Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership, Drake University.
Over the past couple of years, I have been informally researching the relationship between the food we eat and our health. Over the course of my learning, I have made a connection with organizational effectiveness. At first blush, this may seem like quite a leap; however, I have come to the conclusion that the same principles that lead to physical health can lead to organizational health and well-being; and that the same principles that lead to physical illness can lead to organizational sickness. After all, the term “organization” is derived from the 15th century word “organisacioun,” meaning the “structure of the body or its parts,” which translates to the “act or process of organizing, the arranging of parts in an organic whole” (https://www.etymonline.com/word/organization). Simply put, an organization is synonymous with an organism, and as such, the connection between a human biology and organizational “biology” may not be as disconnected as one might think.
While there can undoubtedly be a broader application of this concept, the aim of this paper is to focus in on uncovering another reason lasting change/improvement can be so difficult in organizations, including schools, and to offer thoughts about how Dr. Deming’s principles can be used to lead effective change/improvement initiatives.
A little “laymen’s” biology
Before we begin, a little background in biology is needed in order to highlight the similarities between how our bodies and organizations function. As I understand it, the term metabolism describes all the chemical processes that occur continuously inside the human body that keep us alive and our organs functioning normally, such as breathing, repairing cells and digesting food, all which require energy (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/metabolism-and-weight-loss/). One of those metabolic processes is the actual production of energy in our bodies, which simply means the way our bodies convert inputs (i.e. food) into energy, a process known as cellular metabolism. Simply put, the body uses a portion of the food we consume to feed the mitochondria – the powerhouse of our cells – which produce energy. The sources of this “energy” we consume can be categorized as carbohydrates, sugars, and fats.
In our society today, our eating habits are significantly influenced by the industrialized food complex. That means that a great deal of the food we eat is not “natural”; it is not something that is grown or produced in the way nature originally intended. The vast majority of what Americans eat is “processed” food, which can be at conflict with the way our bodies evolved over thousands of centuries. As a result, the food we eat in the “Standard American Diet” (SAD), can be problematic for our health. Here is an example: our ancestors hunted and foraged for survival. What they ate came from the land, including animals who fed off what nature provided. They ate no processed food, but rather only what was “natural.” The human body learned to function and thrive off of this diet and acclimated itself to it. While the human body has not substantially changed over time, the source and type of food we eat has changed dramatically.
In our Americanized Western culture, we eat a significant amount of processed carbohydrates and sugar. In fact, today we eat nearly 100 times as much processed sugar as we did 150 years ago. On the November 19, 2020 Dhru Purohit Podcast, Dr. Casey Means, Stanford-trained physician, Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder of the metabolic health company Levels, and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention, described what happens in our bodies when we consume and over-consume carbohydrates, particularly those that are commercially produced:
So, the way this sort of works is that when we eat carbohydrates, it’s converted to glucose, and our bodies have to then release a lot of insulin to get that glucose to be taken up into the cells. And over time, if we’re eating lots and lots of carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates and sugars, we’re going have our bodies release lots and lots of insulin. And over time, our cells can get numb to that insulin.
Thus begins a vicious cycle…each time we eat our overly processed carbohydrates/sugars, our blood sugar dramatically rises, causing our insulin to compensate accordingly. Over time, this bombardment of insulin can cause our cells to become what’s known as “insulin resistant.” With insulin resistance, the body’s cells don’t respond normally to insulin. Glucose can’t enter the cells easily so it builds up in the blood. Too much insulin over time causes the cells to become desensitized, which creates a cascading series of biological processes that can be detrimental to what we refer to as our “metabolic health.” In other words, according to Dr. Means, “…it becomes harder over time to get that glucose into the cells to be converted into energy so we end up getting this deficit of energy inside our cells, and you can imagine when our tissues aren’t getting the energy they need, they’re going to start falling apart.”
Organizational “Metabolic Health”
Let’s apply that same biological concept to organizational “metabolic health,” specifically as it pertains to educational change/improvement. Recently, in an unscientific poll, I asked a group of 31 educators how many change initiatives they had been involved in over the course of their careers. Of the 31 teachers polled, 73% of whom had less than 10 years of experience, a total of 280 “change initiatives” had been experienced over the course of their careers. They further responded that, based on their perceptions, of those 280 initiatives, on average, only 33% had any long-term impact. In short, 188 of the 280 change initiatives failed to make a difference in the long run.
