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Leading Change? Start by Talking About What You Value

Leading Change? Start by Talking About What You Value

School Districts  |  Leadership

As any great leader pursuing innovation in education knows, having a clear “why” for pursuing the “what” of change is critical to success. But equally important, often less emphasized, and incredibly hard is the “how” of making and managing that change in a classroom, school, or system. 

At The Learning Accelerator (TLA), a national nonprofit that learns alongside educators and system leaders at the forefront of blended and personalized learning, we’re often asked about common change management pathways and learnings about how to do it well. Our team has compiled a series of illustrative case studies of district stories and practices, but we wanted to learn more to help answer these questions. We conducted a deep study with 100 leaders from 60 systems across the country to understand how they are making decisions about how to lead innovation work in their communities. Through interviews and a national survey, we asked them to tell us about the most important decisions they had to make when taking innovations to scale. We published results in both a white paper, Look Both Ways, and series of strategy modules on our Blended and Personalized Learning At Work site.

What did we find? Unsurprisingly, there is no one “right” approach for implementing and scaling new innovative approaches. However, we discovered that leadership teams grappled with a very consistent set of questions as they led their work, regardless of context. Associated with each question was a critical management tension or dilemma they had to work through to facilitate change. These seven key tensions are outlined below.

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Common leadership question

Tension to navigate

How do we decide what the district should hold tight vs. loose?

Locus of control: How centralized or decentralized should our implementation be?

How fast should we be moving from pilot to scale? How can we achieve sustainability?

Pace: Should we go “fast and furious” vs. “slow and steady”?

How do we decide where to pilot and how to allocate resources to schools?

Resource allocation: Do we prioritize schools and classrooms with the most need for change or those most ready?

How should we develop our talent and resource pipeline?

Cultivating capacity: Do we build internally or “buy” through external programs, consultants, and partnerships?

How flexible should our district strategy be over time?

Flexibility: Should we choose a fixed strategy that provides consistency or adapt quickly with experience?

How might we offer schools "models" for adoption? In a comprehensive or more modular manner?

Model type: Do we offer schools a common, “prix fixe” model or do we let schools and classrooms choose design components and supports on a more flexible, “a la carte” basis?

How might practitioners best learn from one another? What should we be cataloging and sharing throughout the district to support scale?

Sharing learnings: As we tell our stories and spread ideas, do we share best practices or focus on learnings from process and strategy failures?

Digging into these design tensions makes it clear that they present leaders with tricky dilemmas because there isn’t one right answer. At the extreme ends of each tension, there is significant value to be had. For example, as teams make decisions about how centralized or decentralized to be in their approach, they are often facing a tradeoff between prioritizing consistency of approach and supports and the desire to give site-level educators more ability to customize, thereby increasing ownership and buy-in. There are real, substantial benefits at both ends of the spectrum and at many levels. For those interested in going deeper here to understand the benefits of each as well as discovering sample strategies systems used to enact them, we explore each deeply in the publication and online.

What this means is that the questions about “how” to implement change are similar across the board, but the choices are not. Given the diversity of schools, practitioners, contexts, and students, leaders choose different strategies depending on the specific problems of practice their schools are trying to solve, taking into account existing practices, resources, and tools already available, and the needs and interests of their local community and culture. Leaders must make values-based choices to maximize the benefits they want, often trying to find a strategy that exists in the “happy middle.” 

But why does this matter? When we probed deeply with leaders on what went well versus didn’t, we found that teams often make decisions about change strategy very implicitly and, sometimes, automatically. In doing so, they fall back on existing ways of working and can fail to consider the potential benefits in choosing other approaches. Implicit decisions can also decrease the transparency of the process, leading to stakeholder confusion – where colleagues, teachers, students, and families who are left in the dark question the “why” behind how changes get rolled out and implemented. 

An easy place to begin, then, is to openly and directly explore ways to make the decisions about how to lead change more explicitly. By purposely looking at and having conversations about the values of competing approaches, leaders can design an implementation strategy that is not only more rigorous but also more deeply considers the interests of all members of their community. 

As a leader, are you looking for ways to create a sustainable innovative environment in your school or district, where teams are invested in exploring new strategies for success on an ongoing basis? Check out our guide to Creating a Culture of Innovation.

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Having these conversations explicitly can also surface differences in perception. I was recently talking to a team at a training in Texas where a system IT leader said, “We’re just moving so fast all the time. How can we slow down and take more time to make decisions?” Her colleague chimed in, “Really? I thought we were moving slowly!” By working through differences in the way they perceived their current approach and talking about how they might make changes, the team was able to restart their conversations about future work on more solid ground.

So, where to start? 

  • First, assess and find a baseline. A great way to get teams on the same page and to explore community needs is to start by assessing where you think you are on each dimension and compare perceptions and aspirations. We use the simple tool below, asking teams to individually rate where they believe they are and where they think they should be, and then we come together for an open conversation. Where are you aligned? Where are there gaps and mismatches? Why? 
    Leading Change? Start by Talking About What You Value Blog Image
  • Second, explore the benefits that exist on each side of the tension as well as sample strategies other districts have enacted. Talk openly about the benefits you hope to maximize. What do you want to prioritize and why? Make some choices together.
  • Third, communicate as openly as possible. As you talk with others about the changes you plan to implement, be as transparent as possible about the values you’re aiming for. (Need help with your communications planning? Check out this free guide from TLA and Ed Elements.)
  • Finally, reflect as you go. Come back to these values during team check-ins and ensure you’re where you want to be as well as still aligned on where you want to go.

Resources to get you started include our Look Both Ways white paper and online modules focused on each design tension. Both offer a deep look into benefits for teachers and school and district leaders. In the white paper, we deeply explore the data about where different systems lie on the spectrums of decision-making and surface patterns based on district characteristics. Our online modules offer interactive versions of strategies enacted by some of the leaders, including samples and artifacts for implementation. Finally, we’ve pulled together a presentation of these learnings in a workshop format you can share with your team. Let us know what you think at info@learningaccelerator.org or @LearningAccel.

I’ll close with one more research nugget. As leaders in classrooms, schools, and systems, we recognize the importance of sharing openly and vulnerably the bumps and struggles along the pathway of change. And we want to hear this from others. As one district leader explained in an interview, “Sure, I’d like to hear about new innovative models, but I also want the really specific stuff. I want the nuts and bolts (not just the end result). I want the inside story.” But we also face pressure to show that our work is succeeding. The data we gathered put this dilemma into stark relief. Despite our desires, the systems we studied reported being much more likely to pass along what they consider to be “best practices” (53%) over sharing their challenges, failures and the processes they have undertaken (only 12%). If we want to learn faster together, we’ve got to figure out ways to prioritize and surface our stories of learning as much as our stories of success. I hope you’ll join TLA in doing so.

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About Beth Rabbitt - Guest Author

Beth Rabbitt is CEO of The Learning Accelerator. An expert in blended and personalized learning, Beth brings deep experience in education entrepreneurship, talent development, consulting, and finance. She is based in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two young daughters. As a parent, she is inspired daily and urgently to make schooling better meet the needs of every child, everywhere.

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