Competing Commitments


It has been a consistent narrative in higher education and K-12 education conferences for the past ten to fifteen years: “we need to become more agile, more innovative, more digital, adopt a growth mindset, and focus more on the user…” I have attended a fair number of conferences during this time period, and I think that all of them have featured speakers and workshop leaders who repeat either this exact mantra or something quite close to it. The Covid era has served as an accelerant on the fire.

The fact is, however, that organizational culture is really hard to change, whether in higher education or K-12 education. It’s not as simple as saying, “It’s that lever over there: pull it, and change will happen.” What does happen too often is that the chasm between aspiration and reality becomes wider. Schools and universities tend to be brilliant at traditional structures, meaning that what we see often is a reliance on changes that are more structural and formal. Think: re-arranging the org chart. That exercise, which we’ve all seen and/or participated in, doesn’t really address the chasm. It further calcifies it. Why? Because that’s what we’ve always done. Herminia Ibarra (London Business School) asks us to consider instead how we might identify and then eliminate (or modify drastically) what she calls iconic practices, those practices that are informed by and regurgitate our historical cultural values, but whose continued existence tends to send mixed messages about our aspirations for change. Such practices help schools and universities to achieve mission-critical tasks, of course, but over time (when not studied and adapted), they can easily serve a more symbolic function, showing that whoever attends those meetings (for example) are the ‘chosen ones’ in the school. They are the power-holders, as an attuned anthropologist or cultural ethnographer could demonstrate easily. To the mere mortal (i.e. the instructor), iconic practices are a profound demonstration of boundaries: who’s in, and who’s out. 

When it comes to change, irrespective of whether it’s the aforementioned agile-innovative-digital variety or something entirely different, it is the persistence of non-evolving iconic practices that create and/or deepen competing commitments in a school’s culture. Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, who is behind the phrase ‘competing commitments,’ says that such commitments are akin to maintaining one foot on the brake while the other hits the accelerator. Consider how that manifests itself in schools and universities: we want to be more agile or innovative, but we can’t jeopardize enrollment numbers. We want to empower professors, lecturers, and teachers to be more creative and autonomous, but we can’t leave a prescriptive curriculum. And so on.

If we really want to solve important problems, leaders (anyone to whom that descriptor applies, not just the president or head of school but it certainly includes her/him) need to align what they are saying (“agile, innovative” etc.) with how the school or university actually works. We need to come to grips with our competing commitments in order to recognize when our hardened iconic practices are actually holding us back. It is easy to decide what (new thing) to implement…the hard bit is summoning and exercising the courage to eliminate hindrances. Too often, what is in evidence is that a school or university implements something over top of the hindrances without ever dealing with (let alone eliminating) them. And then we wind ourselves up into complaining again about how “we need to become more agile, more innovative, more digital, adopt a growth mindset….” You know the story.

Let’s change that.