The “String” Theory of Systems Management in Schools

Guest post by Dr. Doug Stilwell and Dr. Randy Peters of Drake University*

As the ancient Eastern proverb goes, a prince once saw a musician tuning his sitar (stringed instrument). When the strings were too slack, the instrument would not play. When the strings were too tight, they would snap. Only when the strings were neither too tight nor too slack would the instrument produce beautiful sounds. The prince realized that this “middle path” pertained not only to the sitar; it could also lead to a state of tuneful harmony in his own life.

Might this proverb apply to systems leadership in schools, as well? Is “tunefulness” the optimal state for a system to best achieve its desired results? How might a leader promote a “tuneful harmony” so that the system that is neither too tightly or loosely “strung?”

Dr. W. Edwards Deming once wrote that a system needed to be managed, for without management the “parts” tend to act in their own interests and “sub-optimize” the system. Anyone who takes a systems perspective with regard to educational leadership likely understands and appreciates the power of these words. In any learning organization, someone or some group must have the “big picture” in mind and work to ensure that the parts of the system—humans in a socio-cultural environment like schools—are working interdependently to achieve the system’s aim. In theory, doing so will create an interdependent reinforcing loop in which the people working in the system optimize its aims and the system, in turn benefits the people. However, Dr. Deming’s words are only the beginning of the journey to effective systems leadership/management. Effective management is not a given, even when one has the best intention of applying a systems approach. The key question that must be answered may be, “What method(s) might one employ to best reach the school’s identified aim?”

In our work as professors in Drake University’s educational leadership program, many of our graduate students communicate a strong desire to serve and be recognized as “instructional leaders.” Seemingly few, if any, wish to be recognized as effective managers, for “school management” has come to be seen as an archaic characterization of the role of principal. This is where a disconnect begins to occur, for the actions required to be an effective leader of any functional area in a school or district also require “management” in its truest sense. This disconnect becomes problematic for, based on our observations from coaching our graduates during their first years as school leaders, the most vexing challenges these individuals face fall under the realm of systems management. Management, in this context, is not simply attending to rudimentary mechanistic facets of the job, which Dr. Peter Senge refers to as “detail complexity.” Rather, the challenges of management lie in areas of “dynamic complexity” which, Dr. Senge asserts, arise from managing interrelationships between the “parts” of the system.

Perhaps the concept of a sitar’s strings being strung too tight or too loose may be synonymous with a school or district being over-managed or even under-managed; a result, perhaps, attributable to a leader’s fundamental beliefs about the capacity of people and/or a lack of knowledge and skill needed to manage complex systems. Managed too tightly or, over-managed, the system and all of its members may be pushed to the breaking point, or even “snap.” Managed too loosely, or, under-managed, lifelessness, laxity, or even chaos ensues. In either case, the outcome is similar: the system cannot achieve its desired aim.

In an overmanaged system, controls from “the top” are too tight, constraining and constricting the work of others in the system. This method of management may well be fueled by Douglas McGregor’s “Theory X” mentality in which a leader has little faith that those they lead are capable of being productive and contributing members of the organization. Even with effective management acumen, a belief rooted in “Theory X” will result in a system of intrusive over-management, resulting in a tension of the organization’s “strings,” or parts. Couple a “Theory X” mindset” with poor management skills and organizational disaster is likely already occurring or is just right around the corner.

Contrary to McGregor’s “Theory X,” his “Theory Y” espouses a belief in the capacity and desire of people to be high functioning, contributing members of the organization. Unfortunately, a “Theory Y” mindset alone is insufficient. Lacking effective management skills – those which support the ability to address dynamic complexity – “best intentions” are simply that: intentions. A theoretical course of action without the accompanying ability to bring it about offers as much pragmatic utility as does attempting to extinguish a fire using an eyedropper.

What seems to be needed in order to effectively lead complex school systems is both a “Theory Y” mindset combined with effective, results-based management skills. The “Theory Y” mindset will allow a leader to activate and build the capacity of the workforce in meaningful and even profound ways. Coupling this attitude with the ability to establish, operationalize, and monitor effective work systems, processes and procedures will yield the greatest results and gains toward achieving the organization’s aim.

Dr. Deming’s belief that systems must be managed is as appropriate today as ever. Guided by the belief that people are highly motivated and capable, and imbued with the ability to develop procedures and manage resources to, among other actions, engage and listen to the workforce, leaders will be able to more effectively “hear” when the “strings” of their organizations are becoming either too tight or too slack and then engage the workforce to respond accordingly in order to achieve a “tuneful” organization working toward and achieving the system’s aim.

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*This article was previously published in the ACSD Iowa newsletter

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