How to Keep Mutiny from Sinking Your Change Effort by Lee Ann Jung
Adopting a norm of "disagree and commit" allows schools to try out promising new practices even if some teachers harbor doubts.
"You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety." —Abraham Maslow (in Tracy, 2010)
The usual narrative of school change is so often repeated that the story is familiar to nearly every educator. First, a teacher or leader attends a conference session or reads a book and becomes excited about a new research-based practice. An idea for school change is born! That person involves others, and discussion about the idea evolves either informally or as a part of a committee or professional learning community. A group of early adopters may even be identified to start implementing the new practice. Eventually, the leadership team agrees to try to spread this practice schoolwide, and a new initiative is presented to the faculty. Everyone behind the idea has studied—and invested significant time in—the new, research-based practice. They're enthusiastic about pushing it forward for the good of all students in the school. What could go wrong?
This story of school change would be simpler, although possibly less interesting, if the whole faculty agreed before the school adopted the practice, and then learning in the school improved. In fact, that kind of fairy tale ending rarely happens. Instead, as buzz generates about the policy or practice being considered, some degree of mutiny often begins to form in the school, and the shiny bubble of enthusiasm bursts. Teachers say or think things like: "It's just one more thing to do, and I don't have time." "What's wrong with the way we do it now?" "It's only a trend. I'll wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way." "Will this really help students? I don't see it." It's a well-worn path.
Sometimes, families even get into the conversation and oppose the well-intended change. Social media offers the perfect outlet for parents to band together and publicly oppose a new effort, garnering support from other families. The mutiny gains momentum. Disparaging comments and discussions online (easily seen by anyone) can become a source of embarrassment for leaders, who feel they have failed. In the most heated situations, school boards become involved. Thus, a promising effort can be thwarted before it ever gets off the ground. The once-enthusiastic change agents retreat in defeat, wondering what went wrong.
The Case for "Disagree and Commit"What can teacher leaders and administrators do to prevent this kind of creeping rebellion from taking down potentially effective initiatives? There are many points at which an attempt at change can go wrong. After all, leadership and the change process are complex. In this article, I want to address just one point—how to prevent a mutiny from undermining a change effort. In doing so, I'll draw on lessons from the field of business, in particular from tech giants Intel and Amazon.
In Praise of SkepticismAs educators, we want our students to be critical thinkers—to question and show skepticism. We teach them to cite data to support their opinions and to test theories and hypotheses for evidence that supports a claim. But when it's time to implement school change, we often don't appreciate these same qualities in our colleagues. Wouldn't it be better if all teachers just followed suit, never offered any criticism, and made the job of the leaders easier?
Actually, if our fellow teachers are questioning our ideas and making change efforts difficult, someone along the way has done an excellent job of promoting critical thinking and skepticism in those teachers. But how do we both value constructive critique and move an initiative forward at a pace that leads to implementation in less than a decade? The key may lie in what Intel calls "disagree and commit."
How It Works at Intel and AmazonAt Intel and Amazon, when a new idea is on the floor for consideration, employees are invited to share their opinions, including their concerns. Disagreement at this early development stage is considered healthy and helpful to the process (Heath & Heath, 2010). After all, having many people engage and bring forward their individual ideas about a project can lead to significant improvement. An important part of Intel's culture is that all concerns and disagreements are brought forward publicly. Agreeing in the meeting but then disagreeing privately within small groups is unhealthy—a breeding ground for mutiny.
At some point, the newly proposed idea takes shape, and it becomes clear that the group behind it or the leadership is moving in a particular direction. At this point, Intel employees are encouraged to agree or disagree with that decision, but to commit to implementation. Often a person in the meeting will raise his or her hand and say, "I disagree, but commit." Others follow suit until there is universal commitment. Once the decision has been made to implement an idea, everyone recognizes the importance of getting behind that idea and doing their part to make it as successful as possible.
Fuel for Data-based Decision MakingWhy might the disagree-and-commit approach be healthier than continuing to debate until there is universal agreement before implementation? Shouldn't a school wait to move forward until it has buy-in from everyone? Or at least a critical mass of buy-in?
In part, yes. We can't push an initiative forward without some level of agreement. But this doesn't mean we need everyone's agreement that the initiative is the best idea. What we are asking faculty to do, once a direction is determined, is to give it their best, to implement the initiative with their full commitment.
Agreement and commitment to implement aren't the same thing. Jeffrey Bezos (2016), founder and CEO of Amazon, suggests the wording, "Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?" He argues that without trying the new idea, no one really knows for certain whether it will work.
But why would we want school faculty to commit to implementing something they don't agree is the best direction to go? Quite simply, we want to fuel the school's ability to make data-based decisions. For every initiative we select, we are to an extent guessing that a research-based or promising practice will have a positive impact on our school. In reality, this is an empirical question that can only be answered after we implement the initiative and examine our data. There is, however, one certainty: If there is mutiny and the initiative is carried out only halfheartedly or with resentment, it will likely fail—and not necessarily because it was a bad idea.
