Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dealing With Resistance

If you are a leader attempting to create dramatic contextual change in your organization you will quickly have a new friend for life; a friend who hops up on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Hello, I’m your new best mate and my name is RESISTANCE.” As a leader, if you ignore resistance, it will infect and destroy any change attempt.

Within every organization there is a solid and seemingly unified contingent wearing tee shirts that say, “This too shall pass.” Unattended, resistors and their cousins will carry the moment and a compelling vision will not be enough to get the job done. Can you see your resistors? Do you know who they are? Do you attend to them? How?

When I moved into leadership, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, three decades ago, resistors were my biggest surprise. They can come in all sizes and shapes and be anybody. Sometimes, all I needed to do to see a resistor was look in a mirror! A few have been members of my leadership team. Quickly, I realized resistance would always be an important part of my life, like a genetic disease akin to diabetes. It would never go away. I had to learn how to live comfortably with the resistors. It became an issue of how to mute their power and support them in making the personal choice of commitment. WE HAVE A RIGHT TO ASK FOR THAT COMMITMENT! My friend and partner, John Edwards, says it best, “All of us need to be clear about what we draw a salary for. Anyone who draws a salary to work at our organization is expected to work hard to help our organization achieve its vision, and maybe some people need to be reminded of this.” Supporting resistors in making the personal choice of commitment is bloody hard work. Ignoring them or running away from them will destroy any improvement effort. AS A LEADER, DESIGNING A PROCESS TO DEAL AND LIVE COMFORTABLY WITH RESISTORS IS CRITICAL.

This post will detail the process I have evolved over the years to deal with resistance. It is one man’s story. Many of you have created your own stories and are expert at this. What are your successful strategies for dealing with resistance?

To deal with resistors you must understand their source of power. This power normally resides in one of four platforms.
1. Our organization has been down this path before.
2. Our organization may be committed, but the federal, state and regional offices are not.
3. Prove to me that the leadership team supports this.
4. If I go along with you, how long will you or I (us) be around?
These are compelling platforms for two reasons: first, there is truth in what they say and second, they speak for each of us. Resistors have often been the voice of my own doubts! They often have history on their side. They have the data to prove that other attempts to change the organization have passed in the night. They put into words the doubts we all have. Resistance is disbelief, a loss of faith in the sincerity or goodwill of others. What resistors seek is a promise we can never give them. They want us to reassure them that we can provide a safe and successful future. We cannot choose adventure (your shared vision journey) and then promise safety to get people to come with us.

The resistor has two first cousins, the victim and the bystander. They form different kinds of resistance because they run on different fuels. Victims will claim that it is not within their power to make the changes required. They will point to a multitude of reasons for this. These reasons are never “their fault”; someone or something else is always responsible.
“I don’t have enough time.”
“They won’t let us.”
“You overloaded us.”
Bystanders enter the game by withholding commitments. They want proof that this will work. Your shared vision journey is filled with uncertainty. You can never offer the proof a bystander requires.
“Guarantee me that we will be successful.”
“Why should we experiment on ourselves?”
“We are already the best.”
Have you identified the types of resistors in your organization? Try classifying your resistors according to the framework just presented. This data will be helpful as you design strategies to deal with them.

What follows is my design. I have not numbered my strategies because they can occur in any number of sequences. This is not magic and it wasn’t always successful. The evolution of the design allowed me to live comfortably with resistors and their cousins. We need to find a way to evoke faith, responsibility and commitment in ourselves and those around us and at a minimum, keep the resistors, victims, and bystanders from controlling the emotional environment and undermining our efforts. We need a way to be deeply respectful of them and at the same time prevent them from having the undue power they sometimes gather.

Bill’s Design: Dealing With Resistance

• Never argue
Our instinctive response to resistance is to argue. We want to persuade the resistor that this change will be special. Efforts to sell the new age to a resistor by argument always are futile. There is a reason you can’t argue with a resistor. There is some validity to what they say. They put into words doubts we all have. For these reasons we cannot argue or barter with resistors. The more we argue the stronger they become. Resistance is disbelief, a loss of faith in the sincerity or goodwill of others. How can you argue or barter for faith?

• Never coerce
We cannot coerce resistors. We need to believe that faith, responsibility, and commitment is a matter of personal choice. Even though history may be on the side of the resistors and their wounds are real, they can choose to have faith in the face of that experience. This is the invitation we make to them. We need to affirm their version of the history and support them in their doubts. We replace coercion and persuasion with invitation.

