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Leading In Challenging Times

The current pace of change has become exponential and shows little sign of change.  The amount of statute, guidance and changes to policy and practice has never been greater.  Each weekend another initiative is released, usually via the Sunday press, and this frenetic way of working is often mirrored in schools.  Leading a school and leading in a school, at a senior or middle leader level, in these challenging times is demanding.  It has moments of both great joy and great stress, sometimes all within the blink of an eye.

Photo Credit: fabbriciuse via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: fabbriciuse via Compfight cc

I am currently part of a team of facilitators, for the Fylde Coast Teaching School Alliance, who are working with staff on the National Professional Qualification for School Leaders.  Our new module is Leading Change for Improvement is a great one for all leaders and so I thought I would share some of the insights and ways of working we are seeking to develop.

Practice Trumps Theory

Michael Fullan & Alan Boyle talk about how practice should lead theory in implementing change.  There is so much theory about leading change that it can become overwhelming.  They suggest the key is actually working on a problem, with other staff, pulling in the relevant research and theory required, to help enhance your own learning and in term make you a better leader.  It seems a sensible and pragmatic approach to leadership.

Fullan & Boyle (2013) Reflections on the Change Leadership Landscape, NCTL

Fullan & Boyle (2013) Reflections on the Change Leadership Landscape, NCTL

Their model has six components which when fully implemented provide a useful model and process for successful change.  There is nothing like successful change to enable more successful change and improved provision and outcomes for young people.

Fullan and Boyle (2013) Reflections on the Change Leadership Landscape, NCTL

Fullan and Boyle (2013) Reflections on the Change Leadership Landscape, NCTL

Less Is More

I’ve always been someone who likes new ideas and is happiest in the chaos of change.  However, at times I have rather overdone this and it’s important to remember that other people much prefer stability.  One of the benefits of me getting older is I am beginning to slow down, it’s a natural process.  For example, I always go to every St. Mary’s Staff Do, politely leaving at or before 11:00 p.m. partly so the young ones may enjoy themselves and partly because it’s well past my bedtime!

Photo Credit: Grandma & Grandpa T via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Grandma & Grandpa T via Compfight cc

The challenge of leading, in a time when and place where there are so many multiple demands being made on schools and their staff, is ensuring that only the few and most critically important initiatives and changes are brought in at any one time.  These should almost invariably relate to teaching & learning, keep the main thing the main thing.

Acknowledgement: Teacher Development Agency

Acknowledgement: Teacher Development Agency

One way of focussing the mind, on the number of simultaneous priorities you are engaged with a as leader or a school, is using the “Brown Paper Planning” technique.  This starts with a huge piece of brown paper onto which you place a timeline and your potential initiatives or developments, in what the TDA called work streams.  These two intersect to produce the swim lanes.

Now is the time to think about the organisation’s capacity.  Can all these different work streams be completed in the given timescale.  I needed to give this far more thought.  As with many leaders too many initiatives, stretch capacity and leaving the leader exposed and unable to fully implement or instituitionalise the development so that it actually sticks.  If there are too many developments than they must be prioritised – it is reduce the number or extend the timescale.  You are looking for deep, long term improvement not another poorly implemented initiative.

Acknowledgement: Teacher Development Agency

Acknowledgement: Teacher Development Agency

The next stage is to use sticky notes to create a series of key mile stones (the orange diamond shaped notes) before adding a series of activities (the rectangular sticky notes) with each work stream having its own colour.  I can imagine some people I know being in sticky note heaven at the sheer thought of this.  Each activity has a timescale but also remember it needs to have an owner – who will be responsible for doing each activity?

Keep Feeding It

In the same way we need nourishment, of the right sort, to keep us functioning so do new policies and initiatives if they are going to be embedded within the organisation.  Don’t forget to build in the required professional development, greater frequency at the beginning, but regularly returning to the development to deepen and extend people’s knowledge and understanding but also to make improvements and tweaks to the policy, system or procedure as the organisation determines what works best.

People Get on Board at Different Times

Rogers (2003) Innovators & Laggards

Rogers (2003) Innovators & Laggards

One of the keys to successful change is getting the critical mass on board.  The group that tilt the change from a good idea that never quite gets going to an increasingly consistently applied and embedded change is the Early Majority.  These pragmatists are thoughtful and careful about the changes they adopt but once convinced add momentum to the implementation of the change.  The late adopters are quite content to go with the flow once they have been won over.  The laggards are last on board and only once the change has really become main stream.

It is important not to see any of these groups as “good or bad” but rather a continuum of people who all have a part to play in the change process.  Maybe the art of change leadership is engaging with the right group at the right time in the change process.  In the early stages of change the innovators, who love new ideas and act as change agents, alongside the Early Adopters, who will try out new ideas, are important for the initial momentum and getting the idea off the ground.  Nurture them at the start but then think about whether the benefits exist to convince the early majority before a chasm in implementation appears within the staff.

I’m looking forward to facilitating the course and hope there’s something here of value to you.  I can’t wait to get going with the brown paper and different coloured sticky notes.



5 thoughts on “Leading In Challenging Times

  1. Yet again, sat here feeling refreshed at the challenge that faces me. I have just been appointed to a dept head post and am trying to consider how I juggle the massive remit I have now with more. Your post (like the last one) refreshes the spirit as it gives clarity of approach and more importantly, a “you are not alone” feeling. Thank you again.

    As a school with serious weaknesses, we are having to consider every action against a back drop of is it too much or too little. Perhaps we could look again at this and change the focus to be similar to your swim lanes.

    PLEASE KEEP BLOGGING. Would also love to hear you speak if you are part of an alliance/ speaker rounds.

    Posted by Glynpotts | March 18, 2014, 8:12 pm
    • Dear Glyn

      You’re not alone, we’re all in this together. Raising attainment and increasing children’s life chances is a system thing.

      Well done on the new job and congratulations. Hope it goes well.

      I’m probably speaking at Research Ed in York in early May. If you’re there please say hello.



      Posted by ExecutiveHT | March 18, 2014, 10:22 pm
  2. Do you mind if I give hand-outs of this at our NPQSL Stephen? I think that the ‘practice trumping theory’ point is both helpful and supportive to middle/senior leaders getting ready to plan for implementation of change. I’m trying to build time into the sessions to let my group read accessible and practical ideas and research and to encourage them to find time to look for the great ideas and generosity of sharing that does exist in blogs and twitter land-still many are not aware-the time spent saves time in the long term! Thank you again for sharing your leadership ideas and thoughts. David

    Posted by david jones | March 26, 2014, 11:04 am



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