Gaining Traction

“You are a product of your environment.  So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective.  Analyze your life in terms of its environment.  Are the things around you helping toward success – or are they holding you back.” –via Clement Stone

Without validating the truth of the statement, several years ago I was told that Rick DuFour made the comment that a majority of those who attend the conferences struggle to successfully implement Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in their organization.

Whether true or not, it remains a valid statement that has taken up residence in my subconscious throughout these years.  A statement that may be well-worth our consideration, or as Simon Sinek might say, “let’s start with the why”.  Which may also shed some light on the ‘why’ behind previously failed change efforts.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our ability to create change in our organization requires influence.  It is hard to lead the charge without it.  If you are unable to influence thinking and actions, then you shouldn’t expect to see many changes in behaviors across the organization.

It is just a leadership reality.

So, without straying too far off topic, let’s get back to the original idea of why is it so difficult to implement our learning to create and support positive change in our organizations?

One way we fail the process is our ability to recognize that the context and way in which we achieved the learning has an impact on us, either negatively or positively.  Those same learnings, whether gleaned from a conference or our own reading or research has an impact on us in the manner and environment in which the learning was acquired.  The learning brings both an emotional and intellectual impact, which is often determined by where we are at in life.  The problem, not everyone else is in same place or hears and feels the information in the same context.

And this is where we often go off the tracks as leaders…

When we attend a conference and return Monday morning fired up and ready to change the world, we have to understand that not everyone else is in the same place (mentally or emotionally).  Not everyone arrived at work Monday morning hoping to turn the world upside-down!  Yet, we are busting at the seams with this new learning that must be shared across the organization.  Bubbling at the brim with excitement to get everyone revved up with the new knowledge we have acquired.  It’s time to make an impact!  So, with our zeal in tow, we pull everyone together, and guess what?  It falls flat.  It tanks like a lead balloon.  Doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, other than the obligatory, “Are we required to do this?”  And our leadership bubble bursts in frustration.  And so we call in our overworked secretary and sing the woes of our failed effort, what is wrong with everyone?  Can’t everyone see what a great idea this is?  Don’t they see the great possibilities?  And our poor secretary, who doesn’t know what to say, just hopes that the tirade doesn’t take long.  She needs to get back to the jobs that must get done for the same person keeping her from that very work.

What is toughest to swallow, is that in all actuality, the frustration is our own doing.  Our zeal to move forward has caused us to overlook and forced a major misstep in the change process: understanding that everyone has a different mental map.  As leaders (and to our own detriment) we have a tendency to envision everyone on the same page, with the same learning, right alongside us.  The reality check is, everyone has their own mental map and some aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page.  Which, suffice to say, is a strong proponent for why it is our responsibility as leaders to create a visual of our mental map for those we lead.

That is the power of vision, without the ability to create it for those you lead you will most likely find yourself back in your office singing the woes of your plight to a very unimpressed secretary.  And furthermore, an inability to influence others with a vision that aligns the organization creates dysfunction and frustrates everyone within.  The end result of the interaction, those leading wondering “what’s wrong with everyone” and those following rolling their eyes at another “here we go again!”  An organizational situation that most of us have lived through at one time or another in our professional lives.

And for a myriad of reasons, we must recognize the importance of our mental maps if we hope to exert any type of influence.  It is an incredibly vital aspect of our leadership that can often determine the effective and/or ineffectiveness of our change efforts within our organization.

An additional reason our Monday morning ‘look what I learned’ change effort usually falls flat is that we have not ‘shaped the Path’ which walks hand in hand with creating the mental map.   In their book, “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” the Heath Brothers expound on our tendency to take what is really a situational problem and treat it as a people problem.  If we haven’t created the appropriate mental map and environment that allows people to embrace change, how can we expect anything other than resistance?  We have to step back from our new learning and gain some perspective before we can determine how to construct the context for others to embrace that very same learning.  Which requires patience and timing!  The path doesn’t just appear, you have to create it, brick by brick.  Then you have to tether it out to them before you can decide to gently lead them down it.  We must remember that our abrupt attempts at change create resistance and eventually fail in a dismal fashion.  Leading requires doing the groundwork.  It’s what makes the job both difficult and rewarding.

If you truly want to create change and influence those in your learning organization, you have to create the mental maps and shape the Path necessary to evoke the thinking and actions that will lead to long lasting behavioral changes.  It is neither an easy or quick process hence, why change is always a difficult endeavor.

