Implement THAT! (Part 5) – …like Driving at Night

While having an implementation plan is important, and planning for rapid results builds the necessary confidence toward our desired outcome, the execution of the plan needs to be ongoing and allow for adjustments at every turn.  Too often, as leaders, we try to race ahead too quickly; as people are just getting comfortable and confident with the first steps of implementation we proclaim that steps 2 and 3 are long overdue.

The analogy that I’ve heard, used, and have seen work for others when it comes to the pacing of any implementation effort is that it’s a lot like driving at night.

When I get in my vehicle and decide to drive somewhere I have my destination in mind; I know where I want to go (our desired outcome) but I typically (day or night) can’t actually see my destination.  Driving around with no desired destination might take us back to our childhood and the ritual of the “Sunday Drive”, however, when it comes to getting somewhere or getting something done you have to know where you are going.

When you drive at night, despite knowing exactly where you want to go and what route you want to take (your plan) your headlights will only shine about 100-150 feet in front of your vehicle.  As the driver, the only thing within your immediate influence is the next 100 feet.  When you drive that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge in front of you.  Even if you have a long drive ahead of you (even if you have a 3-5 year plan) the only way you will reach your desired destination is through a series of mini 100 foot journeys.

While it is true that every so often you’ll hear a road report or see flashing lights ahead that will provide you with ample time to adjust your route, avoid any delays, and get you back on track, what’s more likely is that issues will only become apparent once they come within the 100-150 foot range of your headlights (which is why your plan was written with a short pencil) which means you have adjust on the fly.

When we become impatient we try to rush the natural evolution of a new paradigm and push too hard which will more likely lead to others’ frustration.  The difference between where we are and where we want to be can be vast and leaders are well served if they are mindful that the journey is as important as the destination, especially when it comes to long-term sustainability. After all, if we are at ‘A’, we can’t get to ‘D’ without passing through ‘B’ and ‘C’ first.

Whether it comes to using social media for ongoing professional learning, project-based learning, standards-based grading, no letter grades, authentic assessment, or any other new practice, there is a process that is unavoidable; no matter how fast or slow you drive you will still have to physically pass through each little town before you arrive in the big city!

When you focus on the next 100 feet you’ll know what to do, how to support, and what challenges are in your immediate view that need to be addressed. Once you go that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge and you’ll once again know exactly what your team needs, what you need to do, and what challenges need to be overcome in order reach your ultimate destination.

Implement THAT! (Part 4) – Plan for Rapid Results

With the implementation of anything, getting off to a “good start” is essential.  While we know it takes time for most implementation efforts to go to scale and become the new routine, having some early success can be a major factor in determining whether you (or your team) stick with the new practice. It’s no different from a new fitness routine. We want to experience some results quickly to determine whether our going to the gym and changing our eating habits is going to lead to our eventual desired result.

In her book Confidence, Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies the need for people to be successful before they believe they can be successful.  While that might sound counterintuitive, she writes that true confidence is more than just a mindset:

Positive expectations by leaders make people want to rise to the occasion, but people need proof that there is some reality to the expectations. Pep talks without convincing content are devoid of credibility. People see right through them. “Irrational exuberance” based on nothing but fantasy and hype don’t last long. That’s why winning – or its close approximation – is often necessary before people believe they can win. (pg. 40)

Winning in our case is more about the eventual acceptance of a new paradigm or routine within our schools or classrooms.  The confidence to successfully implement anything is what Kanter calls grounded optimism – optimism that is based in some evidence of success.

Planning for rapid results is most helpful when you’re working with people who are capable of implementing the new idea but not necessarily willing; they are reluctant to make major changes since it is likely that they have had success with the previous paradigm. Planning for rapid results is made easier when it is guided by the following question:

What is the least I can do to bring about the greatest effect?

By focusing on the little things that make a big impact, those reluctant to change will be permitted to make a minimal effort while experiencing a much larger effect on their day-to-day work.

I can recall working in a school a number of years ago that was very purposeful about improving the school climate and the quality of the adult-student relationships (as well as student-student). We had spent an entire professional development day working on our plan.  We had developed both short- and long-term goals, however, we knew we wanted to see some immediate changes so we focused on the question of rapid results.  As it was a Friday, we asked ourselves, “What can we do on Monday that might have an immediate impact on our school’s culture?”

What we came up with was an agreement that all teachers would be in their classrooms (lights on and doors open) at least 10 minutes before the start of the day to greet students as they arrived (some teachers were already doing this). As well, the school administration would greet students as they entered the school (we were already doing that, but not consistently) and counselors would “check-in” with their “top 10.”  Ten minutes…that’s all that was required.  The results for our school were dramatic.  Within a week we noticed a significant shift in the “tone” of our school.

For those that weren’t sure that we should be devoting that much energy to “school climate”, the rapid results of our efforts convinced them that our efforts were worth it. After all, if big results came from little effort, imagine what big effort would yield.

It is absolutely not rocket science. While rapid results are definitely not enough to sustain a major shift, they do provide a glimpse as to what is possible with any purposeful effort.  Sometimes people need proof that the change is going to produce an improved situation, and while some people use the desire for perfect proof as an excuse for inactivity, it is fair that people see how the change might eventually makes things better before they commit themselves.

