The Learning Accelerator Blog/Step 2: Learning to Sprint - Leveraging Small Wins Along the Road Toward Large-Scale Change

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Step 2: Learning to Sprint - Leveraging Small Wins Along the Road Toward Large-Scale Change

by Nicole Assisi & Shelli Kurth on June 16 2022

Referring to all aspects of life as a marathon has become something of a cliche. While the metaphor may feel harmless in many ways, this perspective is problematic for a few reasons. For starters, Pheidippides – the soldier who ran about 25 miles to Athens in 490 BC to announce a victory at the battle of Marathon and thus gave us the name ‘marathon’ for long-distance runs – actually dropped dead when he arrived. Hopefully we can agree we would like a different outcome for ourselves – and for educators who may feel they are being set up for a similar task right now. Let’s reframe the work of leading change and look at it from both a more practical and accurate way: while life can certainly feel like a marathon, most changes happen in shorter sprints. We are best positioned to make a positive impact when we have a focused approach to the work.

In the first post of this series, we talked about the importance of elevating voices, hearing the history of the organization, and creating a collaborative vision forward. In this post, we argue that once a direction is set, don’t overthink the work but rather dive into it. Better yet, we should empower those closest to the work to dive in alongside us.

Successful Change Programs Begin with Results

As Harvard professors Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A. Thomson wrote, “successful change programs begin with results.” What they mean is that too often we get stuck in planning for change rather than trying on some change. It’s like talking to a student about solving a problem without giving them a problem set to work with, or teaching your children to ride a bike without ever getting them on a bike. We see this often in large systems: theory and strategy are created in district offices far removed from the place where impact is expected: the classroom. Real change begins when we stop talking about what we want and start doing the work. But how? Where do we start? How do we get from an idea to beginning with results?

In this blog, we shift from building your vision and team to creating the actual change (via sprint cycles) and understanding what type of change we are creating (see the technical versus adaptive section of this blog below).

The Power of Sprint Cycles

During a time when educators are burnt out and change seems to be thrust upon us without input and at an erratic pace, it may prove wise to harness human energy and gain momentum by engaging folks in shorter single redesign challenges rather than multi-year, layered strategies. To be clear, the long-term strategy is needed and should be held by someone, but all “successful change efforts start with results,” so help folks have early wins to keep them going. To help you get there, consider how you can leverage the following process:

  1. Empower those closest to the work. Select a sprint team that is closest to where the work is actually happening. If the goal is to improve attendance, then engage counselors, clerks, parents. If the goal is to improve reading, then work directly with the appropriate teachers.

  2. Pick a targeted, focused goal. Part of the key to celebrating results is knowing what the key performance indicators are. This means breaking down a large goal – like improving graduation – into a smaller one (for example, decreasing the number of low-letter grades for students in grade 11). A goal based around performance indicators for improving reading may be a 30-percent increase in second graders reading at grade level.

  3. Make it time-bound. The secret to gaining momentum is finding short-term wins. Therein lies the sprint nature of this work. Make the challenge long enough to get something done – but short enough that your team doesn’t lose steam. We usually recommend a time frame of eight to 12 weeks to nudge the work along.

  4. Lean on iteration and a focus on improvement over perfection. Make sure your teams meet regularly to iterate, celebrate successes, address opportunities for improvement, and share your work.

Strategies and Tools: Sample agendas, sample Jamboard for virtual data collaboration.

Pro Tip: Create a simple data tracker where you can note incremental change, and keep it simple and user-friendly. For example, if you are hoping to increase attendance, track how many students are absent any given day. If you are looking to reduce low-letter grades, pull a simple grade report for the target group of students.

Tapping External Support: Develop leadership capacity by having a coach co-facilitate and support your cycle lead.

Technical Versus Adaptive Solutions

As your team launches into iteration work, it can be tempting to jump to quick fixes rather than looking at deeper root causes and system challenges. To help create sustainable change, it is important to differentiate between technical and adaptive challenges. Honing in on the difference will also help you move faster.

A technical problem is one that:

  • Has a cut-and-dry solution (e.g., insufficient materials for students).

  • Can be solved by an authority or expert (e.g., upgrade the ventilation system at a site).