Reflecting on DuFour’s originating statement, the question becomes can we improve our ability to influence those we lead?  Is there a strategy to improve our ability to create mental maps, shape the Path, and influence change?

I believe there is a simple and yet complex leadership strategy that has influenced people throughout the ages.

It is the art of storytelling…

Look at the incredible manner that Rick DuFour took hold and changed the educational landscape through Professional Learning Communities.  It goes beyond just presenting the idea of PLCs, or everyone would be implementing it masterfully in their districts and schools.  He turned PLCs into a worldwide educational movement, while many struggle to gain traction in an individual schoolhouse.  And we wonder, what’s the secret?  The answer: there is no secret rather, a subtle and often overlooked leadership ability to convey the message through stories (along with tireless dedication and hard work).

For those of you who have witnessed him discussing the process, you find yourself instantly drawn in.  Why?  He has the uncanny ability to involve us personally in the process, to create a story that motivates and influences us.  He has the ability and gift to weave the PLC process into a story that we can all relate to and with.  He is a master of the craft.

Patterson’s book, “Influencer: The Power To Change Anything” we are pointed to the power of stories as a tool of influence.  The significance of creating vivid and detailed narratives for those you are trying to influence remains a vital leadership strategy.  Stories, Patterson says, change people’s view of how the world works because it presents a plausible, touching, and memorable flow of cause and effect that can alter people’s view of the consequences of various actions or beliefs.

Why?  Why are stories such a powerful tool for influencing people?  Patterson declares even the most educated of people tend to set aside their well-honed cynicism and critical nature when listening to a story, because stories help individuals transport themselves away from the role of a listener who is rigorously applying the rules of logic, analysis, and criticism and into the story itself.”  He further elaborates, concrete and vivid stories exert extraordinary influence because they transport people out of the role of critic and into the role of a participant.”

And isn’t that what we are after, for those we lead to participate in the process and involve themselves in the change effort.  Patterson reminds us that just understanding and believing a new point of view may not be enough to propel them into action.”  When leaders create stories, they also create the intellectual and emotional Paths for the listener and play a critical role in ‘shaping the Path’ to the change.  In the “Influencer” Patterson writes to the idea that creating the mental maps that change the way people think goes a long way towards changing how they behave.  That alone provides the impetus and ‘why’ we need to hone our leadership capacity towards becoming masterful storytellers.  We should become experts in the use of the most portable and readily available map-changing tool around – the poignant story.

When we pounce on those we lead with new ideas and change efforts that lack the map or Path when we drop change initiatives out of the blue, we fail to create the environment necessary to facilitate change.  It is our duty as leaders to increase our capacity to support and lead the process, and one way to improve our capacity is through the art of storytelling.

So if you go to a new conference this week and/or find yourself energized from new learnings acquired over the weekend remember, if you truly want to invoke change across the organization, exert a little patience and do those things necessary to create the environment that will allow your efforts to flourish.



“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.  Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience.” – Ingrid Bengis

When it comes right down to it, I really love words, and what’s more is our incredible access and ability to create with them in a manner beyond any other time in history.  We can use them as a gift to influence another or a multitude, to create a mood, to evoke happiness, motivate us to great levels of achievement, or to close us off and shut down those very same channels of communication.  We each have the power to determine how we will use our words, which very often begins with the an awareness of how we use our words and how they affect us and those around us on a daily basis.

Words are powerful…

Often, the simplest of words create the most force. Take the word or.  In Rick DuFour’s seminal work, Professional Learning Communities at Work, there is a reference to the Tyranny of Or which he goes on to say is “the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces at the same time. We must be A or B but not both.” In the same book he also refers to the power of ‘and‘.  The Genius of And is the “ability to reject the Tyranny of Or and embrace paradox.  Embracing the Genius of And allows an individual to avoid the choice between A or B and to choose both A and B at the same time.  A commitment to simultaneous loose and tight leadership serves as an example of the Genius of And.  Or and And, two very innocuous, yet powerful words.

And yet, I would like to add one more word to that list of simple, innocent and extremely influential words that often affect and hold power over us in subtle and mysterious ways. A common, everyday word that we often fail to acknowledge and/or take into account for its power over our daily decisions and progress.

I would like to present, if

Or we might refer to as, If, the Great Qualifier.

If allows us not to be all in, it is an incredibly safe word.  It is the antithesis of risk.  If is a safety net.  And we use it constantly at our places of work, with our families, and it even weaves its way into our prayers.  It makes everything we do safe and risk-free.

