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A reflection on leading and managing a complex Participatory Action Research curriculum project

Autumn photograph of Grant Hall at Fort Leaven...
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1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to examine my current leadership skills. I will describe and reflect upon a recent curriculum project that I was in charge of at the US Army command and Gen. staff College. I will use a lens of the Bolman and Deal four Frameworks to evaluate my leadership skills in each frame and look for opportunities to extend my skill set in each (Bolman and Deal, 2008). Since my project is continuing  into a second year, I will use this paper to prioritize and guide my professional development.

2. Description of the Situation

The U.S. Army Command and General  Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas is the centerpiece of the Army leadership development focusing on field grade level, organizational leaders. The year-long course is divided into approximately equal thirds. The first third is the core curriculum received by all Army majors and focuses on critical and creative thinking, leadership, history, change management and basic organizational level doctrine. The middle third, known as the Advanced Operations Course (AOC), is focused on 1500 resident officers whose career path will take them back into tactical field units in leadership positions. The final third is an elective period where students can meet their own particular educational needs based on interest and follow-on assignments.

This past year ,the middle third of the course underwent an extensive redesign and reengineering process which represents the largest single change to the curriculum since its current form was originally implemented five years ago. I was responsible for approximately 1/3 of the redesign program which focused on the addition of new material concerning the largest educational gap in the Army as identified by senior Army leaders, field unit commanders, faculty and students. I received a set of ambitious and broad design principles from the college’s senior leaders and assembled a team of students, faculty, curriculum designers, and recruited experts from Army proponent organizations in order to create a teachable block of instruction that addressed the identified gaps

3. Desired outcome for the situation:

We defined two dimensions for our endstate: organizational outcomes for the college, and curriculum outcomes to address the educational gap.  Our participatory action research design team, consisting of curriculum developers, faculty and students identified the top six desired organizational outcomes, as follows:

  1. Produce a quality staff recommendation for AOC force generation  curriculum and an elective for “spillover” material
  2. Produce an  interdepartmental “application- level “curriculum fully integrated through the AOC Working Group process
  3. Employ an inquiry- based research process that models the principles of group-learning in real time, which can serve as an example for other inquiries in important topics
  4. Establish an infrastructure that supports student learning while in attendance, and after graduation as a reachback
  5. Create a knowledge base that focuses on support of our student and faculty population, and which synthesizes quality research & knowledge from Army staff and support organizations
  6. Document the staff process that will support our ongoing accreditation and scholarship standards

Our desired student curriculum outcomes were:

  1. Students applied the Army process map to build ready forces
  2. Students are aware of concepts, challenges, and best practices
  3. Students and faculty contribute to the growing body of professional knowledge
  4. Students use a team oriented approach
  5. College provides a reach back capability for graduates to stay current
  6. Curriculum establishes linkage to lessons  in the Core  and Parallels
  7. Create opportunities in electives for deeper inquiry

4.  The Bolman and Deal Four Frameworks summary: Bolman and Deal created a four framework approach to leadership situations, which enable change agents to systematically view multiple approaches to an issue. Here is a summary of the four frames and a characterization of  leaders  (Clark, 2004)

a. Structural frame: emphasizes creativity and seeks to establish clear goals and roles and coordinated activity established by authority policies and rules. The structural leader is a social architect whose leadership style is analysis and design.

b. Human resource frame: focuses on the needs and motives of individuals who live and work in social systems, and considers opportunities for participation and shared decision-making as a way to enlist commitment and involvement. The human resource leader is a catalyst and servant who looks to support advocate and empower.

c. Political frame: based on negotiated collaborative political structures aiming to find trade-offs for scarce resources, and emphasizes conflict resolution and balancing interests. Political leaders are advocates who seek coalition building and the distribution and balancing of power and interests.

d. Symbolic frame: focuses on culture, meaning, believes in faith by examining and supporting since making through symbols, metaphors, stories and other narratives. The symbolic leader is a prophet who seeks to inspire through multimedia communication and visioning.

5. Skills used:

a. Structural frame: bureaucratic structure and existing policy were important parts of my leadership strategy as I sought to leverage existing infrastructure. For changes to remain permanent and meaningful, it was clear to me that our design group had to create  infrastructure changes. In many cases this involves a carryover into the political frame as we considered how to build coalitions to gain approval for our structural changes. As much as possible we tried to make our recommendations fit within the existing formats of college policy in order to ensure we did not jeopardize our accreditation, which is an important value for the college.

b. Human resource frame: from the beginning of the program design sessions, I made sure that we kept our discussions centered on students and their educational needs and outcomes by emphasizing the concept of  student Voice. After the first meeting, it was clear that we also needed to incorporate faculty Voice in order to accommodate a variety of educational methods which in existing policy was difficult because of the needs for a standardized curriculum for accreditation. This proved to be a very difficult set of values to sustain throughout the design process because the natural tendencies of developers and faculty were to revert to traditional methods with which they were comfortable. Having students as members of the design and development teams, however, ensured that this remained visible throughout the process.