  • Has a solution that can be implemented quickly.

An adaptive challenge is one that:

  • Is hard to pinpoint and possibly easy to deny (e.g., chronic absenteeism).

  • Requires changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships, and approaches to work (e.g., equitable access for all students to advanced placement courses).

  • May require change within numerous spaces and across organizations to get at the heart of the challenge.

Naturally, how you see a problem will change how you tackle it and the depth of change you can or need to create. Here are some illustrations as to how the approaches may differ in a practical way:

Scenario: Children are getting dehydrated at football practice.

  • Technical Approach: Make water available, take more breaks during games or practice.
  • Adaptive Approach: Consider your mindsets around student athletes that may make you more inclined to push them; understand how you may be limiting children's voices to express even their basic needs.

Scenario: High school students at your school are chronically absent.

  • Technical Approach: Assign Saturday school for students who are absent for more than five days.
  • Adaptive Approach: Hold empathy interviews with students and families to understand root causes. You may discover underlying needs like child care, transportation, or job conflicts.

Scenario: Students are disengaged and families feel like there are not enough hands-on electives.

  • Technical Approach: Build a STEM lab for students to rotate into.
  • Adaptive Approach: Explore skills students need and want; collaborate with workforce partners to understand resources in the community; co-design personalized pathways for learning that evolve with students’ interests.

It is also important to note that many problems may appear technical in nature but could be adaptive at heart. That's especially true in education, where most solutions involve people. Adaptive challenges often require experiments and new discoveries, and they often may take time to implement and cannot be mandated.

Adaptive challenges cannot be solved with technical solutions. In fact, if a problem keeps surfacing over and over again, it is likely because you have applied a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. Knowing how to differentiate between technical and adaptive challenges, then, is an important resource for change-makers.

To learn more about adaptive versus technical challenges, we recommend the work of Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky: ‘Leadership on the Line.’

Considering all the changes COVID-19 has brought us, how can we collectively meet the demands of school transformation that have been thrust upon us? We can start by applying an adaptive mindset to the challenges we face. Here are some resources to get you started:

Strategies and Tools: Get a better understanding of your problem using a fishbone protocol. You can use this template to capture your work and then brainstorm solutions to your problem through this driver diagram.

Pro Tip: The Carnegie Foundation uses the phrase “definitely incomplete; possibly incorrect” as a frame for looking at solutions. In your work, maintain the possibility that you have not yet uncovered all the layers.

Tapping External Support: Sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective. You can leverage a coach, consultant, or trusted advisor to be a sounding board for your plan.

In summary, using shorter improvement cycles and differentiating between technical and adaptive challenges can help you catalyze change. Keep your team fueled by celebrating early results. In a changing landscape that has been so taxing on staff, focusing on small wins may be what we all need to begin the long climb toward large-scale, sustainable change.

This blog is part of a series. Read the introduction to the series here.

Thrive is a nonprofit consulting firm composed of education leaders and coaches who are dedicated to sustainable change and transformative learning.

About the Author

Nicole Assisi is the founding CEO for Thrive. She has over 20 years of experience working in innovative education and was a founding leader for multiple high-profile schools. She has been recognized as a “40 under 40” leader in San Diego and was a finalist for the San Diego Business Journal’s CEO of the Year. As a coach and consultant, she supports hundreds of aspiring and established leaders and their organizations in increasing their capacity. Nicole has grown nonprofits from 2 to over 150 staff members and taught at UCLA, Cal State Dominguez Hills, and the University of San Diego. Nicole holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern California as well as two master’s degrees from the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Shelli Kurth is the Chief Innovation Officer at Thrive. Shelli has deep school-site leadership expertise and brings a broad range of experience as a nonprofit founder, grassroots organizer, school leader, and coach. Shelli’s passion for the people she serves has made her a sought-after coach, trainer, and consultant. Shelli co-hosts an award-winning statewide parent education show on UCTV and is driven by a deep belief in equity, access, and opportunity for all through the empowerment of individuals. She is also a national speaker and writer. As a consultant, Shelli brings intuition and joy to her work and is skilled at working through thorny relationships, creating consensus, and moving teams toward greater collaborative outcomes.