The ultimate oxymoron

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There is no such thing as rapid improvement. The two words simply don’t belong together. Rapid alterations, yes. I can live with that. Rapid change, possibly. But rapid improvement? Absolutely not.

Part of the problem is knowing what we mean by ‘rapid’. It was a phrase that was used many a time by HMI whilst doing our level best to move along a school that was stuck. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how impressive the changes, it was never rapid enough. So as a head I gave up bothering because I soon learnt that if I played the game and gave them ‘rapid’, they left me alone. But it was never going to stick. No sooner had I moved on to the next matter in hand, rapid turned into vapid. There was nothing there, it was meaningless, bland.

I raise this because we are fast approaching day 75 of sponsoring a new academy (working days only). In another 25, we reach the mythical 100-day milestone and by then research tells us that we should have made a difference. In reality this is just over half a school year, so whether it’s reasonable or not to see rapid improvement – with real demonstrable impact – is debatable.

We’ve hardly been pulling up trees during the first one hundred days at school. This mustn’t be mistaken for complacency or lethargy. On the contrary; we’ve been fervent in all that we do. But what we have been doing is watching, observing, listening and talking. This ensures that we lay firm foundations for long term systemic change. In turn the hope is that this will secure the deep-rooted improvements that we yearn.

Having found myself in this position a number of times in different schools throughout my career, what I’ve learnt is this: Horizontalism is the key. This means that leaders see the process of change not as a vertical upward trajectory akin to launching a rocket, but as a sideways segue, perhaps more like the meandering of a submersible as it probes beneath the surface.

The first one hundred days are indeed vital, so use them wisely. Don’t be rushed or hurried. Embrace the fact that rapid improvement is very much a slowburner and can only take off once you’ve been through three distinct phases:

ONE | Stabilise: This is where you need to show that as a leader things are simply not as bad as people may think (even if they are). You need to slow things down, calm things down. It’s crucial during this period that you are able to assess the situation critically and dispassionately and not get drawn into the politics or hubris of a school in crisis. Unless the seas are calm, turbulence prevails and meaningful change simply won’t happen. Creating such an illusion begins and ends with you.

TWO | Prioritise: Once you have turned the illusion into reality and established a sense of calm and stability, it becomes a lot easier to decide what your first important priorities are. With a steady ship you are able to recalibrate the compass. As a team, it is time to create a plan of action in the short, medium and long term. Together, you need to have a strong sense of OST, being clear of your new destination (Objective), how you are going to get there (Strategy) and who does what on the way (Tactics).

THREE | Visualise: This is the most powerful phase. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see the school that you want to create. You need to bring the OST to life by giving it a sense of mission, so that all stakeholders know not only where you want to go, but most importantly, why. To visualise therefore is to rationalise. This is where your vision and values come in to play, and by now, staff should know these inside out. Once you’ve achieved this, you are all set to take off and really make a meaningful difference in a way that will stick.

There could potentially be a fourth phase. If this were so, it would be this: Minimise. This is actually quite crucial as it reminds us that less is more. It really ought to operate alongside each of the phases above, which is why I’m inclined not to include it separately.

Minimising is about being clear of what the main thing is and sticking to it relentlessly. The best leaders ask the question, ‘what is it that we need to do less of?’ This ensures that our OST remains to the point, is purposeful and at the same time being both specific and realistic. Leaders that understand this have a strong sense of USP. They know what their school’s unique selling point is and how this relates to the community that they serve. Above all, they keep things simple.

 

You can read more about some of these ideas in The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond published by John Catt in 2016 and available on Amazon.

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