• Never allow resistors a public forum
One verbal resistor in a room of fifty can set the tone and carry the day. We really don’t need resistors to join our effort because we already have a critical mass that will do that. We want to contain the influence resistors have over others. Never allow resistors to have a public audience. I planned for this in designing meetings. I never allowed argument at a staff meeting. I would explain that we had only a precious few moments to spend together as a staff during the year and that these needed to be positive moments. Argument simply wastes everyone’s energy and no good will come of it. This was proven at my daughter’s secondary school where she teaches recently. Her principal chastised the staff about rumors. The public argument that followed fractured the school climate like a stone being thrown through a plate glass window. That kind of meeting becomes an infectious disease.

• Be of one voice, one mind
When I first moved into leadership, I was fortunate to be mentored under a wonderful leader. In my first conversation with him he taught me a lesson I will never forget. He explained that my responsibility was to assist him in being a great leader for the organization, even when I didn’t agree with him. Further, he expected me to use my strengths to compensate for his weaknesses. If I would remember that advice my career would flourish. I did and it did! Through him I learned that behind closed doors we could argue and debate strategies and issues until we were blue in the face. But, once we opened those doors our staff would need to see and hear a leadership team that spoke and acted as one mind, one voice. When you are not, you create an environment where resistors flourish. If you are not of one mind, one voice, the resistors will drive a Mack truck through the hole. Resistors on leadership teams are especially dangerous. In my career worked with twenty-five different leadership team members. I am proud that fifteen of them moved to the next level of their careers while working with me. Three retired happily. Four were resistors. How do you handle resistors on your leadership team? We cannot allow those closest to us to be Mack trucks because they can destroy our efforts instantly. Like other staff members we must support them in making the personal choice of commitment. And remember, WE HAVE A RIGHT TO ASK FOR THAT COMMITMENT. I don’t believe there are any throwaway people. I continually invited my leadership team resistors to make a commitment. Those commitments were forged as partnerships. WE continually designed agreements of how we would work together. This was a written design. WE continually created the parameters of our responsibilities to one another. These were written parameters. WE continually met to gather and share data related to our agreements. After time, if the data proved they were not willing to commit, I would ask them to leave. In my personal history with leadership resistors; instantly in one case, after four years in another, three years in another, and 2 years in the last, they left. My first CEO removed the first resistor for me by transferring him. Two retired gracefully. The other resigned as I prepared to fire him. Being of one mind, one voice is serious leadership work. Nothing less should be accepted.

• Engage resistors in Facilitative Questioning
Seek to understand your resistors so you know where they fit on the framework I described earlier. Facilitative Questioning is the most powerful tool I have ever learned for doing so. I continually looked for opportunities to engage resistors in Facilitative Questioning episodes allowing me to construct MY version of THEIR truth, their values, beliefs and assumptions. By questioning resistors, I came to understand their history and their passions and could identify the kind of resistor I was dealing with. A good question to start with is: “Help me understand where your behavior is coming from?” This should come after you have shared clear data. Another good question is: “If you were the leader and you saw this behavior in a staff member (or leadership team member) what action would you take?” The key in Facilitative Questioning is to leave the responsibility with the person who should hold it. DO NOT try to fix them up, just help them reflect on their behavior.

• Invite partnerships through stewardship conferences
There are two phases to the conference. First, I ask the resistor what they are going to commit to do to help us on our shared vision journey. Next, I ask what they will need from me to be successful. When we are done I have a clear understanding of how I will need to continue to support each of my resistors and the data we need to generate to know if we are honoring our partnership agreement.

• Gather the data
If a resistor, over time, would not engage in making choices to fulfill our partnership agreement, we would gather and share data, reflect through facilitative questioning with them regarding that data, design new action plans from that reflection, and coach them through the action plan.

• Keep your eye on the vision, not the current reality
If over time, you are unable to mute the power of resistors and they are destroying your shared vision journey, they must be asked to leave. Those are not easy decisions, but the shared vision is your organization’s power. In twenty years I dismissed one employee and then there was that Leadership Team who resigned first. Many people left of their own volition, because of the process just outlined. In some cases my support of the resistor included helping him or her find an appropriate place for their work.

The sum total of working this process to deal with resistance over the years acted as a muffler on my contingent of resistors. And it was always a great joy when a resistor accepted the invitation to commit. A few letters from resistors who committed are among my most treasured possessions in my career.

Finally, I could surmise that I spent so much time with resistors that many of them have become life-long friends!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Real Transformation = Storms, Pits, and Context

Real change means becoming something radically different tomorrow than you are today. We can make the case that this kind of transformation is rare, especially in schools where the status quo has prevailed. I believe the reason for this is that the work of real change is very confronting, individually and collectively. The angst, confusion and frustration of real change is not easily embraced in any organization and in schools stifled by the status quo massive resistance and fear exist.

