Managing change for impact

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At its heart, the role of any leader is all about making change happen, not just for a while but for the long term. Whether that be improving the performance of a colleague in a particular area of practice, or designing and implementing a new policy or curriculum, the key to the success of any change is that it sticks. Too often in schools someone focuses on improving an area of practice, but not for long enough or in a sufficiently systematic way to ensure a change is embedded and will have a long-term impact on pupil outcomes.

Similarly, when it comes to developing a new policy or approach, an individual can sometimes introduce the new idea without properly engaging with those who will be responsible for making it happen or really thinking through how it will be implemented in practice. Before long the idea has withered on the vine or, at best, is being inconsistently applied.

So how do you approach changing things in a way that will bring about sustainable impact for your pupils? There are many theories about how to ‘do’ change. Many originate with leadership and change management guru, John Kotter. A professor at Harvard Business School and world-renowned change expert, Kotter (1996) introduced his eight-step change process in his book, Leading Change shown below.

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Here’s how it works…

Step one: increase urgency

For change to happen, it helps if the whole team or the school really wants it. So how do you engage staff when there is a natural resistance to change? How do you develop a sense of urgency around the need for change. This may help you spark the initial motivation to get things moving.

This isn’t simply a matter of you showing staff a set of plateauing test results or scaring them about Ofsted, the demands of a new curriculum or an attendance target. It is about you instigating an open an honest and convincing dialogue about what’s happening in the educational landscape and with your context. You might decide it would be useful to identify potential problems that lie ahead if they don’t change, and develop scenarios showing what could happen in the future. However you achieve this, you need to start honest discussions and give dynamic and convincing reasons to get people talking and thinking.

Step two: build a ‘change-team’

As with any whole school change, if time permits, it’s a good idea get a small group of people to work up your ideas. Using your change-team to help develop your plans is useful in itself. But having them as a small group of advocates for the rest of the team can be very powerful, particularly if they have managed to include one or two key influencers in your group.

If you are leading across more than one school, steps one and two in Kotter’s model are particularly important if you are going to gain the traction you are likely to need.

Step three: get the vision right

When you first start thinking about change, there will probably be many great ideas and solutions floating around. They need to link these concepts to an overall vision that people can grasp easily and remember. A clear vision can help everyone understand why you’re asking them to do something. When people see for themselves what you’re trying to achieve, then the directives they’re given tend to make more sense. Consulting on the vision for a change can also be a good way for you to help generate interest in making the change.

Step four: communication for buy-in

What you and your change-team do with your plans after they have been created is crucial. Your message will probably have strong competition from other day-to-day pressures and priorities, so you need to communicate it frequently and powerfully, and embed it within everything that you do. You need to keep telling the story.

Involving pupils and parents in this stage can be a powerful way of building buy-in for an idea. It also helps the staff see the benefits for the pupils in a way they may not have quite appreciated.

It’s also important for you, as the driver of the change to ‘walk the talk’. What you actually do is often far more important – and believable – than what you say. You should demonstrate the kind of behaviour that they want from others.

Step five: enable action

If you follow these steps and reach this point in the change process, you’ve been talking about the vision and building buy-in. Hopefully, staff want to get busy and achieve the benefits that you have been promoting.

But is anyone resisting the change? And are there processes or structures that are getting in its way? There is further guidance towards the end of this chapter about how you might approach this.

It’s also important for you not to forget to identify and put in place the structure for change, and continually check for barriers to it. Removing obstacles can empower the people they need to execute the vision, and it can help the change move forward. One way to do this is to delegate to mini-teams. A great example here is on curriculum planning. Pairing up members of their team to devise a unit of work, where the pairings have been carefully thought through, can be a great way to remove obstacles to engagement in change. At a more senior level, using sub-teams to deliver on a change can be a great way of playing to strengths and keeping things manageable.

Step six: create short-term wins

Nothing motivates more than success. Look out for ways for you can give your staff a taste of victory early in the change process. Within a short time frame (this could be a month or a year, depending on the type of change); they’ll want to have results that they can see. Without this, critics and negative thinkers might damage progress. People need to quickly be thinking that the change is a good thing – they need to ‘feel the benefit’ fast.

Step seven: don’t let up

Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early. Real change runs deep. Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done to achieve long-term change. In particular, you need to tackle those that don’t appear to be on board with the change. Typically, these ‘laggards’ are the last to adopt any change. If you have spent time properly defining how the change will work at stage two and three, then these are easy conversations to have. There is nothing worse than saying to someone that they need to make a change when you know deep down it isn’t 100% the right thing to be doing.

Each success you have also provides an opportunity to build on what went right and identify what can be improved. Make sure they take time to reflect, as a team, on ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if.’

Step eight: make it stick

Finally, to make any change stick, it should become part of your culture. It should be consistently applied. A team’s culture often determines what gets done, so the values behind the vision must show in day-to-day work.

Your systems for monitoring need to place a value on the things you have changed to help embed them. The key milestones should be part of the wider team or school’s development plan. How you recognise and celebrate success, both as a school and as a team, also needs to reflect the changes you have made.

Using a checklist

Why not create a ‘change checklist’ that becomes something people use routinely in your school.  It can really improve the consistency and effectiveness of you you make change happen.  Here’s one way of doing this:

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This blog is based on an extract from my book, Leadership Matters, which can be ordered here.

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