Having been an educational leader for 28 years, I have often heard the term “initiative fatigue,” meaning educators tire of initiative after initiative coming their direction, with little to show for it. I believe this is analogous to the concept of “insulin resistance” in our bodies, which is the result of our cells being bombarded by insulin as a result of too much sugar in our systems coming from processed carbohydrates and sugars in our diet. In the same way, our schools, or organizations in general, can become “change resistant,” by being constantly bombarded by the next “latest and greatest” answers to all of our problems. Responding to pressures from the system, well-intended school leaders may look to these new programs/products/services in hopes of addressing ever-growing concerns about student learning, fears which are exacerbated by federal and state mandates that will punish schools for not meeting certain performance standards. As a result, schools can begin to consume the equivalent of “junk food” initiatives, and each time the newest initiative fails to work, or even before the new initiative is given a chance to work, another one is soon on its way. Consequently, educators develop psychological “change resistance,” much the same way cells in our bodies become insulin resistant when they are flooded by insulin. In the short and long term, this does not produce improved results over time and is not healthy for our schools and for those who work and learn in them.
Problems resulting from too much change, even well-intended change, is endemic in education. Richard Elmore supported this notion when he said, “The pathology of American schools is that they know how to change. They know how to change promiscuously and at the drop of a hat. What schools do not know how to do is to improve, to engage in sustained and continuous progress toward a performance goal over time (DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker, 2008, p. 89).
During my educational leadership career, before I came into contact with Dr. Deming’s work, I too fell victim to the “flavor of the month” improvement mentality; a phenomena I refer to as the “Landry Principle.” I recall that, early in my tenure as a principal, I believed wholeheartedly that there must be a single causation that was responsible for the challenges some students experienced as they struggled to learn to read; something I arrogantly assumed every educator before me had somehow missed or overlooked. Similar to Captain Ahab and his search for the great white whale, I had a problem in search of one and only one answer. As a result, I took our staff on several half-baked journeys with me believing each time that this was “the one.” Of course, I was wrong; for as Dr. Deming tells us, there is no such thing as “instant pudding.”
So, what might we do to address the problem of “change resistance” or “initiative fatigue?” Perhaps we can learn from our own biology. Simply put, in the same way our bodies can address insulin resistance by eating less junk, less processed carbohydrates and sugars, and more natural food, so too can we address “change resistance” by understanding how organizations thrive as a whole; consuming less “junk initiatives” and focusing our efforts on long-term improvement efforts grounded in Dr. Deming’s work.
To begin, as leaders, are we committed to a constancy of purpose (Point #1 of Dr. Deming’s 14 points for managers)? Knowing that research tells us significant change requires 5-7 years, are leaders ready to commit to an approach for that period of time? If the answer is “no,” we needn’t go any further, and we will continue down the “rabbit hole” of meaningless change initiatives that not only fail to produce improved results, but also yield poor “organizational metabolic health” that can cause a school to start falling apart. However, if the answer is “yes,” we can consider principles to guide our thinking about which initiatives to choose. Here are a few to get started:
- Have we taken time to identify the root cause of that which we are trying to improve? As an example, poor test scores are a symptom of a deeper issue and not the problem itself.
- Does the approach take a systems perspective? Does it connect different parts of the system and activate them to work in an interdependent manner?
- Does the approach consider the psychological impact of change on people, and does it address how people might be motivated to take on the challenge of a sustained change effort?
- Is the approach based on a confirmable theory that can be tested through a systematic approach such as the Plan Do Study Act improvement/learning cycle?
- Will the improvement process result in ongoing learning both at the individual and organizational levels?
- Is the approach driven by the needs of our customers, and does it actively involve the workforce in the process?
- Will our methods work to drive out fear? and
- Is it sustainable over time?
If the answer to the majority of the questions above is “yes,” then I think there is clear justification for moving forward. If the answer is “no,” then push hard on the brakes. What we don’t need is highly stressed individuals in organizations who have, or will become, averse to change because of the steady diet of “junk initiatives,” regardless of how well-intended they are.
There is much we can learn about schools and organizations in general if we look beyond our own realms and to other areas, such as biology and nutrition in this case. Expanding our horizons may open our eyes to make new connections that can be additive to our understanding of how organizations and schools function most effectively. There are likely universal organizing principles or core assumptions that can apply across multiple domains. In this case, understanding how our own bodies respond to “junk food” and the havoc it creates can shed light onto how to best “feed” our organizations based on principles revealed through the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming.
DuFour, R. DuFour, R. and Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Solution Tree
How Can I Speed up My Metabolism? (October 26, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/metabolism-and-weight-loss/
Organization. In Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/organization
Purohit, D. (Host). (2020, November 19). How out of control blood sugar can cause belly fat, brain fog, and chronic disease (No. 170) [Audio podcast]. In Dhru Purohit Podcast. https://dhrupurohit.com/how-out-of-control-blood-sugar-can-cause-belly-fat-brain-fog-and-chronic-disease/#ql-video