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January 9, 2023

When Implementing Initiatives, Move Slow to Go Fast

Mackey Pendergrast

Abraham Lincoln once famously stated, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” Yet, as a superintendent of schools for a decade, I often found it difficult to “move slow to go fast.” This was despite the fact my experience taught me sustained success with real results required specific critical components that couldn’t be skipped. 

Today, disrupted learning, rising student mental health issues, new federal and state mandates, teacher and staff shortages, and many other local community concerns have created a tangible urgency in education. Education leaders feel the pressure to move decisively, think big and boldly, and get positive results sooner rather than later. Yet, in an era of urgency and “initiative fatigue,” how can we successfully lead many initiatives that are critical to meet the moment?

Educator and author of Leading the Launch: A Ten-stage Process for Successful District Initiatives Dr. Kim Wallace addressed these questions through a ten-stage process for leading district initiatives in a recent webinar with GoGuardian Subject Matter Experts Erica Hartman (CTOs) and Mackey Pendergrast (Superintendents). In this webinar, Dr. Wallace presented a clear and logical systems approach to initiatives that are especially important in education today. 

Where to start

Dr. Wallace would no doubt agree with President Lincoln – the key is preparation and setup. 

One of the most critical components of leading a successful education initiative is ensuring a wide group of education stakeholders is involved in the early stages so there can be healthy discussion around needs and priorities. One of the first steps in identifying district priorities is through conducting an inventory and vetting the current initiatives taking place in the district. Central office administrators, building administrators, counselors, and teachers will have different perspectives, as well as students and caregivers. 

These varying opinions will be important in identifying aspirational community values, vetting ideas, and determining priorities. During the webinar, Dr. Wallace shared guiding questions and an initiative vetting tool that can assist districts in this process. In our district, we repeatedly said, “keep the main thing, the main thing,” but how many stakeholders agree on what that “main thing” is?

Making decisions 

To this end, it is important to note taking stock and evaluating current initiatives and determining priorities will require tough decision-making as every district has finite resources – especially time – and no organization can successfully do everything at once and expect sustained success. Some initiatives must be tabled and delayed, and some may have to be dropped. Transparency in this prioritization and decision-making is fundamental to future success. 

Overcoming barriers

One crucial way to help in this decision-making process Dr. Wallace described is to understand and identify the unique barriers to progress in the district, which can include operational (ex. equipment/resources), pedagogical/psychological (ex. lack of understanding of instructional model), and institutional barriers (ex. antiquated student code of conduct). 

Dr. Wallace stated being thorough in these first few stages does not have to be a long or time-consuming process, but it needs to be an honest one. Properly executing the initiative vetting protocol will assist leaders in identifying ideas that need to be further investigated, researched, and experimented with. Conducting a trial run through experimentation may take more time compared to the early stages. 

Similarly, acquiring feedback from teachers implementing the pilot and examining data on the results will help identify unforeseen impacts (positive or negative). This, of course, will assist administrators in creating a solid implementation plan with fewer misunderstandings, bumps, and obstacles that might otherwise impede a successful launch. 

Creating a support system

In education leadership circles today, we often discuss the importance of building a “constructive web of support” around each child so that they can ascend socially, emotionally, and academically. It is also important to point out that in 2023, we have more new administrators and initiatives than at any time in recent educational history. Like our students, administrators need to build a constructive web of support to thrive. Accordingly, resources such as Dr. Kim Wallace’s Leading the Launch book can certainly be a part of that web of support necessary for educators to lead communities so they are positioned to thrive.

Be sure to watch the entire webinar for even more incredible insights.

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