Implementing Initiatives Effectively

By Karen Poplawski

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One night, while unwinding from a day of work in the school district, I was watching an episode of one of my favorite cooking shows, Chopped. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s a brief overview: Each episode has four chefs compete against each other in four rounds. In each round, the chefs are given a basket containing four mystery ingredients that are not usually prepared together and that must be used in a single dish. (For example, one episode challenged the contestants to make a dish that had to include fried- chicken-flavored Bloody Mary mix, bubble blossoms, star pasta, and kola nut syrup.) After each round, one chef is “chopped,” or voted off the show.

As I watched, it occurred to me how similar the field of education can be to the concept of Chopped. As in the show, educators are asked to take a random basket of ingredients—in the form of initiatives that are often unfamiliar to them—and, in a time-pressured environment, expected to produce a “masterpiece.” And educators are asked to do this without answers to critical questions, such as these: Do educators know where to begin? Do they understand how these initiatives are meant to blend and mix together?

The Challenges of Implementation

For administrators, effectively imple- menting initiatives is a critical part of the job. When I was a principal, I remember being confronted each year with three or four big changes that would impact the way our educators approached their work. (One year we had to implement a new approach to discipline, a new reading curriculum, a new procedure for lesson planning, and new technological resources.)

As school leaders map out plans for the 2022–2023 school year, it is important that they think beyond the logistics of introducing these new initiatives and consider what impact they will have on the educators faced with having to implement them. In fact, the initiative’s success will depend on it: A 2014 study that examined over 5,000 innovations during a 15-year span found “an aggregate success rate of only 4.5 percent” (Shore, 2015). The main culprit for such low success rates was that “most leaders focus on the processes—the hard skills and tools needed to create the desired result—and they underestimate the challenges related to the people” (Shore, 2015). In other words, the success of any new initiative is dependent on those who will be enacting it, so making a plan to support them is crucial.

A reason why the success of a new initiative hinges on people is that we are social and emotional beings, and change can evoke strong emotions. In examining how to use emotional intelligence to support change, Wiens and Rowell (2018) noted the following:

Changes at work can be emotionally intense, sparking confusion, fear, anxiety, frustration, and helplessness. Experts have even said that the experience of going through change at work can mimic that of people who are suffering from grief over the loss of a loved one. Because change can be so physically and emotionally draining, it often leads to burnout and puts into motion an insidious cycle that leads to even greater resistance to change.

The success of any new initiative is dependent on those who will be enacting it, so making a plan to support them is crucial.

The Change Curve

When I see a chef open their basket of mystery ingredients on Chopped, surprise and bewilderment usually cross their face.

However, the chefs often manage to plot a plan quickly, starting with what they know about the ingredients and building from there. The Change Curve—a model that details the emotions a person experiences during change—is easier for them to navigate due to both their expertise and experience (The Mind Tools Content Team, n.d.). The chefs can tap in to their vast culinary knowledge and quickly move past the shock of the incongruent ingredients and get from there to a place of acceptance and a commitment to a plan of action. In short, they figure it out.

When new initiatives are rolled out to staff by school leaders, experienced teachers are able to quickly learn about new resources and then seamlessly weave them into their current teaching practices to develop a new repertoire with minimal disruption. But what about a new teacher? What about the teacher who may be still struggling with the last set of initiatives and now needs to learn three more? Their emotions may be more pronounced as they navigate the Change Curve more slowly than their peers.

Change usually means an individual needs to be incompetent for some time before gaining competence, and that period of incompetence can feel scary—an individual may stay in a state of shock, anxiety, or fear for a long time. This is especially true in high-stakes environments where it may not feel safe—or there may not be the opportunity—to go through a stage of incompetency. Overwhelmed educators can feel stuck or stranded and, as a result, return to what they already know works. This can lead to what Prosci, an organization focused exclusively on change management, refers to as “incomplete individual journeys,” in which the expected value is not realized, and consternation and resistance are instead created (Prosci, n.d.). Such resistance begins to impact how the adults in the school community interact with one another, and resigned statements such as “Here we go again” or “I wish they would spend a day in my classroom” become more common.

