What’s the likelihood that a major change in your school will yield the long-term results you want?The likelihood is pretty slim. Research by McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, reveals that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. Uncommitted leadership and employee resistance are most often to blame. This is unwelcome news, especially in a fluid and dynamic industry like English language education.
Don’t lose heart. Long-lasting change is possible if you focus on the human mechanics that make improvements stick. We’ll guide you through a proven 8-step process for making that happen. This model, pioneered by organizational scholar Dr. John Kotter, includes:
- Generating urgency
- Building powerful coalitions
- Creating and communicating the vision
- Enlisting volunteers
- Removing barriers
- Generating and celebrating immediate wins
- Sustaining acceleration
- Instituting change
First, though, let’s examine why change is critical and uniquely challenging.
ELT: Moving at the Speed of Change
Nearly every aspect of your business relies on a new or evolving technology. Want to recruit teachers or reach out to potential students? You need a robust online presence. Want to stay ahead of the competition? You need to think seriously about offering online classes.
The future of ESL education holds tremendous promise. The number of people using or learning English worldwide is expected to reach 2 billion by 2020. Potential for growth is enormous. But, obsolescence is an ever-present threat. English language teaching is a constantly evolving field. Here, the ability to nimbly and effectively manage change isn’t just a competitive advantage. It’s essential for survival.
Why Is Change So Hard?
Unfortunately, when it comes to change, our human nature conspires against us. We’re hardwired to seek predictability. Most of us prefer to stick with the status quo, even when the status quo threatens to kill us. Dr. Edward Miller, CEO and Chief Medical Officer at John Hopkins Hospital, observes that 90 percent of all patients who undergo life-saving heart surgeries revert to their unhealthy pre-surgery lifestyles two years later.
Cognitive biases like loss aversion and status quo bias can entrench change-resistant behaviors in your work teams and your school. When this happens, you can expect your employees to meet nearly any change — even positive ones — with suspicion, aversion or resistance.
This is the fundamental challenge of organizational change. Major improvements, like updating your curriculum or introducing new classroom software, are relatively easy to plan and execute. But to make these improvements last, you need to change how your staff members act and think. This is notoriously difficult. Permanent change, then, relies heavily on understanding how your people react to the unfamiliar.
From Innovators to Laggards: The Diffusion of Innovation Theory
Have you ever wondered why some people wait in line overnight to buy the latest iPhone while others still cling to the flip phone they bought in 2008? The Diffusion of Innovation Theory can help explain why.
According to this social science theory, people’s attitudes toward new processes or products falls along a spectrum from eagerness to aversion. Innovators, who are the first to try anything, occupy one end of the spectrum. On other end, you’ll find the laggards, or people who adopt change only if it is thrust upon them. These two extremes make up the minority. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. These groups include the early adopters, the early majority and the late majority. A successful change effort mobilizes everyone along this spectrum by responding thoughtfully to their perceptions and concerns.
Your school’s innovators and early adopters can act as catalysts for change. If you convince them that an improvement will benefit your school, they will become powerful champions for the cause. Their enthusiasm and persuasiveness can help bring your school’s late adopters and laggards to the table. Take the fears and frustrations of these latter groups seriously. They may see pitfalls that you don’t. However, don’t let their natural resistance derail positive change.
Finally, remember that people’s attitudes toward change may fluctuate. An early adopter of a new student engagement program, for instance, may be one of the last to adopt an online classroom model.
Once you’ve confronted the human obstacles to lasting improvement, you can start your journey toward change.
Step 1. Create Urgency
Imagine your school lost a lot of students last quarter to a competitor that uses a collaborative online platform. You decide to introduce Your Agora at your school as a way to catch up with the competition. How do you ensure that your teachers use it every day to plan, share and assign English grammar lessons? The first step is telling them how not using this system will put them further behind the competition.
If you don’t articulate the urgent need for change, then you fail to galvanize your team to action. Most members will make an effort to participate in the initiative, but only out of a sense of obligation. Worse, the skeptics within your ranks might perceive the initiative as an arbitrary change that they can ignore with no real consequence.
Avoid these pitfalls by taking charge of the narrative. Explain why this change is needed now, and be prepared to share compelling data that supports your position. Be careful to elicit urgency, not anxiety. The former will compel action; the latter will drive reluctant adopters further into entrenched and fearful positions.
Step 2. Build a Powerful Coalition
After you’ve communicated the urgent need for change, the next step is assembling a team of trusted and respected professionals who will make the change happen. Select your coalition members carefully. You will depend on their leadership and positivity to break down resistance and communicate urgent need for change. Choose skilled communicators who can elicit buy-in. Avoid chronically negative people and opt for managers who lead by example. Equip them with the resources they need, whether it’s money for training or unwavering support in the face of resistance.
Look beyond the executive suite to find the informal leaders in your school. Your veteran teachers have the power of institutional knowledge and influence. An IT technician can offer mission-critical expertise for technology upgrades. Your new teachers may possess the social-media savvy you need to build relationships with students. Focus on building coalition with a broad range of experience, skills and personality types.
Step 3. Create and Communicate the Vision
Your next task is to refine the vision so you and your coalition can effectively communicate it to your staff. The vision is the “why” that powers your change initiative. Unlike a plan, which focuses on the nitty-gritty details, a vision makes an emotional appeal as well as a logical one. It should evoke a mental picture that motivates and inspires.
