Good evening, I hope you had a lovely Memorial Day weekend.
Now that I’ve started talking about failure, all these other examples keep coming to mind. This one came up because I was trying to get my head around Kotter’s “Eight Steps to Transforming your Organization” (from his 1995 article in HBR, excerpt attached). The first step in the change model is instilling a sense of urgency. And this is an idea that makes me uneasy, for vague, gut-level reasons that I have been trying to pin down. I have come up with two reasons.
First, I mistrust situations in which leaders bemoan the lack of urgency of others below them in the chain of command. It speaks to a sense of moral superiority (“I am driven by what is right” combined with “I am the one who is truly dedicated in this organization”) which allows the leader to question the motivation of others (“not everyone has a growth mindset”—which drives me especially crazy). Any formulation that allows the leader to blame others’ attitude, motivation, mindset, or any other personality trait seems to me to be a weak theory. There are many other simpler explanations, and ones that give the leader more control. For example, starting with the assumption that others are just as motivated as you are, and that if they don’t always act the way you want them to, it may be because:
- They are not clear on what it is you are expecting from them;
- They don’t know how to do what you are asking them to do;
- They don’t have the capacity to do it—personnel, time, budget…;
- There is some cost to their doing it (that you may not be aware of);
- They do not believe it is worth investing time and other resources, because they believe that you will quickly move on to something else (an annoying perspective but frequently justified).
Test all those first before you invoke the “not everyone has the same sense of urgency as I do” explanation. I know that sounds a bit harsh—sorry.
Second, leaders try to create a sense of urgency using data, a strategy that frequently backfires. Which brings me to another one of my failure stories:
When I worked in central office, one of the issues we had was the number of math courses at the high schools—long story, but the upshot was that students appeared to languish in lower level courses, and the path to upper level, calculus-track courses was a very narrow one and apparently you had to know how to find it. So the math coordinators and I devised a really clever plan whereby we engaged the high school math teachers in charting out the math sequences, in the sure and certain knowledge that once they saw the dead-ends, they would agree with us that the number and sequence of courses had to be restructured so that more students were enrolled in higher-level classes. Yes, well, not so much. When the teachers saw the number of courses and how complicated the connections, they were encouraged, explaining that it showed that they were bending over backwards to meet the needs of students. When the math coordinators and I saw where this was going, we were flummoxed and, more significantly, we had no Plan B. What a fiasco that was.
There are a couple of people to whom I believe I should apologize—you developed plans based on the assumption that others would see the same lessons in the data that you did, and found yourselves at a dead end when that turned out not to be the case. I should have seen that coming and I didn’t, and I’m sorry. Let me know how I can make it up to you.
Finally, thank you to Kerry for help with this Coaching Letter and helping me think about Kotter. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106