“We live in a time of opportunity and danger. Individuals, organizations, communities, and countries must continuously adapt to new realities to survive. Wanting more, wanting to thrive even under constantly shifting and often challenging conditions, people in all sectors are called on to lead with the courage and skill to challenge the status quo, deploy themselves with agility, and mobilize others to step into the unknown.”
- The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky, and Ronald Heifetz
Those words ring more true today than ever.
Conservation of the way we have done “school” cannot be an option any longer. I look at my own life, professional and personal, and say, “of course I want to grow and improve, just don’t make me change!” The human being is wired with a few inhibiting reactions or mechanisms when facing change or new challenges. These layered mechanisms are:
Avoidance of pain
Conservation of energy
Possibility of pleasure or benefit
It is no wonder experimenting, trying new things, or walking away from things that haven’t worked is difficult. The less personal agency—the capacity of an individual to act independently and make their own free choices—a person has, the harder it is for them to make experimenting a possibility.
Many show reluctance to move away from the status quo, which is exacerbated by the speed and rate of change we encounter. When organizations engage in frequent program and initiative abandonment, they lessen educators’ degree of agency. It becomes more and more challenging to get critical mass to see and believe in the possibility of beneficial change. As leaders, we can address these issues by understanding key components of implementing change: learning from past initiatives, addressing initiative fatigue, and utilizing support plans.
I spoke with some educators the other day about a new program/initiative they were tackling in their district. One brave soul spoke up and asked a question I’ve frequently heard when working with districts across the country. She asked, “My teachers will ask if we are going to do this new program for more than a year or two. What should I tell them?” My choice at that moment was 1) to tell them to ask their district leaders about the length of the contract and make no commitment beyond that, or 2) (the one I chose) to say, “Sure, there may be a new program in another couple of years. But, if we get super intentional about this work and create a plan to make sure we see strong, positive results for students and educators, then I can see the leadership of this district maintaining this tool for years to come.” Considering the incredible loss of instruction and learning that have resulted in the last eighteen months, we know our students don’t have two more years to wait.
1) Learning from past initiatives
We must accelerate our efforts and student learning by making sure the changes we make are detailed, decisive, and planned by each stakeholder.
We can learn from our previous implementations of past initiatives. For example, TNTP’s (formerly The New Teacher Project) mission is to end the injustice of educational inequality by providing excellent teachers to students in need. They do this by advancing policies and practices to ensure effective teaching in every classroom, offering a simple and powerful matrix to uncover the root cause of the successes and failures of prior change efforts.
A simple table (illustrated below) can help record the necessary implementation pieces.
Matrix of Prior Change Efforts
2) Addressing initiative fatigue
Initiative fatigue—the reluctance, discomfort, and “pushback” caused by a continuous introduction of new programs, ideas, and priorities on those expected to implement them with little voice in the decision—is rampant, not just in schools but in most organizations. The team I lead works with schools and districts to analyze all the efforts, programs, and initiatives required from various staff members over a school year. This could be new curricula, new student support tools, outside providers, before and after school programs/services, assessments, etc.; the lifespan of these initiatives is usually short, abandoned because the desired effects are not accomplished in a couple of years.
So, why do we keep fanning this initiative fatigue?
We need to practice two elemental disciplines when determining whether a change is necessary and can be effective. Continuous improvement still needs to be disciplined, or the cycle of adoption and abandonment will continue. The key to this discipline is actually “managing change.”
The first discipline involves conducting a root cause analysis of the dissatisfaction with the program or initiative. The second discipline is making sure we apply technical solutions to technical challenges and adaptive solutions to adaptive challenges.
Root cause analysis (RCA) can be as complex or simple as we want or need. It can also be a source of frustration when the analysis is never-ending. It’s frustrating, fatiguing, and wasteful of resources to skip identifying the root of the problem.
To use root cause analysis, ask:
What is the problem?
