture into the locality view.

Why that approach worked so successfully

From direct feedback from my team, what did the trick was my willingness to engage every team member fully in how we moved towards the overall change objectives. That took some regular, consistent interaction and a degree of modeling on my part. Throughout those weeks, I built my relationships with team members. We worked together to create and share knowledge, both of our current and future situations. All the while, I worked hard to make coherent a better, clearer picture of the future.

Within a few weeks, the team dynamics had significantly improved, such that we picked up momentum towards the organisation’s change objectives from the stagnation when I first arrived as interim manager.

Why you need to be emotionally intelligent to use this model

To make this model work successfully, you need enthusiasm to radiate energy and rekindle hope in the hearts and minds of the team. All interactions, ideas, plans, and activities need encompassing by those three elements. Most of all, that approach will reignite their faith in themselves, each other, and those whom they serve. It works wonderfully well!

What might be the deal breaker

To close, I need to share the most eloquent part of Fullan’s approach — but it may be a deal breaker for some. Fullan’s model offers no perfect outcome to a proposed change, because life is just not like that. So in all of my interactions, that was my promise — more good things will happen, less bad things will happen! However, they also knew that they might need to put up with some ideas and just adapt.

How do you like the model?