A Different Way to Lead

There are administrators who will move forward with the educators who successfully implement new processes while leaving behind the ones who struggle with the changes. This approach, though, will lead to the same results year after year. A better, more successful approach requires one key aspect of social and emotional learning: empathy. As Christy Johnson states, “If you expect to enact any lasting change, you may need to be willing to be vulnerable and develop empathy” (2019). Her stance is corroborated by a 2015 study from the Center for Creative Leadership (Gentry et al., 2015), the results of which she notes “suggested that empathy was positively related to managers’ job performance” (Johnson, 2019).

Lean Into Leading

The judges on Chopped are all highly skilled chefs. As the mystery ingredients are revealed to the contestants, the judges will often offer empathetic remarks such as “That is a difficult ingredient to work with.” And as they watch the contestants work, the judges will offer advice or make comments to each other like “I see where they are going, but will they have enough time to get it done?” The judges can relate to the contestants, and they understand that the contestants are not being asked to do anything that the judges themselves could not imagine doing.

As school leaders, we need to hold ourselves to similar standards and ask the following questions:

  • Do we truly know what we are asking of educators?
  • Can we relate to their experiences?
  • Have we considered how they will be impacted given their specific circumstances?
  • Do we listen to them and think about what it must feel like to sit in their space and work through new challenges?

To truly navigate change with empathy, it is important to lean into it. We can do this by creating space and opportunity to listen to the perspectives of our staff.

One way to do this is to lead educators through a “now what” conversation. Spend time before the school year closes outlining the proposed initiatives for the following school year. Then lead the staff through an interactive learning structure such as Carousel to work through the following questions:

  • How will these initiatives help us achieve our goals?
  • How will this impact our current reality?
  • What questions do we have?
  • What resources do we need to navigate these changes?
  • How can we feel supported through these changes?

Create a Sandbox

Before computer programmers launch a new program, they often create a sandbox to test improvements before they go live. Following this concept, school leaders can set aside time for teachers to play and test some of the new changes before the school year starts. Building in teacher collaboration time before the new school year begins will help educators alleviate some of their anxiety, get a sense of what it will be like to balance the new initiative with their current responsibilities, and start to incorporate the new initiatives into their practices.

The sandbox does not need to be reserved for a one-time annual event—leave it open all year so teachers can continue to share and test out ideas. Set up a shared folder
and allot time during staff meetings to revisit and share ideas using an interactive learning structure such as Museum Walk. Devoting time to discussing and clarifying new initiatives lets teachers know that you will give them the time and support they need to be successful.

Harness the Power of Reflection

Throughout the implementation process, be sure to pause and provide space for reflection. Pausing to reflect both individually and as a community on how the change is going is a good way for leaders to get a sense of where their staff is on the Change Curve. Consider the following questions:

  • Who still feels uneasy?
  • What still seems hard or confusing?
  • What are some exemplars of success that have been curated and can be shared?
  • Based on where we are now, where do we need to go?
  • How do we need to adjust our future thinking and planning?
  • What data and information do I need to collect to share and advocate for my staff?

Using a reflective structure such as Geometric Forms can get to the heart of these types of questions and their potential solutions.

The Perfect Meal

Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef and travel documentarian, said, “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself” (Mudge, 2001). This is just as true for me trying out a new recipe in my kitchen as it is for the chefs who compete on Chopped, and I believe its core message is as applicable to building a learning community as it is to preparing food. Just as the meal itself is less important than the people you share it with, it is important not to get too caught up in an initiative at the expense of the experience it creates for the educators you lead. After all, when you look back on your own journey, are you more likely to remember the frequency and speed with which you executed an initiative, or those you were with and how they made you feel?

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Karen Poplawski

Karen Poplawski is the chief program director at Center for Responsive Schools. Before this, Karen was a Responsive Classroom curriculum and instructional designer and a consulting teacher, working with educators worldwide to transform their school communities. Prior to joining CRS, Karen worked for 10 years as a classroom teacher and seven years as a principal, utilizing Responsive Classroom techniques and practices in the classroom and in the two schools for which she was the founding principal.