To paraphrase the Kanter quote above, having some success is often a precursor to the belief that one can be successful.

Implement THAT! (Part 3) – Plan with a ‘Short Pencil’

Every implementation effort needs a plan.  Without a plan we are left to meander our way through any implementation without any sense of our desired outcome, actions, purpose, or process. However, there is such a thing as  over planning by being too prescriptive and/or trying to look too far into the future. We don’t really know what our needs will be in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years; none of us can predict the future. The future is really an illusion constructed from our past experience, our current context, the latest research trends, as well as our bias for where we’d like to see education go. Having a plan matters, but from my experience, the most effective implementation plans are the ones written with a ‘short pencil.’

We need to plan in pencil because we must have the ability to adjust our plans as we go.  We might find that we are exceeding our expectations in terms of timelines, acceptance, and successes with the new idea, practice, or process we are implementing.  However, we might also find that our initial plan was inaccurate; that what we thought was going to happen and how we thought it might unfold was slightly flawed or just dead-wrong. Planning in pencil allows us the chance to ‘quickly’ erase-and-adjust as the implementation plan unfolds. Planning in pen makes the adjustments either too messy or too much work.

The pencil should be short in order to avoid planning too much or too far into the future. Having a long-term detailed plan looks visionary and might satisfy some of the political pressures (small ‘p’) leaders face, however, most of us know that the size of our plans is inversely proportional to the success of the implementation. A short pencil forces us to be efficient with our words and to plan more for our immediate actions. A short pencil will allow you to identify your vision or desired outcome (after all, your plan will need a title) but the details, the specific actions, and the monitoring should focus more on the immediate and short-term future.

Once our vision or desired outcomes have been identified, planning with a short pencil will focus our attention more on what is within our immediate influence and will make any adjustments, additions, deletions, or re-routing far easier. Yes, you need to know where you are going, however, successful implementation comes when the plan focuses more on immediate actions and results.

Implement THAT! (Part 2) – Adapt for Context

Context (or contextualization) sits opposite fidelity on the implementation ledger. On the one hand, as PART 1 pointed out, it is important to stick to what the research points to as best practice. However, we also know that each of our contexts – our students, classrooms, schools, districts – need to be considered when implementing anything.

Contextualizing means making sure the best practice is the best fit.  While research points us in the right direction and under which conditions we can best predict similar (or same) outcomes, we have to mindful of the nuances that make our “culture” what it is.  However, contextualizing a best practice has its limits.  After all, if you contextualize too much – personalize too much – what you implement may actually not represent what the research revealed in the first place (i.e. fidelity).  Contextualizing is about adjusting or tweaking without making wholesale changes.

Our contexts are unique: Each of our students is an individual; each of our schools, districts, and communities have nuances that make them what they are.  Each of our staffs have a certain “political” environment (positive or negative) that permeates the relationships and subsequent actions of everyone connected to the organization.  The implementation of every new idea has to be set against the backdrop of personalities, personal preference, school climate, relationships, levels of experience, etc. Implementing new ideas is not just about a clinical application; the art is knowing who, why, how, and when to implement the what.

Our contexts aren’t that unique: Students, teachers, administrators, and districts are more similar than different; sometimes context is over-thought. While adjusting for context is important, we  don’t want to adjust-for-the-sake-of-adjusting just to be different (and maybe to show how much smarter we are than our “rival” school!!).  Context can also be a crutch – a way of excusing inactivity based more in a lack of willingness as opposed to thoughtful hesitation. While there are a cluster of challenges  (i.e. politics, status quo, rigidity, lack of experience) that we all face when trying to bring about change, it is rare that an organization will face such a contextual challenge that it requires an overhaul of the practices the research says will work. Absolutely adjust and adapt for context…but only to a point

That said, fit matters as much as fidelity. Sticking as close to the research as possible while making the necessary adjustments to maximize the rate of success is ideal. Being overly “faithful” to the research is too rigid and not thoughtful; adjusting too much for context has the potential to render the practice as unrecognizable.  Doing both will allow evidence-based practices to fit the context with precision and accuracy.

Implement THAT! (Part 1) – Implement with High Fidelity

There are several reasons why good ideas fail – even award-winning ideas – in their implementation in some schools or districts.  This represents part 1 of several posts about implementation plans and why some are successful and why some are not.

 

For me, the first key to implementing anything is to implement with high fidelity.  That is, if you are going to take on the challenge of implementing a new routine, program, process, or practice, rule #1 is to implement what it is you said you were going to implement.

Like any relationship, implementation fidelity matters.  Fidelity from an implementation perspective means we stay “loyal” to what the research has taught us would work.  This is particularly important if you are leading the implementation plan (whether alone or with a team).  Fidelity is about staying true to the fundamentals of the new routine, practice, process, or system we’re hoping to put in place.  Fidelity is more likely when we ensure that we (and our team, staff, district, etc.) have the fluency and capacity to do what it is we are hoping we’ll do.

