Riding Slipstreams toward Open Systems

In any system or organization, there are numerous change initiatives happening all the time. This might be a new organizational initiative, a concerted effort in one region of a city or another wave of new programs to focus more targeted efforts.  I like to think of these as the “slipstreams” of energy occurring through an organization.  This piece is about how to use these change management processes that opportunities to open systems.  

Why Slipstreams vs Existing Structures?

One of the major challenges Openers have in working within a system (or trying to crack open from the outside) is that they are usually targeting “non-moving” components of the system: existing structures.  

Existing structures of work are reinforced by heavy bureaucratic momentum and often separate from existing change management processes (we will go deeper into change management in a future post) . These are the places where the system likely not engaging in new or robust change management work.  These existing structures, in my perspective, are the least ripe for major system opening.  It essentially involves a very different type of change management process - a completely new one just for the opening itself!  This requires the building of new and harder change management initiatives to get people to change their current projects, timelines and priorities. 

Does that mean that openers should never take on existing structures? Absolutely not.  But my experience is that building the flywheel through slipstreams will eventually build better momentum for system change than pushing the giant boulder that doesn't want to be moved.  

In my experience, these are the places where real opening is likely to crash on the rocks in your systems.  An example is the "schools office" - the place that manages all the day in and day out of school operation. In most systems or networks, this is usually this point of massive existing structural energy.  Many folks would say this would be the first place to begin the real work of opening (i.e. it's where all the kids and families are, etc.) but given the structure and system, it's likely not be the most resistant. It’s exceptionally hard to get any opening work done at scale in these existing structures because the existing budgeting cycles and operational processes are so embedded that it’s a challenge to crack it open.  I’ve watched openers try again and again to get existing structures to shift, many times to no avail.  The only exception I've seen is when a new slipstream opens that creates an opening moment and large changes are afoot.  

Slipstreams allow Openers to inject new and different ideas into the system.

Slipstreams on the other hand are areas of the system that are either in flux or coming into existence for a new purpose.  Consider the building of a new strategic plan.  This represents a new slipstream of work where multiple internal and external folks will be leaning into.  This is a place where opening work can be really powerful.  Or consider an initiative to roll-out a new communications strategy for schools, a new after-school program, a new grant to be applied for.  

I often think of slipstreams of work as places that require some set of external or internal change management or adjusted commitments that can be attached to an opening.  This allows an Opener (or hopefully, a team of Openers) to jump into the slipstream.  The opportunity to build system opening work into already existing change management processes that can create new and unique momentum for the opening project. 

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Some folks think about taking on existing structures through "pilots" - or targeted initiatives in a particular group of teams or schools. This is a perfectly normal slipstream to enter into - but be cautious and have your expectations set for the outcome.  Your opening may go great in those four schools, but then what next? Have a good pilot prognosis over the process to make sure your slipstream doesn't gain a ton of momentum before running headfirst into a wall. 

The danger in this process is attaching to late in the game or demanding too much of an opening in the process (i.e. "a new evaluation rubric for teachers? let's grade them all on home visits!").  Think about weighing the opening as proportional to the opening.  Small slipstreams, small openings. Big slipstreams, big openings are possible.  But as always, manage the pace of change.  The problem with attaching openings to slipstreams is that it potentially weighs down an already heavy change management process.  Put too too much on it and the drag means that the slipstreams slow, dries up or changes course completely.  

Some Slipstream Questions

“If we are going to revise the strategic plan, how can we embed family & community engagement into all the strategies?”

“How can we make sure this timed assessment release can be communicated to families properly?”

“How can we use this early childhood grant to increase our work with families and communities?”

“This new secondary literacy program needs to connect to parents...how about we train teachers to do home visits to support parent engagement?”

"If we are going to design this new school, let's make sure that our design team includes parents and students."

"If we want every teacher in the network to build relationships with students, how can we ensure families are looped in?"

Find and grab onto those slipstreams

So to those Openers out there - what are the slipstreams that you can jump into in your current systems upcoming or available right now?

Where can you de-prioritize changing existing structures and instead prioritize finding the new and more dynamic change management processes that you can tag onto?  

Jump into the fast moving slipstreams of work and think about how you can open the system to parents and families.