From Warriors to Architects: My 3 Lessons in Leadership From Implementation Science

On a bleary Friday morning in January, I found myself desperately trying to finalise last minute cover and cursing myself for agreeing to add another new ‘thing’ to my workload. I had little idea what ‘Implementation Science’ involved then, or how learning about it would become so pivotal to my outlook on leadership. Distracted by the niggling doubt that there was something else I had forgotten to do,  I waited in the room for an introduction to the project, consoling myself by chomping down on a free croissant.

Pioneered and led by James Manion and Mark Quinn from The London Centre For Leadership and Learning, the Implementation Science project involved forming a ‘a vertical slice’ of  8 members of staff, which included teachers, heads of house, SEN teachers, Faculty Leads and SLT. Under their guidance, our aim was to apply research from Implementation Science to maximise the success of a new policy in our school: the central tenet being as the Bananarama song goes, “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.  My new policy on T&L was to be the guinea pig policy. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about this until I realised just what scrutiny I was holding the new policy up to, but nor did it occur to me how vital the feedback of this vertical slice would be in making the policy infinitely better, and how grateful I would be for my involvement in the project.

Leadership Lesson One:

Whilst I knew I had to surrender my policy to the group with the good grace of agreeing to make changes, I found myself leaving the first few sessions simultaneously shell shocked and enlightened. Obviously the value of gathering feedback from your colleagues was not an alien concept to me; however, the key difference here was that we were all established as equal stakeholders in the project, with the time and space to really listen and value the perspective of colleagues across the whole school. I was relieved to discover that we were more aligned than divided in our aims, but also slightly unnerved by the realisation that so much of the communication of my vision was assumed rather than realised. The feedback from the first session was amplified by each stakeholder collating further data from other linked colleagues at the school, meaning that by the end of the second session we had a pretty solid idea of the policy as it was would be received. Needless to say by the end of the second session, I had learnt key leadership lesson number one: ‘the people are the intervention’, and on the advice of the group I had resolved to make much more profound changes to the policy than the initial ones I thought I would.

Leadership Lesson Two:

The policy itself was already ten times better as a result of the feedback, but leadership lesson number two centred around the pace of change. High stakes accountability and more often than not, an urgent need to affect results, can create a ‘quick fix’ culture, meaning that leaders become warriors, desperately running the gauntlet of endless unexpected obstacles, rather than architects, skillfully laying down long term foundations for effective change. The danger of the ‘warrior’ approach lies not only in worn out leaders, but also worn out staff, tired of working towards an initiative only to have to change tack next year when it dies out in favour of the next new thing, slightly more cynical, slightly more weary.

Leadership lesson number two: this time I was determined to be an architect and not a warrior! As a result of our participation in the Implementation Science project, our improvement plan spans not one year but three, utilizing the ‘Law of Diffusion of Innovation’, Guskey’s model of change and ‘The Concerns Based Adoption Model’ (Hall and Hord 2016) to bridge the implementation gap. It builds in ample time to communicate ideas with all stakeholders, provide necessary training, secure resources and embed structures and evaluate and make necessary changes if we need to. What’s more, our initial vertical slice will remain ‘guardians’ of the project, making sure we do not fall short of our agreed aims and approach.

Leadership Lesson Three:

It is early days, but I have a sneaking suspicion that being an architect will suit me far better than being a warrior. Furthermore, at a time in education when there is a moral imperative to adopt an evidence based approach to the interventions we select for school improvement, surely there is an equal moral imperative to use an evidence based approach in implementing them? Therefore leadership lesson number three is as the famous song goes, to always to think as much about how I do it, as what I do, and to shut the door on that dark forgotten cupboard of quick fixes and ‘unlived’ policies.

Published by elainenlong

English teacher 15 years, Assistant Principal for T&L. All views my own.

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