It is late Wednesday night on the eve of the day that "Trumpcare" is scheduled to come to a vote in the House of Representatives. News coverage has focused on the arm-twisting and (not so) veiled threats of Representatives being "cut loose" in 2020 if they don't toe the line. In the middle of all of this, is Donald Trump. Although he is pushing for a compromise deal, his aids have made it clear that he doesn't really understand, or care about the details. As far as he is concerned, as long as something "new" is passed to replace the ACA, then he has done his job. He leaves the pesky details (cost, logistics, how many people will lose coverage, etc.) to the grassroots in Congress to work out.
Heads sometimes make this same mistake. They get on board and highly promote a new initiative being pushed forward by a staff member without taking enough care to look at how the plan would roll out, what it would actually cost, and its impact on other programmes and services. When the change process is driven by a slavish commitment to the new and trendy, schools can often end up resembling a graveyard of highly touted, but ineffectively implemented, shiny new programmes. It is the Head's job to prevent this from happening, to articulate and defend the school's vision of the future, and to ensure that every change takes the school community deliberately down a collectively supported path.
Most schools are characterized by lighthouses of innovation. One teacher emerges with a new and innovative approach to teaching and learning and her or his ideas ripple out from their classroom, slowly dissipating and losing energy the farther down the hall they travel. These lighthouse programmes are great for marketing, but they don't represent disciplined change. Typically, this level of change is not transferable or sustainable and only lasts as long as the teacher driving it is at the school. In actual fact, in this way schools are quite different from business and industry. You see, we don't expect change to come from the bottom, no matter how we admire individually innovative teachers, change in schools is not a "grassroots" movement. We need to have it "imposed" from the top. Over the years, I have led reviews of most of the major independent schools in Canada. The ones that really sparkled, not from a few shiny baubles of programmes and facilities, but from the existence of a dynamic culture of teaching and learning, were a reflection of a driving vision from the leadership of the school. While reflecting on this process, I happened to read an exchange between authors Bill Eggers and Chip Heath about the topic of organizational change as part of a discussion moderated by Deloitte Research. Now they were talking primarily about government, but I think that we can see the implications for schools. They described the change process as a contest between the rational and the emotional. The rational mind sees the need for change but the emotional side is fearful and wants to keep things as they are. They compared this contest as the equivalent of a human (rational) riding on the back of the emotional (elephant). It wasn't impossible to change the pachyderm's direction, but it wasn't easy either. School culture is a bit like an elephant. Teachers, parents, and often even students are generally resistant to change. School leaders have a choice, they can let the elephant wander where it wants or they can try to direct its course.
Leadership in high performing organizations did not improve or innovate in a vacuum. The first step for a Head is to inspire the members of the school community to something beyond what they currently think is possible. The key is having a dream that everyone can embrace and aspire to. After that, change becomes inevitable. This dream, or vision, or whatever you want to call it, is the critical first step to getting the elephant on the same path as you. No matter how much you plan, or cleverly present, or articulate the changes you want to make, unless your school shares the dream with you, the road ahead will be difficult and often lonely.
Exciting change starts with an inspirational dream. As Andy Hargreaves once quipped: "Martin Luther King didn't stand up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and say to the crowd - 'I have a Strategic Plan'!"
Currently, in Washington, we see a government without a cohesive dream or vision of the future. It is obsessed with retail politics - looking at targeted changes that will appeal to a certain group of electors at the ballot box - but lacking in a coherent path to move the country forward. Schools often do the same, implementing narrowly focused programmes in one division and something completely different somewhere else. There is a short-term impression of innovation and action, but ultimately the pieces don't fit together and the whole thing falls apart.
School Heads can avoid this trap. You need to build a culture for change first, then begin to move slowly forward. Share the dream, plan together, innovate. Don't get too far ahead of your school - that is the discipline of change. Remember - "new" is not always "better"!
Next post we will begin to consider the greatest "Trump Trap" of all. The danger of undisciplined communications.