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The Stages of Innovative Change

Change isn't coming as it is already on our doorstep. Granted, this has been the case for thousands of years thanks to either discoveries such as fire and cultivated crops or inventions that led to the creation of electricity, manufacturing, and expeditious travel. No organization or system in any field is impervious to this fact when one looks at a myriad of disruptive forces at play in society. In the case of education, the choice is to either adapt or evolve in ways that lead to improved outcomes aligned to teaching, learning, and leadership. Just because something worked in the past doesn't necessarily mean it is still an effective strategy now.

The desire or imperative to change depends on a combination of perspective, culture, and achievement. Neither is more important than the other, in my opinion, but all are informed in some way or another by results. Hence the pursuit of innovative practices to usher in needed change. More often than not, there is a will to innovate through the pursuit of new and different practices that aim to improve what our learners and we do inherent in our respective position. Just because we try something different doesn't mean that we or the practice is actually innovative. This is proven or disproven by a tangible result in the form of qualitative or quantitative evidence. To debate this fact takes away from the real power that innovation can have in education.

Now let's focus more on the process of innovative change. It begins with one person and his or her actions to move the needle on a specific practice. As I always say, don't expect others to do what you have not or have been unwilling to do yourself. Now don't get me wrong, this is a fantastic and needed start. However, change in the context of an entire school, district, organization, or system relies on moving the masses so that all learners, staff, or stakeholders benefit. Herein lies both the challenge and the opportunity inherent in the process. In Digital Leadership (2nd Edition), I provided the following image that highlights six common stages that schools work through in order to successfully implement innovative change that impacts the entire culture.





Status Quo

The rationale that leads to both a conversation and a need for change begins here. It is here where the most dangerous phrase in education typically rears its ugly head – That's the way we have always done it (TTWWADI). What results is either a sense of comfort (i.e., high test scores) or fear (what if we try something different and it doesn't work). In both cases, the pursuit of innovative practices either stops or never even begins. Acknowledging that the status quo is holding your system back and that something has to be done differently to improve outcomes gets the ball rolling.

Struggle

News flash – many people don't like change as the status quo presents cover from failure. With any new idea or strategy, there will always be a sense of personal and collaborative struggle. It's the latter that the majority of our energy has to focus on. Moving towards systematic transformation requires an understanding that the journey is rarely easy and seamless. The struggle is also defined by what seems like never-ending challenges such as time, money, support, infrastructure, inadequate professional learning, mindset, and colleagues who fill either the role of antagonist or naysayer. The struggle is real people, and to scale change, you must be prepared upfront.

Dissonance

The stage is characterized by a lack of agreement typically defined by inconsistencies between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs. Dwight Mihalicz provides this great synopsis on the importance of this stage.
Discord is all around us. And conflict in organizations is nothing new. Why is conflict so pervasive in most organizations, to the extent that some organizations are dysfunctional by any definition? And yet employees tolerate the conditions. This has to do with the concept of dissonance. Dissonance has less to do with conflict and more to do with understanding how and when conflict incites change, and what needs to take place for change to happen seamlessly. 
Dissonance only comes into play when the system breaks down unpredictably and doesn't work. In this state, people are no longer willing to put up with it because there is now unpredictability with results causing discomfort, prompting the desire to change.
The main takeaway here is to embrace dissonance and use it as the fuel for innovative ideas.

Innovative Idea(s)

The foundation is now set for the stage where an innovative idea or strategy can be discussed, implemented, sustained, and evaluated for success based on a tangible result. When developing or presenting an innovative idea, keep these questions in mind:

  • Why will it improve what you or your learners do as well as the culture? 
  • How do you (or will) know it has led to an improvement? 
  • How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
  • What is needed to scale the effort(s)? 

Assimilation

In this stage, the innovative idea becomes absorbed into the very fabric of a school or district's cultural DNA. It isn't about one educator, classroom, or isolated practice. The idea takes form and is both embraced and implemented at scale. The key point here is while it is great to experience success at the individual level, real change that impacts the majority is assimilated across all aspects of teaching, learning, and leadership.

New Status Quo

The final stage is what the end goal of any innovative change effort should be, and that is the creation of a new status quo. It is at this point where you can hear and see through multifaceted evidence that new and different has actually led to a better result. What this ultimately looks and feels like will vary from school to school or system to system, but the fact remains that the change effort has been embraced and sustained.   

Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but, more importantly, system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it. What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture. Start small, but think and plan for big while referring to the stages presented above. 

Innovate with a purpose, but make sure the venture extends well beyond an individual level. In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 

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