Creating change in organisations
People in leadership roles often have to implement change. I share what I learnt from implementing a peer coaching program when I was a teacher and the lessons it taught me about creating organisational change in various sectors.
Almost a decade ago I was an assistant head teacher in a school that was doing well but wanted to improve the quality of teaching and learning. The standard was already generally good but had pockets of poor practice and we wanted to become a school that was graded ‘outstanding’ for teaching and learning. I understood the school culture and had positive experiences of professional coaching to improve performance. I thought that implementing a whole-school peer coaching programme for the teaching staff would help teachers to improve their teaching practice and ultimately lead to high quality teaching and learning
I’m no longer a teacher but when I considered the steps needed to make the peer coaching programme a success, I noticed key lessons for creating any organisational change.
This learning helped my thinking as Head of Policy and Strategy at YHA, a youth charity which straddles the charity, outdoors, nature, travel, hospitality and heritage sectors. I’m currently thinking about how it links to system-wide change now that I am Head of Change at the Youth Endowment Fund and have to work across the education sector to ultimately reduce youth violence.
Steps and questions for creating organisational change
- What do you want to achieve and why?
- How does the change you are suggesting make the organisation or society better?
- How will this change affect the people you are trying to serve or impact?
- Sound out early opinions. Who else believes in this change?
- External research. Has anybody else done this?
- Internal research.
- Consider the anti-brigade.
- Witten proposal.
- Internal communication.
How does the change you are suggesting make the organisation or society better?
There are many reasons to implement change, some ego driven, others beyond ourselves. I wanted to implement the whole school coaching programme because I genuinely thought it would lead to better quality teaching and learning across the school which would then improve outcomes and opportunities for the young people we served.
Sound out early opinions
Any lasting change will need the cooperation of other people. The larger the scale of the change, the more people will eventually be needed. I sought out the views of a couple of my senior leadership team members who were passionate about teaching and learning. I wanted to know if they thought the concept could work in our context and whether it could improve teaching and learning in the way I thought.
External research. Has anybody else done this?
I made contact with people in other schools who had done something similar to see what worked for them and what they would do differently given a second chance. External research can consider similar organisations and can also be a time to learn from different industries. I learnt recently that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, got the idea for Amazon Prime by considering the membership model of discount retailer Costco.
Key questions to consider during this stage: How did they do it? Can you learn, about it from books articles, podcasts or other sources? Can you reach out to them to bounce ideas around? What worked? What didn’t? How can you apply it to your own context?
This is key for laying foundations of any successful organisational change. When I was at YHA, we were going to launch a new 10 year organisational strategy. It went through many drafts and a key part of the creation of the strategy was extensive discussions with a cross section of staff at all levels of seniority to get an appetite for the ideas proposed in the strategy and the change that its implementation would lead to. This process took several months. When I was at school the process was less formal but I did speak to a variety of teachers to get their opinions, not just on my peer coaching idea but also the actual problem that we were trying to solve – improving the quality of teaching and learning.
Key questions to consider during this stage: Do you understand the internal or external politics that could affect your proposed change (positively or negatively)? Who will support this publicly or behind the scenes? Who will support with action and who will support with influence? How can what you are trying to do help them with their objectives? Does anybody have any constructive points that you’ve not considered that may affect the change you are trying to implement?
Consider the anti-brigade
If your change is important it will almost certainly have people who oppose it. Sometimes people oppose to be long and because they hate the bright red flowery shirts you wear to (zoom) meetings, other times they have legitimate concerns. In my case, coaching in schools had a dodgy reputation. In business, coaching is something that executives and high performing people pay a lot of money for to enhance performance. In schools, coaching was often the name given to the stressful and humiliating process applied to teachers who were seen as underperforming. It was often part of the “support” package linked to capability procedures. Coaching in the types of schools I’d worked in had a clear image problem, so I didn’t blame teachers for being sceptical.
Key questions to consider during this stage: Why are they against this change? What are their fears? Are any valid? How might you address their fears while still implementing the overall change? Who can be won over? Who will never agree? What influence and resources do they have? How will that affect what you are trying to achieve?Sometimes people oppose change because they hate the bright red flowery shirts you wear, other times they have legitimate concerns. Click To Tweet
You must be able to articulate any change clearly in writing. If you can’t, you need to think about it and test it with others more clearly until you can. I had to write a short SLT proposal (2 sides) to persuade my senior team colleagues to approve my proposal and to give it time, budget and other resources.
If you can’t express your idea clearly in writing then you probably can’t explain it well enough to somebody in conversation and you’ll have a hard time getting buy in beyond your die-hard supporters. In all organisations I’ve worked in beyond a certain size, proposals for significant change has had to go as a written proposal to the senior leadership team, executive team or board. It also provides an opportunity for skilled people with different expertise to question the idea and raise points that you may not have considered. This proposal should not be the first time that anybody other than you has heard of your idea, ideally you should have primed people and the written proposal provides more detail.The written proposal should not be the first time that anybody other than you has heard of your idea for change Click To Tweet
Key questions to consider during this stage: Why is your prosed change needed? How will it look? What resources will it need? What will happen as a result of implementing it? What are the risks or potential barriers?
You need an enthusiastic A-Team of skilled practitioners to test your idea for change in the most favourable circumstances. That’s the ideal. For the pilot of peer coaching I was part of a strategic teaching and learning group and we able to approach a skilled group of excellent, well respected teachers to trial the idea and later scale it to the wider teaching staff.
Sometimes you don’t always have access to the best. You have to work with what you’ve got. Effective pilots for change can be implemented as long as your early group is enthusiastic, committed and willing to learn and adapt. You need to provide appropriate guidance and extra support to help them develop and have the best chance of success.
Surely doing a good job is enough? People can see the effect, no need to tell them explicitly, right? Wrong. You need to explicitly tell people. Multiple times.
This is something that I’ve learnt to be better at. Beyond your pilot group it’s useful to feedback regular updates to relevant people and the wider organisation about your progress. This brings more people on board and will help when the pilot gets rolled out to cover more people.
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If you are interested in the human side of leadership then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you.