Fluency means we are “fluent” with the core content or knowledge of the new idea. It means I understand the language and terminology of the new idea; that I have a good sense of what the new routine  is supposed to look like even if I haven’t completely mastered it.  Fluency is about KNOWING what I need to know in order to do what I intend to do. Fluency is not enough since we are all aware of the knowing-doing gap.

Capacity is a little different.  Once I know I now have to believe that I can…that I have the capacity to execute the plan, practice, etc. Fluency is a precursor, however, it doesn’t guarantee that I have – or feel I have – the capacity to move ahead. I might know what it’s supposed to look like and I might be able to tell you (fluency) but I might not believe I’m capable.  This is why I have come to believe (and subsequently wrote) that leaders should “Lead for Confidence”

A lack of fluency requires more learning; a lack of capacity requires coaching and modeling.  Either one on its own is incomplete. Both, however, ensure that we implement with high fidelity; that we stay “faithful” to the research or fundamentals of any new idea.

Nothing FAILS like SUCCESS…

…when our success is based upon a false assumption, an atypical application, or a restricted context.

Now, we all understand the opposite thought; that nothing SUCCEEDS like SUCCESS in terms of proving that something works, that it’s effective, or is the right course of action. Experiencing success with any practice or routine can be very compelling and the thought of continued effective and efficient results quite alluring. However, the true source of our success must be examined before we can exalt the virtues of whatever it is we’ve chosen to do.

Here’s what I know: Having the stomach flu can result in rapid weight-loss, but that doesn’t make having the stomach flu a best practice when it comes to slimming down. While this is an over-simplified example I think it illustrates two things. First, even though the result of losing weight is positive, the means is not justified by the end.  Second, the results are obviously due to atypical circumstances and will be short-lived once the conditions change or revert back to normal.  Admittedly, most other situations are not that simple and/or easy to recognize, but the point is to know why success is happening.

Sometimes having limited success is worse than no success at all as limited success can lead to an unwillingness to reflect, adjust, redesign, or go in another direction. Afterall, what I’m trying is working, but I don’t have enough experience with it to have perspective on the level of success being realized. Sometimes my limited success has nothing to do with the new practice or routine and has everything to do with the particular group or the particular environment in which the success is occurring.

Let’s face it – there are a few students who are motivated by low grades, do respond positively to punitive discipline practices, prefer a lecture-style lesson delivery, and/or will not need a second-chance to perform at their best. There are, of course, no absolutes in any situation and there are always exceptions to the rule.

On the other hand, while these exception-to-the-rule students do exist, basing our decisions about what works and doesn’t work on these exceptions can lead to us to implementing – even promoting and/or defending – practices that are not universally applicable and are not supported with any empirically sound research.  What works in a senior physics class, for example, can produce different results in a 9th grade science class – and that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the younger students.  It means that the success was based upon a restricted context; an atypical class composition of students who chose physics versus a general science class that all students are expected to take.

The point is this: when experiencing success with any new practice, routine, idea, or program be as sure as possible that the success is grounded in the fundamentals of what you are implementing and that it is not the result of some other condition or circumstance.  Nothing fails like success when our success is based upon a half-truth or an atypical situation.  Being aware of these conditions helps us know the source of our success and allows us to have a greater perspective on what we are seeing.

Nothing succeeds like success when you are confident that your success has wide applicability and is empirically sound.  Results do matter, but how those results were realized might matter more.

We are “The System”

Throughout my career I have been privy to a number of conversations, debates, and discussions amongst educators on various educational initiatives and approaches.  During these discussions I have heard people refer to “The System” or “The District” in ways such as, “The System needs to change” or “The District ought to do something about that!”  It’s as though “The System” is some separate entity that we are distant from. What we need to realize is that WE ARE THE SYSTEM and if something needs changing or something needs to be done, WE need to be first-in-line to act.

Now some of the changes that you deem necessary will be within your circle of influence.  As such, you will likely be able to make these changes rather quickly in order for you to grow and become the kind of professional that you want to become.  In other situations we see that changes are needed but we don’t hold a position that puts us inside that particular circle of influence.  For example, you might identify something within the district that needs to change from a practice or policy perspective, however, not having a position at Central Office may lead you to believe that there is nothing you can do or that your opinion doesn’t matter.  For me, this is far too passive and emphasizes position rather than influence. Leadership is about influence, not title, and anyone can make that happen and everything is within our circle of concern.  Stephen Covey once wrote:

I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer.  It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.”

If we don’t hold a position of authority or a potential change is outside our circle of responsibility then we need to bring the message to those that do and make it loud and clear what it is we believe is necessary for our organization to grow.

While doing so, it is also important to bring that message of change to those who need to hear it in a way that is respectfully grounded in ideas that are sound and supported.  Using sensational language, putting people on the defensive, or attacking people personally (rather than focusing on ideas) will only serve to create more challenges and roadblocks along the way.

You are the system, you can make a difference, and you could be the reason why your classroom, school, district, or even province/state changes forever. Don’t sit back and wait for others to do what you know needs to happen. The time is now and the person is YOU!