Begin with a Theory

The eminent 20th century social scientist Kurt Lewin once said: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Adaptive Change

Based on our early analysis of and conversations with the Salem Public Schools, we chose a theory that defines strategic planning as a jumpstart for an ambitious adaptive change process. Research tells us that adaptive change is very different from technical change (HBR, 2002). The latter is about solving problems by tinkering around the edges of an existing system. An adaptive change process, on the other hand, requires individuals across the organization to make significant shifts in how they do their work. We discerned a keen appetite for change in Salem—a deep desire to move to an educational system that embraces 21st century mindsets and methods to meet the complex realities of 21st century life. Thus, an adaptive approach made good sense to us. 

We felt it important to make it explicit to the superintendent and her Senior Management Team that they were, indeed, embarking on such a process. We knew there was some risk in approaching it from this vantage point because adaptive change requires a commitment to a level of uncertainty that may be unsettling to those who are accustomed to working in traditional hierarchical organizations in which there are entrenched structures, processes, and patterns of behavior. Taking our cues from the superintendent, however, we pressed forward. 

Appreciative Inquiry

We also committed to a stance of appreciative inquiry, a collective learning process that stands in contrast to traditional organizational development, in which problems are diagnosed and solved.  Research tells us that, oftentimes, this deficit-based process depletes people's energy for change and creates a negative feedback loop. Appreciative inquiry starts, instead, with the strengths of a system, and how a team can begin with what works well to inform broader change.  It is based on the assumption that every system has an underutilized set of strengths that, when revealed and tapped, provides a source of positive energy for individuals and groups.  The notion of intervention is replaced by a focus on inquiry through ongoing dialogue whose destination is the enacted hopes and dreams of a community.

key takeaways

  • Trust
    Take the time to develop relationships with people in the schools and the community. Building a foundation of trust is perhaps the most important part of the process. It will enable you to create a social space in which new kinds of conversations can happen.
  • It may feel messy
    Remind participants that the strategic planning process can feel messy, and that uncertainty is inherent in any change management process.
  • End game
    Provide clarity on the "end game" of the process and the steps needed to get there. This can help alleviate participants' anxiety.
  • Time and energy
    Do not underestimate the amount of time and energy it will take to successfully facilitate a community-engaged change process.


Appreciative Inquiry
“At its heart, AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. A fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes.
AI Commons