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The Implementation Gap

Regardless of your profession the outcome is reliant on how well you execute. All the planning, professional learning, strategy and ingenuity in the world will make no difference if you are unable execute with fidelity. When the rubber hits the road it’s the implementation gap that’s hinders progress.

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When the rubber hits the road it’s the fidelity of the implementation that makes the difference.

We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine why some of our initiatives are not making the gains they are intended to and why some are driving forward exceeding expectations. We analyse, hypothesis, review and try to identify the specific strategies that have been successful. Why is it that this one worked and this one was not as successful? In my opinion we sometimes over-complicate our analysis and need to look at one simple but vital question, how well did we implement? Why is it that the plan we formulate is not always the plan that is implemented? You see ideas are easy, execution is more complex.

We know that successful outcomes can be found when they are underpinned by research. Given the global contentedness we have available today there are not many professions that are not awash with research. In short we are generally able to analyse data, draw conclusions, consider a strategy and find some research to back up our plan. For the most part we have access to high quality professional learning, in most instances we are afforded time to participate in professional learning, partake in collaborative discussion and design a plan of action that we believe best meets the needs of the context within which we work. What then happens in many cases is that we return to our individual environments and begin to implement the plan. Now in many cases we have observations, walk throughs, instructional rounds and opportunities to observe and discus how well we execute; however what happens when no-one is watching. What happens when it gets hard and you’re tired and it’s not going to plan? For many of us we revert back to what we know. I often think about going to the gym. I know how to do the exercises. I’ve had a personal trainer show me how to use the equipment. I know what ‘good form’ looks like when I have to execute an exercise movement or a routine, but when I get tired and no-one is watching the first things that goes out the window is my ability to do the exercises precisely as they are intended, my elbows come out, my legs don’t fully extend, I move a little slower. In other words I take short cuts. Strategies and initiatives do not fail on their own. It’s our disciplined attention to implementation that is the most consistent impediment to success.

The main issue for us to overcome with the implementation of any initiative or strategy is the change in behaviour of those tasked with its implementation. Medical research is littered with countless reports of people not following advice provided for treatment of medical issues. How many of us have started a course of antibiotics only to forget to take the last two or three tablets because we felt better. The World Health Organisation reports that 50% of scripts prescribed for treatment of illnesses are not taken correctly and 40% of patients do not adhere to their treatment regimes. Changing behaviour is difficult even when faced with the prospect of your own health. With this in mind it can be increasingly difficult to change behaviour when implementing new skills and knowledge in a profession.

Overcoming behavioural changes will be critical. There are a few strategies that you can implement that can assist. Firstly you need to have a series of short term wins and you need these quickly. It’s no surprise that immediate positive reinforcement of the desired changes to behaviour are more likely to embed the behavioural changes you are seeking. Its basic psychology. This is where side by side and shoulder to shoulder support is so important. To have your peers working alongside you in your context, guiding, supporting and encouraging allows you to trial the new strategy with the confidence that you have a safety net. If it’s not working as intended you have someone there with you to adapt, refocus and try again. Without this safety net it’s easy to think this won’t work and revert back to previous techniques. Having someone there to assist you and share in your successes is a key factor in successful implementation. Creating conditions that allow for this close level of collaboration will be a vital structure when supporting fidelity of implementation.

Another one of the difficulties with implementation is that the landscape is constantly changing and we need to be agile enough to adapt. When we plan we are planning for a static environment, however as soon as we interact the environment changes and we are faced with new elements that we may not have considered. How then do we overcome this? I believe that this is best supported by process. Disciplined attention to detail and sound processes to guide our implementation allow us to review, realign and re-engage. Whatever your process, framework or guidelines are they need to be clearly understood by all members of the team. These are the guiding principles that will assist with fidelity of implementation. How many times have you heard a sportsperson say that when the chips were down they knew that if they stuck to their processes they could overcome any obstacle. It’s the same when we implement, if we have sound, well thought out processes to guide us then there is less of a chance that we miss the mark on implementation. Alignment of processes across disciplines allows our whole context to understand that this is the expectation for how way we work around here.

Implementation is best supported when being implemented in the right conditions. An environment that supports ongoing improvement, trust, collaboration and accountability supports consistency of implementation. I’ve written previously on the power of culture. Understanding our purpose, creating the customs, beliefs, values and attitudes that focus on continuous improvement should be the foundation. Feedback loops and sound processes that support the culture you are establishing are critically important. Never underestimate the power of an underlying culture that may be resistant to change. Find the early adopters cultivate their skills, support their implementation and celebrate their success. Establishing the right culture is fundamental to fidelity of implementation.

Effective and consistent implementation is complex and multi-directional being impacted from a range of influences. The gap between theory and practice will never be closed through careful planning alone. It’s the on the ground, shoulder to shoulder support and collaborative practice that will make the difference. To change practice we must change behaviour and to do so we must change mindsets, change skill sets and provide processes that support implementation. This is complex work that requires disciplined attention over an extended period of time. When thinking about how you implement initiatives consider whether your implementation has changed practices, routines and structures in a concrete way on the ground and how you know? What concrete evidence do you have that it has had any impact and that it is being implemented consistently? These a key questions that will assist you with reviewing the way you implement within your context. Remember when the rubber hits the road it’s the fidelity of the implementation that makes the difference.

