Right Now Is The Slowest Things Will Ever Be

[Note: this post originally appeared in December’s The Monthly Recharge, the newsletter of Leadership+Design. The theme for that issue was “The most important thing for _____ to learn is ____, because ____.”]

Not long ago, I got a phone call from a principal whose school had begun to redesign its academic vision.

"Everything seemed great after the first few workshops," he said, "but when it came time to create an initial draft, people started to get weird."

"Weird?" I asked.

"Weird as in... skittish. We spent a whole meeting talking about the difference between a mission and a vision, and whether to include this word versus that word. It was just a first draft, but they seemed nervous to put pen to paper."

That same day, in a different city, in a different state, another school leader emailed me about a slow boil among certain faculty regarding the school's ongoing shift to student-centered pedagogies.

"Some folks are digging in their heels about project-based learning. The lunchroom has become toxic," that school leader told me. "I'm worried that they're killing the enthusiasm of some of our new hires."

In a third discussion, two leaders from yet another school told me, "We've been doing a curriculum review for three years now. Three years! But somehow talking about the fact that different departments grade differently has set off a civil war.”

I have heard the echoes of these anecdotes in countless additional conversations at four conferences during November and the start of December. Just one month!

This is why I believe that the most important thing for school leaders to learn is how to facilitate change, because this moment in time is the slowest things will ever be.

My baptism into facilitating change happened when I became Head of School at Malvern Prep in 2012. Before long we had begun to design the school's first-ever HR system. Beyond challenges with documentation, onboarding, and benefits, we uncovered issues with talent development and culture.

One day, the HR consultant said off-handedly, "Well, you know, it's all part of change management."

"Change management?"

I had literally never heard the phrase.

The HR consultant looked at me for a long second, then said, "Christian... you have some work to do."

According to Google's Ngram Viewer, over the last century the frequency of the word "innovation" has increased 600% in books. The Harvard Business Review currently shows 18,511 results for "innovation." One could argue that every issue of Independent School Magazine going back to at least 2014 has focused on various innovation needs. And the 2019 NAIS Annual Conference theme is "Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, and Designing Our Future."

On the whole, I view this preoccupation as a good thing. After all, as my friend Carla Silver likes to say, the three most conservative industries are insurance, pizza, and... education.

But innovation without change facilitation will create collateral damage. So school leaders (especially Boards of Trustees) bear a responsibility to devote time, energy, and resources to the question.

Fortunately there is a growing body of literature on the art and science of leading change. You can't go wrong by starting with John Kotter, the godfather of change management theory. And I especially value Julie Wilson's recent essay "3 Change Management Strategies to Lead Transformation," which addresses the peculiarities of school cultures.

At Basecamp, we are prototyping a framework to help school leaders to facilitate change, starting with these questions:

  1. Who constitutes our "guiding coalition" for change? (H/T John Kotter for that phrase)

  2. What is our school's timeless mission? What is our school's timely vision? What culture will best bring that vision to life?

  3. Where is everyone's energy?

  4. What kind of culture are we working with right now?

  5. What mental models for change will we place strategic bet(s) on? (H/T Annie Duke for this notion of "placing bets")

  6. What will we monitor and measure to discern whether the right kind of change is happening?

Change Strategy.png

These are not one-and-done questions; a "guiding coalition" needs to discuss them regularly. That said, feel free to play with—even modify—this framework to clarify your thinking and to create team alignment.

And remember that it is never too late to start. Maybe the best time to practice facilitating change was twenty years ago, but the second best time is today.


Happy New Year!

Also, Happy 6th Day of Kwanzaa, which celebrates Kuumba, or “Creativity.” According to Wikipedia, this translates as: “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”


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Christian Talbot