c. Political frame: this turned out to be a crucial component of the entire process. Because of initial successes with our wiki and blog, and the early incorporation of Army-staff level action officers, we got a lot more senior leadership attention than I expected. This made the project a high-stakes payoff and it quickly became an area where competing values emerged as teaching departments lobbied for time and resources to reflect their goals. At the same time, when we used a political process to negotiate the structure and content of the curriculum, there were many faculty who considered it business as usual. My opinion was that only a political process would allow us to integrate the multiple perspectives. I could have chosen to have our directorate’s position dominate the proceedings but it was clear to me that an integrated curriculum was necessary for the students. This was a position that students also shared, which helped me carry the day.

d. Symbolic frame: throughout the project I tried to emphasize the importance of the top down and bottom’s up gap analysis which pointed to this set of curriculum topics as being of central importance to the Army. By connecting the purpose to the bottom’s up and top-down vision to establish its relevance and create the energy to see us through the change. I created top-level vision diagrams in order to highlight in a visual way the broad outlines of the program and used very visible blog postings to maintain progress reports for the population at large. The senior leader in the college, the Deputy Commandant, was an important source of symbolic strength as he had committed fully to our vision and endstate.

6. Skills that could have been used:

a. Structural frame: I could have emphasized more interim written reports to lock-in procedures and SOP changes during the year-long program, instead of waiting for the conclusion to make permanent infrastructure changes. I wasn’t aggressive enough in incorporating administrative managers from the higher headquarters in our process in order to enlist them in our change program. I should have offloaded more technical work to others in order to maintain my focus on the creative and guidance processes. I could have used more faculty from different departments in building the interdepartmental curriculum .

b. Human resource frame: I should have committed more group resources to the faculty development program once we had completed the design and production of the new curriculum. I expected that the lesson plans could stand on their own and being trained in the usual way, and I was surprised at the amount of pushback. I should not have been surprised, however, knowing my peers, and more resources in this area would’ve been helpful. I could have used more student and faculty Voice in telling the story of our change program, instead of using my own personal blog and wiki reports; this would have placed the ownership for our program more in the hands of students and faculty and less in our group. I could have spent more resources on providing timely feedback to students and faculty based on their design inputs, as I’m not sure I did enough in that area to satisfy them. I could have emphasized more of the value of flexibility in our central design; we had a lot compared to our traditional methods, but I don’t think I emphasized enough what we had achieved. I should have put more effort into rubrics and examples from different faculty members of the design team in order to demonstrate our commitment to flexibility in the classroom.

c. Political frame: because I enjoy the political dimension of this program, I was too willing to frame this as individual or group winning and losing compared to the status quo; I should have put more focus on strategy and tactics and cooperative solution finding than in winning and losing. I should have planned for more interim rewards for cooperative and supportive behavior both for members of my team and from among the faculty that voluntarily supported the effort. I should have spent more energy on changing the mindset of the “warring state” to one of the cooperative tribe with respect to integrating departmental issues; the “warring states” is the default orientation of most interdepartmental programs for proposed change. I should have created a central interdepartmental design team in the form of an alliance to maintain momentum across the college. I could have spent more energy incorporating team members from other military colleges above and below us in the hierarchy in order to create a continuous wave of change.

d. Symbolic frame: I could have used more of our inside group-produced artifacts in the lesson plans themselves in order to improve the acceptance of the new lesson plans. I could have made better use of our wiki and blog sites to support collaborative design and collaborative teaching in the classroom. I should have used more strategic communications avenues and media to bring students on board with the program for change before we went into execution. I could have used more partnership programs with field units to demonstrate the relevance of our material to the students follow on assignments.

7. Lessons learned: I found this reflective exercise to be very useful in generating insights for me. Here are my ten most important takeaways.

a. In an interdepartmental, complex process it’s important to publish everything with transparency and trust everybody.

b. It’s not enough to ask for feedback from customers or in this case students and faculty, it’s important to engage in multi-loop dialogue and demonstrate a willingness to adapt to their requirements.

c. Tell the story at every opportunity to everyone that you can find, because the accumulation of small strategic communications events all add up to strategic success in the long run.

d. Leave no stone unturned in enlisting support even if you don’t think you need it or you think you have more than enough. There will come a time of surprise when you need every extra resource and it will be too late then to try to find them.

e. Reinforce the main effort in every action, even if it is only a supporting or shaping effort. Because resources are limited, everything must support the endstate.

f. Aggressively look for connections between departments, teams, resources, opportunities; in a network environment you never know where the next connection will come from that can make the difference between success and failure.

g. The moments of positive emotion and inspiration must be followed and supported by long periods of preparation and perspiration.

h. Question the boundaries that seemed reasonable early in the design, because you may find that your initial efforts have changed the game.

i. Reinforce the essential partnerships between key stakeholders in order to define success as group success.

j. Be open to unexpected opportunities to achieve unplanned successes. This is an extension of the idea of looking for connections. Sometimes the moment will show you unexpected treasures if you’re open to picking them up and making them yours.


Bolman, L., & Deal, T. (2008).Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Clark, D. R. (2004), Bolman and Deal’s Four Framework Approach.  Retrieved March 7, 2010

from http://nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/ahold/isd.html

Representative Army capstone documents defining the requirements for new concepts in leadership.

TRADOC, (2009). A leader development strategy for a 21st century Army.

TRADOC Pam 525-5-500. (2008).  Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design.

Army Regulation 6-22 (2008): Army Leadership

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