3 Ways Leaders Overcome an Implementation Dip

Leaders exploring or operating within Collaborative Response (or any framework for staff collaboration) need to have a solid understanding of Change Theory. What can we expect to be on the horizon for our schools and teams engaging in meaningful change, change that ultimately shifts the culture of how we approach our work of ensuring student success?

One aspect of Change Theory that often can be the death knell for establishing a new model for how we work collaboratively in a school in the phenomenon of the Implementation Dip. As described by Fullan (2011),

“For a long time, we have been finding that when organizations try something new, even if there has been some preimplementation preparation, the first few months are bumpy. How could it be otherwise? New skills and understanding have a learning curve. Once we brought this out in the open, a lot of people immediately felt better knowing that it is normal and everyone goes through it. This finding led to the realization that we needed to focus on capacity building in this critical stage.” (p. 71)

It is not uncommon for schools (and other organizations) to abandon new initiatives and the development of new school-wide frameworks for addressing the needs of students when they encounter this dip. Despite initial excitement, the honeymoon wears off, inevitably whispers of “this is harder than we thought” resound. As the school culture shifts and even more difficult questions are being asked (including ones that will confront some long-standing practices), the dip sets in and energies can wane.

So how do leaders prepare for, deal with and overcome the Implementation Dip?

  1. Create awareness – let teacher teams know that an Implementation Dip is inevitable – change theory tells us that we will experience it if we are truly engaging in meaningful change and cultural shifts. Make it a discussion at staff meetings or team collaborative times. Knowing that we will dip and then talking about how to deal with that can build the resiliency needed to continue forward with the work.
  2. Pause to reflect – when “The Dip” hits and staff are feeling overwhelmed, use it as a time to pause and reflect. Identify celebrations that have come as a result of the work. Reflect upon what has been accomplished, taking stock of the great work done thus far. Ask what further refinements could be done to the frameworks and processes. Basically, take some time to reflect and regroup, as part of the “Aim” of a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach. Letting teams know it’s okay to take a break to recharge can also function to further build trust for the leader, recognizing and responding to the needs of the staff rather than “powering through it”.
  3. Support – as leaders, this is the time we also need to take an active role within teams, saying “what can I do to help” and rolling up the sleeves to go through the mud with our teams. Whether joining teams for meetings, providing additional resources or being that perennial cheerleader, school leaders play a crucial role when teams encounter the Implementation Dip. Without recognition and support, teams can either 1) give up, or 2) see giving up as not an option and foster resentment for the leaders in continuing to pursue the initiative. Support for teams is never more critical than during this phase.

The good news is that by preparing and responding proactively to the Implementation Dip, leaders can ensure the bumps teams encounter are not impassable barriers. It is the normal part of the learning process we expect students to engage in and natural in the evolution of a collaborative culture within a school. Engaging “The Dip” with eyes open and responses prepared can ensure that it doesn’t mean the end for engaging in collaborative frameworks.

References: Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader: Learning to do what matters most. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Author: Kurtis Hewson