By establishing a culture of disagree and commit, we create opportunities to test initiatives in our schools and to have honest discussions about what the data reveals after implementation. We can use that data to inform subsequent decisions. But to be able to prove or disprove our hypotheses about a new practice, we must have implemented it with fidelity. Real buy-in happens when teachers integrate a change and then see the positive effects in students.
Grading reform, to take one example, is an excellent opportunity to use disagree and commit. Subgroups of families or teachers often believe that traditional ways of grading are fairer, easier to use, and—as a result—better left alone. There may also be groups who feel the specific language being proposed for report cards or in policies to guide classroom assessment isn't quite right. In some schools, this debate goes on for years before any change is put into place. In other schools, however, decisions are made with purposeful input from stakeholders, new grading practices are implemented, and the school collects data.
I recently worked as a consultant with a school in which the leadership brought a representative team of teachers together to make initial decisions about grading policy and the documentation used to report students' learning. There was disagreement even in this small group. Two teachers felt that, for the language arts reporting categories, reading nonfiction and fiction should be reported separately. Others felt that the skills were transferable and that they didn't need to report those as distinctly separate categories.
In the end, although disagreement remained, the team chose to keep the categories separate and revisit the question the next year. From their data and reflections, they will be able to make decisions on how to revise or finalize their procedures. But debating for years would have left the school with no new information on which to base their decisions, and would have delayed or derailed implementation of grading reforms.
Five Initiative-Saving Steps
What can school leaders do to get staff members to disagree and commit to implement an initiative? Try these five steps.
1. Establish the protocol of school change. Describe the disagree-and-commit model and the rationale behind it to the faculty. Impress on them the need for full commitment to implementation of ideas that are going forward, even when there isn't universal agreement about the practices, so the school can learn from data and grow. Invite disagreement and honest, open communication in public forums—while discouraging private mutiny, for the health of the school.
2. Involve families early on. Families are often informed about a significant school change after that change has been made. Understandably, schools sometimes don't want to ruffle parents' feathers until all the kinks in a new initiative are ironed out. Many times, however, leaders can avoid massive turmoil by involving families earlier in the process. We can provide information on why we are considering a change and create opportunities for parents to voice their opinions on some of the negotiable aspects of the initiative. Most parents aren't experts in education, but they care deeply about the outcomes of their children's schooling. Many want to have an understanding of bigger school changes. Intentionally inviting families into conversations can be a wise investment in an initiative's success.
3. Be clear where the choices are—and aren't. When presenting a new idea or practice to faculty members, it's important to be clear on what's fixed and what's flexed. That is, be honest about what has already been decided and what aspects you're still seeking input on. There is nothing more frustrating than being asked for input after a decision has already been made. That's not a good use of time, and it burns serious social capital with your faculty. Instead, as you present the initiative, describe the nonnegotiables (what's already been decided) and open up the floor for discussion on the components for which you're still seeking input.
4. Be prepared to shift from discussion to commitment to implementation. As the discussion of the change initiative reaches the point of saturation and all points seem to have been considered, take a barometer of the group, summarize the discussion so far, and move forward. We want to give the faculty plenty of time to consider an initiative and ensure that we have everyone's feedback, but we don't want the discussion phase to carry on for months, or worse, years. Leaders must be prepared to close the discussion, make a decision with the input they've received, and call for commitment on whether to move forward with the initiative. Without a doubt, there will still be those who disagree, but this is the time to remind the group why implementing the change wholeheartedly and with fidelity is necessary.
There will, of course, be times when a small group pilots an initiative. The size of the group implementing the change is unimportant; what's important is that everyone in that group does so to the best of their ability.
It's also important for school leaders to remain open to changing direction as a result of the discussion of a change initiative—for example, because an overwhelming majority of teachers find the direction to be ill-advised and are unwilling to commit. Certainly, if a group finds the direction conflicts with a legal provision or a fundamental value held by the school or individuals within it, teachers can't be expected to commit. If the leadership team receives this kind of information from the discussion, they should reconsider the initiative.
5. Take data and make adjustments as you go. Just as we do in the classroom, we should gather formative data on the effect an initiative is having, share that data, and make adjustments along the way. For more contentious initiatives, we may need to revisit our culture of disagree and commit regularly throughout the implementation period—and openly applaud the efforts of those who've made the decision to disagree and commit for the betterment of the school. Certainly, it's difficult to find yourself in a position of implementing an initiative the group has decided to take on that you don't fully support.
School Leader: Be Nimble
Educational leaders are in the challenging position of shepherding forward school change, often in the face of heated opposition from faculty members or families. But shying away from school change is not the answer if we want to have progressive schools that respond quickly to the research and recommended practices from the field. We must remain actively engaged with the research and nimble enough to respond to it in our own schools. School leaders must also have the skills to guide difficult and productive conversations about implementation with faculty members. The disagree-and-commit approach, situated within the context of data-based decision making, offers leaders one more tool for successfully implementing difficult school change.
Bezos. J. (2016). 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon.
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Made to stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. New York: Random House.
Tracy, B. (2010). How the best leaders lead: Proven secrets to getting the most out of yourself and others. New York: AMACOM.