Sunday, July 13, 2014

Change Is Good...You Go First!

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."
-George Bernard Shaw

I stole the title of this week's post from one of my favorite videos produced by the folks at Simple Truths. At first glance, it does not have that much to do with change, but it is filled with excellent quotes about leadership and as leaders we must often serve as change agents in our schools. This fun video is only three minutes in length and worth a watch. 

In our profession, change is pretty much a constant, yet I recently found myself thinking about change not at school, but during our annual 4th of July Fireworks celebration. For the past six years, I have had the good fortune to live in Lake Forest, Illinois, one of the prettiest small cities anywhere.

Each July 4, we have a huge celebration in the fields behind the middle school, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display.While waiting for the fireworks, residents bring food, drinks, chairs, blankets and listen to a band. This year, we hosted two bands, 10,000 Maniacs followed by Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Having done the exact same thing for six years, I walked in and made a beeline for my usual spot--the far southwest corner near the stage, completely oblivious to a major change the folks in charge had made--without even consulting me, I might add. Someone with me stopped me and said, "Hey, the stage is over there this year," pointing to the far southeastern corner of the field. Now, this is a bit crazy, but I found myself getting upset: Why did they mess with a good thing? I liked the way it was set up the past six years; it always worked well enough, so why change now? Is getting out at the end of the night going to be even more of a hassle with this new set up? I simply did not get it: the stage was ALWAYS over there and I knew right where MY SPOT on the field was. Reluctantly, I trudged to the other side of the field and set up camp over there, grumbling all the way.

It was not long before I realized two things: First, it became evident that the new set up had several benefits over the previous iteration. The stage was constructed on a small hill providing better sound and visibility. It was closer to the parks and rec building for easy access to indoor spaces and utilities. It faced the audience at a better angle, allowing more in the audience to have a clear view of the stage. Secondly--and inexplicably--I realized I was still a bit upset about the new setup, at least for the first hour or so, even though I clearly saw the benefits. There was absolutely no legitimate reason to justify my mild irritation; from what I could tell, everything about the new set up was a slight improvement over the previous model. The only reason for my irritation was that this new set up was different; it was not the one I was used to.

Change is funny like that, whether it is a change in a holiday celebration or a change in the way we do something in our schools. Sometimes, even when the change is clearly a change for the better, we feel discomfort and a sense of loss. We may eventually even acknowledge that the change is an improvement, yet still feel a bit disgruntled since the old way worked pretty well, too. And even though the change may be better in most ways, we can always find something in the old way that was better (in the case of our 4th of July celebration, I noted that I had to walk about fifty yards further to get to the restrooms than I had to with the previous arrangement). 
As I drove home that night, I found myself sheepishly chucking at my own resistance to change when--so often--I find myself advocating for changes in our profession. A few takeaways I reflected on:

1. When initiating change, we first have to determine with as much certainty as possible that the change we are undertaking will improve the status quo. If we cannot, we should proceed with great caution.

2. After initiating the change, we must calmly and reasonably monitor the results and survey our community members to see if the change is working and being accepted as an improvement compared to the previous way. If it is better, we press on; if not, we either revert back to the old or tweak the new yet again to ensure we have the best model we can create.

3. Even when change is overwhelmingly positive, we must accept that change can be difficult to accept and we are likely disturbing the comfort level of many. Very seldom do we find the majority of people in any organization when faced with change, standing up and volunteering to go first. Instead, they may think the change is good....and still want someone else to go first.

4. If the change is clearly proven to be working with better results and we still have some in the community who are complaining about the change, we need to again communicate clearly with these individuals why we changed, what the change has allowed us to do, and, finally, have respectful, but very direct and honest conversations with anyone still unwilling to accept the changes, letting them know the changes are here to stay.

When I first walked into our annual 4th of July celebration and finally noticed the big change, I was a bit angry. If you had asked me at that moment, I would have voted for the change to be reversed in favor of the old system. After taking it all in and reflecting on the pros and cons, I had to admit it: this change was good--once I finally changed my mind!

3 Worth Reading:

1. 5 Ways To Influence Change by George Couros

2. Leading Change by David Steward


  1. Jeff it is honest reflections like yours that help myself,and I'm sure others, continue to grow from our PLN. I completely agree with your initial reaction and I'm sure would have felt the same. Your ability to quickly self assess and reflect show just what type of person you are. As leaders we are often the ones that try to spark a little change and then we are surprised when we get some pushback. It is good for us to sometimes "see" things from the other side. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am better and more complete because of this piece.

    1. Jon,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting; I appreciate PLN members like you beyond what words can describe! You are correct that we need to anticipate pushback, not be surprised by it---and, be prepared to support others through the change. Best,

  2. Jeff,

    Another thought-provoking post, my friend! I appreciate how you tackle the leverage points that are critical to high-impact leadership.

    Change is hard, yes, and it's our obligation to those who will be affected to ensure decisions are based on what's best for the organization...and it's people. For me, the first and last question I ask is, "Will this change yield what's best for our students?"

    Your real-life stories add meaning and I so appreciate the related links that you share. Reading your posts never fail to extend my learning or influence my thinking on a topic...long after I've read it.

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

    ~ Dennis

    1. Dennis,
      Thank you so much for reading and responding; I appreciate you! You hit the nail on the head with the foremost question we must ask when considering change: "What will be best for our students?" Have an awesome week!

  3. Great story Dr. Zoul! I saw several pics of the celebration and I had no idea that you felt apprehension and frustration. You hid it well my friend.

    I enjoyed the video and I'm sure to use it in the near future.

    As you discussed change, I thought back to the days of 1/2 kindergarten. When we introduced this change many community members and parents pushed back. Years later, people hardly remember 1/2 day kindergarten days.

    Thanks for the post Jeff, you reminded me to revisit, communicate and track the data when change occurs.


    1. Ben, Thank you for taking the time to read this and weigh in! Your example is a good one--one that shows when change is for the good it is quickly forgotten--despite how loud the initial reaction against may be. Lead with Passion,