A solid vision statement should be able to answer these questions:
Why are we making this change?
What will our school look like once this change takes effect?
What’s in it for me?
Offering a compelling answer to the last question is critical to engaging your front-line staff. You ignore their concerns at your own peril. They’re critical to accomplishing the day-to-day tasks that form the bedrock of your school, but, on average, they’re also more cynical of management.
You should be able to communicate your vision in a five-minute elevator pitch that elicits immediate interest or engagement. If you can’t, you need to refine it more.
Once you’ve nailed down the vision, communicate it constantly. A single staff meeting or a brief series of emails won’t do. Most organizations under-communicate their change vision by a factor of ten, and this severely diminishes their chance of success before they even begin.
Step 4. Enlist Volunteers
Once you’ve refined your vision, the next step is recruiting volunteers for the cause. These are the early adopters and early majority change agents who value the need for change and are eager to make it a reality. It’s crucial to enlist representatives from all departments and every rank of organizational hierarchy. If you do, you ensure that the change initiative saturates every level of your school.
Also, be sure to include your front-line managers, like your teacher leaders and administrators. They’re essential for encoding change into the day-to-day operations of your school to ensure the changes stick. Be sure to keep them engaged and respect their expertise.
Step 5. Remove Barriers to Enable Change
Removing barriers to change significantly increases your chances of success. Before you can eliminate barriers, though, you need to first identify them. Common obstacles to change include a lack of resources, management behaviors and battle change fatigue.
Lack of resources
When it comes to implementing change, asking your team to do more with less is a recipe for failure. If you’re retooling your school’s website, for instance, you can’t expect your web designer to perform at her best if she’s also acting as the school’s full-time human resource manager. Make sure your teams have the supplies, support or compensation necessary to fulfill their new roles.
Managers lead by example. If they pay the change effort lip service but fail to incorporate it into their daily decisions, the result is a cynical workforce. Promptly address managers who don’t follow through on the vision. Treat them fairly, but also make it clear that implementing change is a top priority for everyone.
Change Battle Fatigue
Has your school recently tried to make a major change only to see it fizzle? Then your staff is at higher risk of change battle fatigue. Change is exhausting, and it requires sacrifice. When these sacrifices don’t yield the desired results, people become disenchanted and resentful. In some instances, they may put in the minimum effort to implement a new change, but they secretly believe it will fail like the last one did. Other employees may become openly defiant. Both types of behavior will doom your change effort to failure.
If possible, give your staff time to recover before demanding more from them. Don’t try to introduce a new change on the heels of a fresh defeat.
Step 6. Create and Celebrate Short-Term Wins
Quick, visible wins prove that the change effort is working. They sustain urgency, build momentum and win over your in-house skeptics, which is especially critical in the first stages of implementation. If you can’t produce a short-term win within the first six to 12 months of your change effort, you’re in trouble.
Start by breaking down the change effort into manageable chunks. Review each major step and reduce it to its most basic steps. Then, identify which tasks constitute an achievable but significant gain. Finally, decide how you and your staff will celebrate the win. Don’t forget to reward the people responsible for the change in ways that really matter to them. If you want to see real change, forgo the staff pizza party and promise rewards like cash, promotions and public recognition instead.
Step 7. Sustain Acceleration
Although short-term wins are vital for long-term success, you should never confuse them for the final finish line. Many successful change efforts have been doomed by declaring “Mission Accomplished” too soon.
Major changes require a change in your school’s culture, or the unspoken norms that govern how people behave and solve problems, and that can take years to achieve. Ironically, the moment that you think you’ve achieved success is often only the starting point.
For example, let’s assume your school has just created a new interactive curriculum for your online school. Your development team has spent months researching and designing the product, and now it’s finally ready for release. Is it time to declare this project a win? If your teachers aren’t prepared or willing to use it, then the answer is no. In this example, you can declare victory only if and when the curriculum becomes fully embedded in your school and you have solid evidence to prove that it’s improving student outcomes.
Step 8: Institute Change
The finals step is to ensure the positive change stays embedded in the school long after you and other change leaders have left. Too often, change initiatives become inextricably tied to an individual or a team. When that person or team leaves, the positive improvements fade shortly after.
Use these strategies to make change initiatives survive in the long-term.
- Make explicit connections between improved performance and the attitudes and behaviors that created it. The dramatic increase in student retention didn’t improve under Principal Smith’s tenure simply because he was a charismatic leader. Rather, student retention improved because he implemented processes and policies that made student retention a top priority.
- Keep your board, administrative staff and other decision makers educated on the change initiative. Make sure they understand why it was implemented and what it will take to sustain it.
- Include the change initiative into your recruitment process. This is particularly important when you’re recruiting new principals and administrative staff. Be sure all your top candidates understand the improvements you’re implementing, or those you have recently made, and ensure they’re committed to sustaining them.
Change is difficult to start and it’s even more challenging to maintain. However, with careful planning and unwavering focus, you can ensure that positive change survives in the long run.
Are you looking to make your school more collaborative and up-to-date? Your Agora is the perfect tool for integrating these improvements into your school. Its teacher platform, which comes equipped with top-notch ESL lesson plans, instantly makes work easier for teachers. It’s a great way to win over even your most reluctant adapters.