The Power of Face to Face

The world has changed. We’ve gone through an enormous shift in how we communicate. We’ve undoubtedly become accustomed to and comfortable with communicating via text messaging, social media and emails. This has been a mainstay for many years now. What has shifted, due to circumstance, is the rise and competency of using technology across platforms to communicate. We’ve actually become very good at it. What it’s highlighted though is the fundamental need and significant benefits of face-to-face interaction.

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The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.

Humans are social animals. This has never been more evident than now. Whilst many enjoyed isolation and the chance to maybe slow down elements of their world, this only lasted for so long. Ultimately there came a yearning for contact with others. The virtual world has its place and is here to stay but nothing compares to a real community, spending physical time with people in a place with shared purpose, collaboration and support. The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.

I’ve written previously about how we must learn from the last few months and identify how we can keep the best of the technological revolution. This period has certainly given us time to master the tools at our disposal. Over the last few months we have started to understand how powerful technology can be in allowing us to collaborate virtually. We’ve Zoomed, Teamed, Skyped, shared on Google Drive, connected in hangouts, brainstormed on Trello. There has been a widespread embracement of technology as an effective and efficient tool. Those who may not normally contribute to meetings have found their voice and stepped out of the shadows, they’ve found a way to overcome whatever it was that may have held them back in the physical meeting world. We’ve found more efficiency in splitting into virtual breakout rooms with counters timing us and bringing us back to share our contributions. I’ve noticed in the virtual world that the more people can actually see each other the greater the virtual collaboration. The ability to see the person you are connecting with is so powerful. The visual provides connection. The one common denominator across all platforms has been has been the presence of people. Regardless of the tools there is no collaboration without people and without relationships.

There has certainly been a change to the way we work. Many of our professional interactions have now transitioned online. In our online professional world we don’t have to carve out travel time, we have the flexibility to move from meeting to meeting instantaneously and then exit straight into another body of work. There is no doubt that this is more time efficient and has the potential to increase our productivity. At times, I have enjoyed working without the distractions of a physical office, the ability to concentrate and maximise the cognitive load without noise has had its upside. At times though the isolation has left me reaching out feeling professionally isolated from a collaborative space. The ability to walk past a colleague and have the incidental conversation, the opportunity to bounce ideas around whilst waiting for a coffee, or standing by the photocopier, to walk into a colleagues office and be able to brainstorm or problem solve and then reach out again when that next thought comes to mind are parts of the physical office space that have the potential to enhance our creativity. When new ideas start to emerge you can actually feel the energy in a room, the enthusiasm increases, the vision builds and the motivation to act becomes palpable. These elements combine to make the physical office space an effective working environment that is potentially lacking in the virtual world.

I acknowledge that professionally, the use of technology has brought people together by allowing us to easily connect with colleagues through the click of a button. We are not completely isolated. The opportunity to easily connect across geographical boundaries has been extremely beneficial. What I miss from the physical meeting space though is the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the conversation or the mood of participants. We know that research suggests that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the online environment it’s difficult to identify the micro elements of body language, a shift in energy, the non-verbals that allow you to adjust your delivery are components lost in our online world. It’s difficult to tell if you are capturing the audience, if you are able to maintain their attention, the temptation for participants to multi task can be overpowering regardless of how good your message is. The research suggests that 65% of your audience are sending emails, checking social media, eating or marking off their task list whilst you are delivering statics. The social nature of our make-up requires you to interact, ask questions and get feedback to keep people engaged and on task. This is a challenge for our online presentations and again demonstrates the power of face to face.

At some level almost every person will be looking to embed the use of technology in their professional world and use the lessons learnt to enhance what they do. Technology used correctly has the power to enhance relationships, we must ensure though, that it doesn’t take them over. Having our heads buried in a device can have a negative impact.

Quite often when we have to deliver an important message with a degree of detail we default to using email. It’s quick, it’s effective, it captures all the information and is an efficient method. It is can also be couched in professional language that can appear to be quite impersonal. At times perception plays a part as the recipient tries to ‘read between the lines’ or misinterprets the message, the tone of your voice and your body language reinforces your message and underlines your intent. I challenge you next time you are going to send that email pick up the phone and have a conversation or better still when permitted and if you are able, walk through the building, find them and have the conversation face to face. To tailor your message to the recipient in person is a highly effective strategy. I guarantee it will be more productive, more enjoyable and potentially more empowering for the person receiving the message as they can clarify, question and deepen their understanding.

In our fast paced digital age we need to slow down and take time to interact in person. Successful leadership requires personal interactions. We are in a people-centric profession. The personal interactions that build a sense of community set the foundation for trust and ultimately this is the bedrock of relationships.  As we all know the 3Rs in education are so important. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Technology has its place but it will never replace human connection.

Culture is King

Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong  multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.

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Every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact on culture

Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.

In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture.  Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.

With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.

Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.

One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.

As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.

Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.

First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.

Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.

Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.

Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.

Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.

Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.

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