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.

The Sitar Management Matrix

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*This article was previously published in the ACSD Iowa newsletter

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27 Responses

  1. Mitchell Schank says:

    A big part of the management is to manage the system not the people. When people feel too managed (micromanaged), they tend to look for other ways to find control. This leads to a theory X idea, where the strings are too tight and will eventually snap. When you manage the system correctly, you find the best ways to use all components of it.

  2. Lindsay Garvin says:

    I appreciate the analogy to make this concept more concrete. I definitely aspire to be an effective “instructional leader” and understand the complexity of making sure everything is in “tune” in the organization. I’ve learned a lot about system’s thinking through the work of both Deming and Senge, and have found many opportunities to apply it in my organization.

  3. Andrew Mayes says:

    Is it possible to the find the perfect style of management and still have the accountability of staff within a system?

  4. Emily Barnett says:

    I enjoyed reading this article! The section about leaders wanting to be known as instructional leaders is something I can relate to. I feel like this seems to be a huge push in the district I am in. Recently the VP position and SIL position were redefined in order to become more instructional based. I never have really thought of what my management style would be. I enjoyed the string instrument analogy.

  5. Kevin atterberg says:

    I believe using the analogy of stringing the instrument is a great way to visually understand a leaders position in his or her building. Knowing that you are putting to much stress (over tighten) really does make your staff to wound up and the relationship in the building will falter. This is for all relationship in the building: leader:teacher, teacher:teacher and teacher:student. When the leadership is too relaxed the same situation occurs with the relationships, however this mainly due to unclear expectations. Walking the fine line of management/leadership is the ultimate goal. Getting to this perspective of a finely tuned instrument is a process that requires reflection and vulnerability in the leaders management style.

  6. Ethan Lensch says:

    The tight and loose analogy is a good way of expressing what it takes to be a successful leader. It reminds me of the DeFours use of loose-tight, allowing autonomy and creativity within a systematic framework that has clear parameters and priorities. Also, labels can make things more difficult than intended. System manager and instructional leader can be one in the same, not on separate sides of the educational leader spectrum. Being a great instructional leader can be established by making sure that there is a system in place allowing educators to obtain materials/practices and knowledge needed to raise efficacy. There may be things pulling the string tight on teachers, but they are balanced out by believing teachers are capable and have the support in place to be successful.
    As long as the goal is to be creating and keeping a learning organization(Senge), you have the principals/practices in place to measure the impact and act on what stings are getting too loose or tight.

  7. Cassie Kendzora says:

    I too appreciated the analogy of the sitar to comprehend how the belief in the capacity in the desire of people to be high functioning and contributing members (Theory Y) alone is not sufficient in leaders. To extend the music analogy further, if all the players in the organization are not “in tune” to each other or their aim, the aim is not accomplished and I believer that is where strong leadership/ management lies. I further appreciated in the “Sitar Management Matrix” that “tunefulness” included an “empowered and engaged staff committed to the aim”. As referenced in the article, Deming speaks to the leader, or leadership group, must have the big picture in mind and ensure that the parts of the system are working interdependently to achieve the aim. Much like a conductor, the leader must manage the players or parts to see their role in achieving the aim and dynamically remove the barriers or manage the obstacles that may result in our organizations getting out of tune.

  8. Brandon Schellhorn says:

    Using sitar strings as the analogy of balance gives a common mental picture of what is too tight and too loose. Lee Jenkins writes about having flexibility within an agreed upon structure. When the leader establishes the structures while allowing parts to have flexibility, the leader becomes more of a facilitator. Flexibility allows the parts to have creativity, empowerment, and learning through both successes and failures. This management approach allows an organization to be in the “truthfulness” occurs area of the Sitar Matrix. This method may be applied to leaders managing buildings and teachers managing classrooms.

  9. Darcy Spellman says:

    The analogy of the sitar definitely represents the thoughts of successful systems thinking. To think about systems thinking, we want to think of education as a whole. All pieces are interconnected to the goal that education is supposed to be a learning organization. The sitar can represent this. If the strings are too tight then the goal to make music is not achieved. If the strings are too loose then the goal to make music is not achieved. By being in the middle of tight and loose strings, the sitar can play. To create a successful learning organization that is based on systems thinking, there needs to be structure and flexibility just as the strings are tightened to the middle ground on the sitar.

  10. Chantel Karns says:

    I also like the analogy of sitar strings. If we are instructional leaders and do not tend to all of the parts of the system, the system will fall apart in various ways. Leaders must develop a balance between being educational leaders and management. It is a good reminder that we need to work “on” the system as well as “in” the system.

  11. Kyle Luttenegger says:

    The sitar string analogy employed here made me immediately think of a Greek play I used to teach. In Antigone, Haemon uses a similar analogy when speaking with his tyrannical father, Creon. Haemon says, “In flood time you can see how some trees bend, And because they bend, even their twigs are safe, While stubborn trees are torn up, roots and all.” Just like the Haemon’s tree or the sitar string, overmanagement can push members of a system to snap. For many leaders avoiding tyrannical rule might seem obvious and easy but, as our good friend Dr. Deming tells us, a system still must be managed. When you say “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” I am drawn to Lee Jenkins. His list of questions in From Systems Thinking to Systemic Action provide a path for leaders to bring their theory of action to life. Such questions and, more importantly, the subsequent answers and actions can help develop the “tunefulness” you promote in this blog.

