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.