Why did it happen? (Not the symptoms, but the actual problem, i.e., we often treat the symptom of a cough but do not do anything about the infection causing it)
What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
There are many tools to help with this process, for example, the simple and common technique of the “5 Whys" approach or the more complex approach of using the fishbone diagram. The “5 Whys" approach is the act of asking yourself “why” five times until you get to the root cause of the problem and address it to keep the problem from recurring. The fishbone diagram identifies many possible causes of a problem and sorts ideas into categories for more effective decision-making. These approaches can take time, but so much less than applying an ineffective solution and repeating that process every couple of years.
Without root cause analysis, we often conclude that the new program, strategy, or tool is inadequate, when in fact, the cause of failure was a lack of adequate time to practice, time to apply it within the schedule, a misalignment of the population to benefit, or misalignment of standards and assessment. Another common "miss" occurs when there is a misunderstanding of the initiative's connection to the district's goals. All these possibilities ask for a different solution. One that may not require a new initiative or program but rather implementing the current initiative with better clarity and fidelity.
Once we understand the nature of the problem and its cause, we can determine whether it’s a technical or an adaptive challenge.
According to Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,
Technical challenges can be diagnosed and solved, generally within a short time frame, by applying established know-how and procedures. Technical problems are amenable to authoritative expertise and management of routine processes.
Adaptive challenges are the gaps between the values people stand for and the reality they face (their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment). These challenges usually ask people to change their ways.
3) Utilizing support plans
As leaders of change, we are called to hold people through a sustained period of disequilibrium. We can understand the needs of our staff by knowing who needs what level of support throughout the specific type of challenge. When struggle or pushback occurs, we can understand that either a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge has not been addressed. Assuming a staff member has one or the other is shortsighted and can be discovered through an open conversation.
As your district or school begins a new implementation (or is conducting a root cause analysis on an existing initiative that is not presenting the desired outcomes), staff support plans need to be developed. These are not unlike the support/intervention plans we create for students who struggle or demonstrate learning gaps. Our staff support plan (implementation plan) contains the same elements:
Clear, SMART goals are individualized based on the technical or adaptive need presented by the staff and its individuals.
Metrics for success – how we know we’re making progress and ultimately achieved the goal.
Support activities/structures that we provide for staff/educators to help them achieve the goal. This may include targeted professional development, dedicating PLC time, or other collaborative structures for analyzing data and practicing new skills. Classroom observations and other opportunities for specific feedback should be leveraged as well.
The people of an organization are the most significant investment made. They represent the largest expenditure in budgets and are relied upon to deliver most of the results we’re looking for in our organization. They are a crucial lever. School leaders are entrusted to apply this investment in the most beneficial way towards student wellness and achievement. As I always told my school staff, “Our students are my number one priority, and you come so close to that level of importance that no one on the outside would be able to tell you are not first on my mind.”
We must lead this continuous cycle of change and improvement, knowing that the human beings on the implementation side of the change need constant support. They need to know that they are part of the decisions being made and that only those fully vetted programs and initiatives will make it into their sphere.
Lead and communicate with clarity of purpose and expectations, lead decisively and with the courage to support each of your staff as they change, grow and improve. Disequilibrium with the right level of support and understanding is where growth happens.
Let us help you build the right team!
Branching Minds offers a variety of professional learning opportunities for states, districts, and schools to ensure instructional leaders, specialists, coaches, and teachers are able to implement RTI/MTSS as well as the BRM platform with fidelity and maximizes educators’ efforts to accelerate learning for all students.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard University Press.
Karen is Executive Director of Professional Learning at Branching Minds, where she leads a team of education consultants to provide guidance and support to schools and districts, as they implement Branching Minds and improve their MTSS practice. Prior to Branching Minds, Karen spent 12 years building a national professional development program for Amplify Education, a leading company in the education technology space. Prior to her work in the edtech space, Karen served as curriculum director, principal, and teacher for several school districts in the North Texas area for 23 years. Karen holds an M.Ed. from the University of North Texas and a Superintendent’s Certification from the University of Texas at Arlington.