Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Economic carrots -v- jumping through the window of opportunity

One of the things I'm reading about in John P Kotter's book Accelerate is creating a sense of urgency in order to bring about change.  In education I think this is really vital - we all know that it's important to prepare students for their futures, which are very different from our pasts, yet even though we know this there isn't the sense of urgency to do this in many schools.  Kotter writes about role modeling urgency - influencing 10 other people, who in turn will each influence another 10, leading to exponential growth of a change mindset.  He explains that this role modeling can be very simple - talking to people in the hallways, for example, or raising issues in meetings, telling people about what you are doing and why what you are doing is important, and in this way gradually influencing those around you to start to think in new ways too.  I think this is something that I have tried to do for a number of years - coming from my feeling that it is urgent for students to be empowered to use technology.  Writing these blog posts has reached out of countless thousands of educators, even at a time when people in the school where I was working at the time were fairly dismissive of these thoughts.

Kotter explains about why it is hard to demonstrate leadership and positive energy for change in a management-driven hierarchy - this is because they are designed around economic rewards or threats (carrots and sticks).  He refers to economic carrots where new goals are created and passed down from on-high, and new strategies to reach these goals also communicated.  These systems rely on measures being in place to track and make people accountable for reaching these goals, and then rewarding them with money if they achieve them.  Some years ago I was part of a group looking into a new salary structure at a previous school.  Most of the time it was just like that.  Interestingly enough, the consultant the school brought in to do these workshops made the statement that he felt these "economic carrots" would be attractive to teachers and keep good teachers in the classroom.  However he also went on to say that he would limit these bonus payments to under 15% of the teachers.  There were a number of ways of reducing the numbers to 15%, even if many more were performing at an excellent level, some of which involved looking at how closely people were toeing the school line, which was fairly nebulous and very subjective.  At the time I always felt this approach was flawed - it was based purely on extrinsic motivation and the belief that economic carrots can win hearts and minds and produce positive action.

There were sticks too.  I guess the biggest stick was also economic - the threat of not having your contract renewed.  Kotter writes that pressure from the top can often generate anger and create passive resistance.  Basically he writes about how the carrot and stick approach will ultimately fail, since they come from outside and are controlled and defined by others.    What is needed, he argues, is a big opportunity to pull people together by drawing on their hearts and minds.  Show them a window to the future, he writes, that is open or about to open, and get the people involved excited about jumping through that window.  Windows open all the time, of course.  They close pretty quickly too.  That's why it is important to have this sense of urgency.

In traditional hierarchies, however, managers look at the future in fixed ways - mostly through their silos (school division, department, how this window will change things in the future).  Some people won't like what they see as the future may involve a shrinking of their power and influence, or that of their department (less budget and resources for example).  Once again, this can lead to negative reactions and resistance, in particularly when vision statements are passed down from on-high.  Kotter explains the best way to change this is to reverse the traditional order of things:  first start with the window to the future ("big opportunity") that is realistic and compelling, then change the vision to be able to capitalize on this opportunity, then finally design the activities that will make the vision a reality. Combine a big opportunity with a network rather than a hierarchy and you can really have powerful results!

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