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.