“…organizations that take the plunge and actually begin doing the work of a PLC develop their capacity to help all students learn at high levels far more effectively than schools that spend years preparing to become PLCs through reading or even training” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 10, italics in original)
There are many barriers to getting started when working collaboratively in schools, whether implementing Collaborative Response, the related work of establishing professional learning communities or implementing other team structures. One barrier that often holds us back is the time taken in the initial implementation stages, developing the plan or framework for working collaboratively. In this initial stage, complacency can take many forms but typically it manifests itself in extended time preparing staff to work collaboratively. The principle of Ready, Fire, Aim, a metaphor first described in 1982 by Peters and Waterman (as cited by Michael Fullan, 2010), aptly serves our purposes here. Let’s break down the metaphor as it relates to staff collaboration:
- Ready – the ready phase points to the crucial work of a leader or leadership team at the implementation phase. This includes communicating the importance of collaborative work and how it can have a positive impact on teaching and learning. However, as the quote at the start of this posting alludes, many schools can get bogged down in this stage. The Nike acronym “Just Do It” applies. In addition to building the critical mass of followers necessary for change to take root (note that we’re not stating “whole staff buy-in”), leaders at this stage need to focus on creating the embedded time for staff to work together, the structures and processes within which the work will be accomplished and communicating starting points for collaboration (possibly even including piloting change initiatives). The ready phase is essentially establishing the garden in which seeds of collaboration grow.
- Fire – Robert Evans (2010) shares that “when the ultimate aim is a change in beliefs and assumptions, which cannot be imposed, one must often insist on a change in behavior, which can” (p. 48). The fire phase points to that change in behaviour. As mentioned previously, leaders cannot hold out waiting for total staff buy-in. Consider the following advice, once again from Michael Fullan (2011):
“Research on attitudinal change has long found that our behaviors change before our beliefs do. By behavior I don’t mean aimless actions, but rather purposeful experiences. It is new experiences that generate feelings and emotions. The implication for approaching new change is clear. Do not load up on vision, evidence, and sense of urgency. Rather, give people new experiences in relatively nonthreatening circumstances, and build on them, especially through interaction with trusted peers. This sounds simple, but it can be hard to do when you are impatient for buy-in. This approach of course is entirely congruent with our fundamental stance that practice drives beliefs more than the reverse.” (p. 68)
We must engage in action, working together collaboratively in teams, even if complete buy-in is not apparent. The realization is that we are not looking for buy-in! In this phase, leaders support the teams as they engage in collaborative practices. The fire phase is really about getting started.
- Aim – nothing is going to go perfectly the first time that staff engage in collaborative practices. Conversations may be awkward. Trust needs to be established. Team time is not going to be at optimal productivity. The aim phase points to reflecting upon the collaborative structures, processes and practices that staff are engaging in and making shifts or “tweaks” to make it even more effective. Establishing scheduled reviews is a great step to ensuring that the way we work together is being examined critically and improved as teams grow more skilled in collaboration. During this time is also a great opportunity to explore the Implementation Dip, a change theory reality that will impact teams in time.
Adopting a Ready, Fire, Aim mentality is not for the feint of heart and relies upon courageous, strategic leadership. Here, the advice of Douglas Reeves (2009) provides food for thought:
“This is the critical juncture in any collaborative effort. If your goal is popularity, then you are finished, and professional collaboration will meet the same fate as every other change that failed because the true standard was popularity, rather than effectiveness. If, however, you are committed to effective change, then persistence through the initial challenges to achieve the essential short-term wins will be necessary, even when that persistence is unpopular.” (p. 48)
When preparing to shift school cultures from traditional isolation to more collaborative, team-oriented practices, adopting a Ready, Fire, Aim approach can ensure long-term success. Best of luck putting together the pieces!
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Evans, R. (2010). Seven secrets of the savvy school leader: A guide to surviving and thriving. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M. (2010). Motion leadership: The skinny on becoming change savvy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader: Learning to do what matters most. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Reeves, D. B. (2009). Leading change in your school: How to conquer myths, build commitment, and get results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.