How to make stuff happen… and deliver change

It is probably true that… in education change often fails to stick. That academies and schools are full of initiatives and good intentions; strategy and initiative-rich environment that drives up complexity and confusion.

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It is also probably true… that education and schools would be more effective if we understood the dynamics and nature of change; understanding how to deliver change that sticks, is sustained and irreversible.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities” (Malcolm Gladwell)

Which begs that question… how can leaders and teachers execute change that becomes irreversible. How can leaders seek simple, single and focused change that alters habits and behaviours, such that change becomes irreversible and leverages improvement in the long term … or, put simply, how do we make stuff happen and change stick?


What if… we understood that coerced, sustainable and irreversible change delivers different outcomes?…

  • coerced change: a continuous effort is required to coerce and direct behaviours to secure change; when effort reduces, change reverses.
  • sustainable change: a level of effort and commitment is required by individuals to sustain the change. This is not coerced, it is likely to be well understood and supported, but because there is a continual requirement of effort it falls short of being irreversible; old strategies and
  • irreversible change: a change that has been well-executed so that it alters habits and behaviours, the choice architecture and the culture/ethos – such that the change becomes normal – it becomes irreversible.

…considering executed change in schools it is easy to find examples of each.

What if… change is pointless unless it achieves improvement – too much change gets to the same point, but wastes both time and effort… and worse damages the credibility of leadership, increasing the likely resistance to future change.

What if… successful change in schools secures changes in behaviours and habits so that change become habitually delivered and irreversible.

What if… Stephen Tierney is right in his recent blog that leaders and teachers make better decisions when they think slow and not fast?…

“Too many people are working and in some cases essentially living in an organisation where busyness, for its own sake, is seen as a virtue.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains his theory about two modes of thought; System 1 (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious).  While System 1 helps us survive in the jungle it is System 2 which is likely to be of greater benefit in addressing complex issues.” (Stephen Tierney, blog)

What if… most of the change instigated in schools (and education) has not had enough thought? What if most change fails to consider…

  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • whether this change will stick for at least 3 years
  • whether this change has the genuine potential to improve on what exists.
  • whether there is unnecessary complexity built into the change
  • whether we consider the WHY has been fully considered; as Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do they but WHY you do it.” … how to communicate for buy-in.
  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • if timescales for implementation is timed, specific and focused…with good recognition of the implementation dip.
  • Whether key milestones are used and evaluated.
  • Whether there is a focus on celebrating, measuring and growing where there is discernible difference?

What if… we really understood that the real success of any change lies in the execution? And that regardless of the boldness of the desired change this is what makes change stick and be successful?

What if… the delivery of change is best shown of Micheal Barber’s matrix of execution…

Slide1

What if… we altered the matrix to consider the inter-play between the level of energy and impact of change – highlighting the difference between coerced, sustained and irreversible change… the amount of energy required for irreversible change declines after initial execution due to shift in habits and behaviours.

Slide2

What if… KISS (keep it simple stupid) was a key driver to ensure that change is always targeted, simple and focused. What if we used members of the team to wear de Bono’s Black Hat, identifying and challenging complexity.

What if… some individuals and organisations suffer from initiativitis – the disorder that compels, otherwise good people, to launch initiative after initiative. It is all on the slow thinking, deliberate execution and persistence cubed that secures successful change. No one benefits from a thousand flowers blooming.

What if… the best leaders place bets on the changes that are most likely to deliver effective and irreversible change

What if… John Collins is right, we should fire bullets before cannonballs? Testing first, or piloting change before scaling?

What if… Seth Godin is right and that we should beware the implementation dip of change? How often do schools change direction or abandon in the dip only to initiate a new approach.

seth-godin-the-dip

What if… we recognised when to stick and when to twist – that one requires maintenance of faith that the thinking and execution will yield results and the other a realism and calculation of future effectiveness to identify where there is futility of effort?…

“Persistent people are able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it.  At the same time, the smartest people are realistic about not imagining light when there isn’t any.”  (Seth Godin)

What if… we also recognise that it is important to evolve and adapt approaches before the rate of improvement declines…

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What if… too often we launch change with one or more of these missing?… (VISION, SKILLS, INCENTIVES (understanding the WHY), RESOURCES, ACTION PLAN)

Slide3

What if… launching change after change is the same as crying wolf? That initiative fatigue sets in quickly where individuals realise that this is just one of those band-wagons that continually pass?

What if… we do not fully consider the choice architecture of any change? and fail to see, understand and use nudges to secure irreversible change?

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions that staff and students make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours, create social epidemics and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. We are surrounded by nudges; good leaders see them, look for them and use them (often automatically)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to de-priortise what is important? What if… we used this phrase regularly to focus the ONE thing.

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if…successful change taps the emotions? and has a stickiness factor?…

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)

““the stickiness factor”, is a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of people and influences their future behaviour.”

What if… Jim Collins is right that great organisation focus their time and energy on turning the flywheel. What if… this means that in schools we actually only need to get a surprisingly few things right to drive improvement. – placing bets on the few things that leverage improvement. A function of conscious choice and discipline (…to execute)

Slide3

What if… time and context are also important. What if we recognise that some change is “right for the time” and some change is “right for the context.” AND that both of these perspectives are useful for assessing previous strategies and changes.


Maybe then… we would have a deeper understanding of change. We would not drive initiative after initiative that fail to stick. We would recognise that less is more and that the success of any change is linked to making conscious choices through slow thinking, using deliberate discipline to execute and the persistence to secure the change.

Maybe then… leaders and senior teams will employ slow thinking to place bets on a few changes or approaches that leverage the greatest improvement. That we would be more professional and intelligent whenever we seek change so that we more often deliver sustained and irreversible change.

… all of this will remove complexity and allow leaders and teachers to deliver change and improvement in a focused and deliberate way… bringing a structure and an intelligence to academy improvement so that we can make stuff happen. 

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November 2015

Dan Nicholls

1 thought on “How to make stuff happen… and deliver change

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