That is why being a member of the International Network of Community Designed Education (Teacher Designed Schools in Australia and New Zealand) co-founded by Dr. John Edwards and I in 2003 is both exhilirating and confronting at the same time. Our processes embed all of the attributes of real, contextual change that exist in "Best Practice" research today. What follows is a description of that research and how we include those attributes into our professional work.

Michael Fullan has two new books out: All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform, (Corwin Press, 2010) and Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, (Corwin Press, 2010). These books spell out that fundamental change must include total engagement, that everyone is engaged – whole school reform. Professional learning has to include everybody; otherwise, you only get piecemeal change.

The Network processes meet this need for total engagement. From building the shared vision and engaging in the research of the Preparation for Action year to the mental model work of implementation, everybody is influenced to be engaged.

Fullan mirrors Peter Senge’s concepts of “less is more” and “slower is faster.” As the school leader, according to Fullan, your role is to mobilize the whole group around a small number of powerful initiatives/tasks and then making sure the school is in a network of schools where the schools are learning from each other. His “skinny on change” is identifying the smallest number of key factors that you need to focus on, factors that are high-powered, in the sense that if you do them together, you’ll see lots of results for the efforts. The leader mobilizes the group to work together and excites people who are there to collaborate to do something different that they find satisfying and energizing.

Long before Fullan came to this conclusion we had built these concepts into the Network processes. This is especially observed at the beginning of Phase 2 where every school is encouraged to design a sensible long-term improvement plan where “speed” must always be based on the mental models you are trying to embed into the culture of the school. The Network provides opportunities for learning with like-minded colleagues around the world who speak a common language. This is powerfully obvious at our annual Network Leaders’ Days.

The “pit” must be seen as an absolute necessity for change and learning. As Edward’s and Butler’s research shows us, feeling frustrated, uncomfortable and anxious is a vital ingredient for learning. All contextual change flows through a shift in mental models; the values, beliefs and assumptions that drive our performance. These mental models are resistant to change. Choosing to live out a new mental model means we will “get worse before we get better” according to the Model of Transformational Learning. This is the storming stage in the life of healthy learning, either individually or collectively. School leaders must create the conditions for a collective storm in order for contextual change to be a reality. They must also hold their nerve during the storm.

The TDS/CDE Network processes provide schools a structure that ensures challenge influences the learning process. It is the Preparation for Action Year. A time to storm is validated and the conditions that influence contextual change are strategically designed into the process: answers are drawn out of those who know them best – the people doing the job, staff are provided a safe environment to try things out and fit them to their context, the power of the individual and group is used to bring contextual change to the surface, and school leaders provide the time, space and commitment for the challenge of the storm to be the school’s reality.

In the preface to John Hattie’s new book, Visible Learning, Michael Fullan is referenced describing that the problem schools face is “not resistance to innovation, but the fragmentation, overload, and incoherence resulting from the uncritical and uncoordinated acceptance of too many different innovations.” Whole-school reform, contextual change, can only occur when a school community chooses wisely from the myriad of innovations Fullan speaks about. And that is only the first step. Whatever you choose must be fit to your context. Nothing can be directly implemented from elsewhere. Everything must be designed to fit your uniqueness. This takes time, iterations and trust in you. Then leaders must teach the mental models the community will need to embed the innovation into the culture of the school.

Again, the TDS/CDE Network processes support you to fit contextual change to your context. This begins powerfully with the Core Value work during Phase 1. This becomes more readily apparent in Phase 2 and Phase 3 as you design your long-term school improvement plan and identify the implementation tasks and mental models that must be in place to realize your plan and shared vision. Processes like the Butler Model are used to support school leaders to design the mental model lessons they must teach to the school community.

The four concepts just described form the knowledge base for whole-organization reform and contextual change that has been emerging in the literature over the past decade. As Fullan states, “We can actually describe this system-wide change in a very pinpointed way. The clarity and specificity are very well operationalized and transparently observable. Politicians and policymakers are increasingly interested in this, because the old strategies haven’t worked and these look like they should work. Also, the investment in innovation, development, success, and the research associated with that has also accumulated. And most importantly, we now have scores of practitioners who are practicing this. All of my best ideas come from practitioners.”

While this research is just coalescing internationally, leaders of member TDS/CDE schools, have been practicing the research since 2003. And this is not easy. We have never offered anyone a rose garden. The continuous fight to choose to lead your organization through the shared visioning journey instead of giving in to the management sirens luring you onto the rocks demands courage and sustained passion and commitment. This is often difficult, time consuming and energy depleting. Dramatic contextual change is simply hard work that you must own as a leader and. You must have friends who will always stand strongly with you in this fight! It is a fight you must own and have the courage to win. The result will be transformation. And according to the research it will lead you “to do the right thing rather than always attempting to do things right.”