If, the Great Qualifier is the controller of the disrupters and the maintainer of the status quo.

How so, you say…

In their book, Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four Essential Guiding Principles Buffum, Mattos and Weber attend to the power of if, and how some educators will start to qualify their responses with ifs: “yes, all kids can learn, if the students want to learn, if the parents are supportive, if our school had more resources, if the district, state, and national policymakers would stop hampering our efforts.  Too often, the ifs are all conditions beyond the school’s control, conditions that ultimately release the educators from responsibility for their students’ learning.”

If is a warrior for complacency which we will have to continually subdue and fight against if we want those we lead to embrace new and innovative ideas.  Otherwise, if will continue to make us risk averse – both as individuals and within our organizational cultures.

If kills creativity and innovation.

If keeps us in the box.

The Two Types…

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”  –Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress

There is something about that quote that I just love, it stirs something inside.  It is also incredibly fitting for our current circumstances in education.  Especially, in regards to “we must think anew, and act anew.”  And most importantly, we must “disenthrall ourselves.”  It is really an outstanding quote for the 21st century mindset.  However, most of you will be less familiar with this quote as it extends from Abraham Lincoln, than from Sir Ken Robinson’s famed TED-talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution.”  If you haven’t watched “Bring on the Learning Revolution,” it is truly worth taking the time.

Besides his moving use of Lincoln’s Message to Congress, Ken Robinson references Jeremy Bentham, an English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer.  And to quote, “It was Jeremy Bentham, I believe who said there are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who don’t.”  For which he replies, “Well, these days I do.”

Though I have watched this TED-talk a number of times and referenced bits and clips for a variety of presentations, I never really gave that comment much thought.  Until now.

And actually I believe he is right, in its simplest of forms, reflecting on the educational landscape, as a teacher, a principal, or a district level administrator, there basically are two types

As educators, we have a tendency, for all intents and purposes to fall into two camps or two types (for which I have taken the liberty of naming)

1. The Twistovators


2. The Blockstacles

Over my twenty years as an educator, in its rawest and simplest form, through every meeting and training, always seems to boil down to us falling into one or the other of these two camps whenever any new initiative, program, policy, or procedure is unveiled.

To get a clearer picture, let’s define the two types.

First, let’s look at the Blockstacles, which are those educators who immediately hit the stop button at the first sign of any new idea, initiative, or change effort.  They are so named for their ability to quickly block any change effort and immediately begin erecting a myriad of obstacles to throw in front of the process.  They have an uncanny ability to provide an endless tirade of reasons why something can’t or won’t work.

The second group I will refer to as the Twistovators, which tend to be a rather quiet group.  In contrast to the Blockstacles, they usually have little to say because their minds are racing in an entirely different direction.  Before the initiative is entirely rolled out they have already internalized the concept and are now running with it.  They have taken the idea, added their own twist to the initiative, and are now considering a multitude of ways to innovate the idea (beyond what you may have considered) to fit their circumstances and needs.

As instructional leaders, our focus should not be caught up on whether one type or camp is better or worse than the other, or even how frustrating they can be rather, it is to utilize understanding of both camps to increase our leadership capacity and influence.  Acknowledging the two types exist requires deeper preparation for moving any change effort or initiative forward.  For example, knowing that the Blockstacles will be ready for you demands clarity from your leadership to the ‘why’ and not merely the ‘what’ and ‘how‘  for the initiative.  Without true clarity to the ‘why’ the Blockstacles will undoubtedly plow over the initiative before it ever has a chance to gain traction.  And they will most likely do it in a public manner.

Knowing that the Twistovators exist requires you to determine the loose/tight (autonomy) approach you are willing to take with the change effort or initiative.  You begin with the end in mind and directly attend to expectations at the beginning of the effort.  Whether that be tight alignment or full autonomy to run with the idea.  Either way, clarity will save a lot of wasted time and backtracking for all involved.

So rather than being frustrated with the two types, use this knowledge to build and strengthen your leadership capacity.  Determining the ‘why’ of any initiative and/or change effort and being prepared for the two types not only strengthens your understanding of the initiative, but requires you to reflect deeply on whether the initiative is in alignment with the goals and core values of your organization.  And even more importantly, allows you to determine whether the timing is right to move forward.  Remember, very seldom are there do-overs, you get one chance to make the impact and impression.  Be prepared.

And as Lincoln stated to Congress in 1862, “we must think and act anew.”