Reflections: Culture Change from the Middle?

Leading from the middle is a major challenge, which involves a significant scope of managing up and down. In Departments, subjects, and curriculum areas, there is a lot of room for success. The autonomy and specificity of these project areas leaves plenty of room for a Middle Leader to have impact, and to make a difference. 

But can the same be said for leadership of whole school initiatives or cultural shifts? What are the potential areas of success, failure and learning for middle leadership in trying to do something bigger? These are some early reflections on some work from this academic year, and what I have learned and struggled with.

Theory: Law of Diffusion of Innovation

The law of diffusion of innovation is a concept that I first came across with Simon Sinek’s TED talk on “Starting with Why”. Although the language and terminology focuses on customers and business worlds, the applicability to any change management is, to my mind, helpful and immediately obvious.

Within a school context, “innovation” here could be anything, but the potential role for innovation and the early adopters among Middle Leaders is clear and exciting. Of course, this innovation could come from anywhere: software, external consultant/INSET, any of our brilliant teachers, or Senior Leadership – it doesn’t matter. It’s the lateral hire, the person who comes in with new reading, a new syllabus, a fresh perspective, and gets a group of people interested, engaged and excited. It’s the membership, the trial run, the idea that sparks a wave of “oh, that’s cool: we should try that”.

However, my question here is how does that change diffuse further? I think there needs to be some early adopters amongst the Middle and Senior Leadership – else the idea isn’t necessarily going to spread as effectively as possible.

The model describes a ‘chasm’ – a point where growth can stall and fail to spread in the way that you want it to. The early innovation is clear: the principles sound, and the process is beginning: but unless you can cross that chasm to get an early majority and late majority to adopt the new way of working, the innovation goes nowhere.

Example 1: Adoption of a Virtual Learning Environment

When I first joined my current school, there was no Virtual Learning Environment in place. They had tried Moodle, and not enjoyed the experience, and it was clear that something needed to come in. However, with a significant personnel change and a new Head, there was clearly a time and opportunity for a change in platform. As part of my interview process, and previous role, I’d had some experience in rolling out virtual platforms, and I was invited to offer some thoughts to SLT. This turned in to a commercial proposal, which was externally submitted, and SLT eventually chose a platform to adopt. With limited experience elsewhere in the building, I was asked to help launch the product and train up the staff. We now run this as a standard procedure: it’s just “the way the school works” and is part of our expectations.

As a middle leader, I was able to effect significant whole school change. Sort of. Except, it wasn’t really me. There were significant components of this conversation that made it much easier to cross the chasm, and to get the early/late majority on board.

  • There was no alternative option. It wasn’t a case of debating and convincing in a crowded market place, where we had lots of different software to choose from. A decision had been made.
  • There was no prior experience. People weren’t afraid to change away from something that they had previously been using, or disappointed to lose something they had invested a significant amount of time/resource in to: there was an open door to push against.
  • This decision had been taken by Senior Leadership, and it was something that was “to be done” across the school. It wasn’t something that people could opt to buy in to, or choose alternatives: it was expected that we’d use this system, and that it was embedded in student and staff routines.

In truth, then, there wasn’t really a chasm to cross as a middle leader. I might have been part of the innovation, but the mechanism for diffusing ideas was put in place by senior leadership. What I was able to add was ‘window dressing’ – how to persuade people that this directed idea was i) worth their time and ii) going to benefit their teaching and practice. I made it easier for people to feel like they were making a decision, but it wasn’t significant in implementing the innovative change.

How would this compare to a different example?

Example 2: Building a Teaching and Learning Culture

As a school, we have slowly been turning around our teaching and learning culture amongst staff. A number of early adopters are diffused among the Middle Leadership – we have some active on Twitter, some active in subject and mentoring networks, some active in the Chartered College, and even the occasional blogger. However, at the moment, this culture isn’t widely diffused across the institution. We don’t have the external push factors of OFSTED to drive us, so in many cases, this appears to be a fairer and more reflective test of the law of diffusion.

Here, we seem to have hit the chasm a bit harder. While there are a small cluster of engaged and early innovators, as you’d expect, and one or two Departments where an early innovator pushes out a bit of practice, there is still a wider understanding and challenge of diffusion across the whole school. We have managed to get some ideas out there: and even launched our own Teach Meet, but momentum has not yet built to a point where the adaptation and thinking is becoming widespread.

For this, the factors include:

  • A very supportive Head, who has done a lot of work to support a Staff Development Working Group, and championed some initiatives forward. However, SLT are (quite rightly, I think!) not imposing this on the staff as a directive: if people choose to engage, then there is support available.
  • A range of options in the community, where the benefits of a more research-engaged approach are not immediately clear. We have to compete against existing pedagogy, ideas and resources and the “we’ve always done it that way” mindset.
  • No mandated/directed engagement: we have to convince people of our ideas, and persuade them to engage with it. We can’t force the issue.
  • A sense of “threat” to workload and time commitments: are we just asking people to do too much, and more? We are a fairly small school, and time is not one of our biggest assets: there is a clear pressure on workload, and this might be a step too far?

Without an SLT role explicitly focused on Teaching and Learning, there isn’t a major external driver to this to “make it happen” in the school. It is about marketing, about persuasion, and about genuine market forces – convincing people that it’s worth doing, showing them why, and helping them to believe what we believe.

It’s an ongoing campaign, and I hope that it will continue to be successful and build momentum. But I’d be fascinated to hear different perspectives on it: is middle leadership something that has limits?

How can you cross the chasm of research and engagement in a school culture? Do you need to have Senior Leadership onboard to make initiatives in schools successful?

What have you done that’s successful? How have you crossed the chasm in your school environment, and what can I read or learn from that?

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