  12. Cassie Smith says:

    I appreciated the analogy of the sitar and the connection between the loose and tight strings really helped to make the connection to that of leaders in education. After just completing the Management course, I have a newfound appreciation for the amount of work dedicated to getting all parts of the system working toward the same aim or goals. I had some inkling of the managerial components of an educational leader, but it really helped to see all of the moving parts and the amount of work it takes to ensure all of the moving parts are moving in the same direction. As you mentioned above, we start the Ed Leadership program with the mindset that leaders are thought of as ‘instructional leaders’, which they are, but that is only one facet of the role a leader plays. It is important to know the managerial portion of the role and work to find the ‘tunefulness’ needed to keep the system in a building and district aligned with the goals and aims.

  13. Emily Barnett says:

    When I read the sitar analogy all I could think of was how education has worked in the past. The “aim” was defined to teach kids but the methods to be used weren’t clear. Teachers were allowed a lot of freedom. This freedom led to teachers using low quality activities which didn’t require much from students. Now the method or the sitar strings got pulled tighter. Teachers are supposed to be using a schools for rigor model to teaching. For some teachers the expectations got adjusted slightly while for other teachers the the expectations were almost non existent and now they are really tight. The current reality of freedom might affect how you should manage your staff with big changes.

    • Doug S says:

      Emily, yes, we can learn a great deal about leading staff from our current situation. I agree that in the past the “aim” of our educational systems has been focused on teaching. However, it seems that learning is the aim and effective pedagogy is the methods.

  14. Nick Quinlan says:

    So how do new school leaders find the Goldilocks method of leadership, not to tight, not too loose, just right? Or do school leaders ever find that method? I believe school leaders strive for the perfect fit but then end up having to adapt and change based on their district, community, students, staff, and themselves. The strive, the want, the journey, the continuing to improve is what make school leaders great. Finding the equilibrium within the system they are operating are great first steps on the leadership journey.

    • Doug S. says:

      Nick, I do not think there is a particular “end all-be all” method to accomplish the right balance. That said, I do believe there is a method that can help us to get closer and closer to our desired state: PDSA.

  15. Brittanee Chelleen says:

    Being a visual person, I really appreciate the Sitar Management Matrix. My immediate thought was around the evidence implying the loose or tight strings. So, when I scrolled down to look at the matrix the evidence was in there. However, I do wonder how would a principal leader-manager deal with some “strings being too loose” and some “strings being too tight”. Is this something that happens often or is it usually one sided?

    • Doug S. says:

      Brittanee, I do not know if there is a single best answer for your question. That said, we might begin by understanding if what we experience is happening to the entire system (common cause variation) or to isolated parts (special cause variation). Once we understand what sort of variation is at work, we can begin to address the concern, either by working to improve the entire system or addressing individual “disturbances.”

  16. Charlie Hiemer says:

    Being a stringed instrument player myself, your analagy really hit home. Tuning is such a thoughtful process that every musician is required to take before every use of their instrument and should be for any profession. In reflection of my own professional tuning I think of the network of people I lean on when making decisions in my position. Most do not have the same background as me so it is good to gather various perspectives in an effort to get decisions as in tune as possible. The more people I involve, the more we swing frome one end of the spectrum to the other but we always land closer to the middle than the time before.

    • Doug S. says:

      Charlie, yes seeking feedback from others can help inform our work and aid us in making the best decisions possible at any one time. What is implied in this work is that it is important for leaders to “listen” to what is happening in the systems they lead. This will happen initially in the “plan” phase of PDSA.

  17. Charissa Stanley says:

    Reflecting on myself as a future administrator, the analogy of the sitar and connection between loose and tight strings resignated with me. I have been trying to identify if I myself am a Therory X or Theory Y mindset and how to make sure when I become an administrator I can find that just right balance.

    • Doug S. says:

      Charissa, reflecting on and understanding your leadership/management disposition is important. One question to consider: How do you function with your students? It is likely that this may be the same way in which you function with the staff you will lead.

  18. Charissa Stanley says:

    Reflecting on myself as a future administrator, the analogy of the sitar and connection between loose and tight strings resignated with me. I have been trying to identify if I myself am a Therory X or Theory Y mindset and how to make sure when I become an administrator I can find that just right balance.

  19. Kari Ross says:

    As a future school leader, this article and the sitar analogy was perfect for understanding the balance between leadership and management. As stated, an effective leader must both be an instructional leader and manager of the organization. Leaders must be aware of all the parts of the system in order for them to be interconnected and work toward the aim of the system.

    • Doug S. says:

      Kari, yes, principals must be effective leaders and managers. Dr. Deming tells us that the most important things to manage in a system are the interrelationships that exist between the parts.

  20. Morgan Schoneberg says:

    This article provides an accurate representation of the management systems found within schools. The balance needed by management to fulfill the organization goal as well as keep staff motivated is difficult to accomplish.
    It is interesting to acknowledge that leaders want to be known as “instructional leaders” rather than managers when management is an integral part of the job. The balance of both is needed to be successful as a leader.
    I’ve experienced leadership that is too tight in some areas and too loose in others. This imbalance still lacks results. The analogy of the strings on a sitar is important to recall in all areas of leadership.

    • Doug S. says:

      Morgan, agreed that there needs to be a balance when approaching school leadership and management. An imbalance, as you have indicated, does not produce results…at least not desired results.

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