4 Implementation Pitfalls that Every School Leader Must Avoid

by | Jul 13, 2023 | 0 comments

14 min read

Successful organizations understand the importance of implementation, not just strategy, and, moreover, recognize the crucial role of their people in the process

                                                ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer

There’s no shortage of initiatives in education. Talk to any teacher, school, or district leader, and they can quickly rattle off a handful. We aren’t interested in debating the validity of certain initiatives or their worth, but rather in how to ensure the successful implementation of those that schools pursue. 


What we will debate, though, is that you cannot have a shaky implementation plan and expect solid results. The fallout is too great, potentially impacting staff morale, leading to frustration and burnout, poor student outcomes, and wasted resources, including both money and time. That’s why we’ve outlined the top four pitfalls of initiative implementation and how school leaders can avoid them by leading better and growing faster. 

#1. Failing to Pre-Plan

Pre-planning is the backbone of any implementation strategy. The problem is that too many school leaders fail to plan in a way that takes all factors into consideration. The status quo planning that we see when we work with school districts is typically the nuts-and-bolts of initiating something new, not the actual implementation of it. 


We want to illustrate this with an example. Suppose your school or district is about to embark on a grading reform initiative. How much time do you spend pre-planning, forecasting, and developing a lead group of supporters, what Derek Sivers refers to as first-followers? Let’s take a look at what it means to plan for each. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Pre-Plan


Pre-planning: You need a full scope-of-work plan, which can be  6-, 12-, 18-, or sometimes up to 36 months. We often start the work without the end in mind. We live in a culture that celebrates when we start something new rather than the true accomplishments associated with completing a task. For that reason, you need to pre-plan, before you start, with the goals, metrics, and outcomes associated with the successful implementation and support of the initiative. 


Forecasting: Great leaders can predict the future. It’s not that they can close their eyes and use a special power to see into the distances of time; it’s that they can use the past and present conditions to make critical decisions about the likelihood of one or more outcomes. Pre-plan by asking yourself what happens in the form of success or failure as you implement. 


Developing first-followers: We can emphasize this enough, you need people who have worked out the kinks and know the path forward before you expect the others to cross the chasm. You have to bolster your early adopters and their power to get it mostly right before anyone else, especially the late-adopting skeptics, will even dip their toe. Being prepared means that you have people who can say, “I’ve been doing this for a while now, and it works; it’s not hard, and I can show you how too.” 

#2. Failing to stay the course

This is the grand pitfall of them all because it’s the most common, and we see too many school and district leaders leading in fear that their change initiatives are going to cause too much disruption that it will lead to confusion, staff turnover, unproductive and unhappy staff members, or, worse yet, their removal. Unfortunately, any and all of these outcomes can be a reality. The good news is that they are avoidable if you follow the advice in this blog post and pay significant attention to pre-panning. The bad news is that you have to endure the conflict associated with change. As we always say: the definition of leadership is influence; the challenge of leadership is conflict; the result of leadership is change. 


One of our favorite authors and marketing strategist, Seth Godin, says that leadership is about inflicting pain on the people you seek to serve. That is true, but only if you seek to help people. The essence of change is uncomfortable and disruptive. Leaders who accept the status quo aren’t helping people grow and perform at their best. The problem is that pushing for positive change can be counterintuitive because it is disruptive. This instability is often what causes leaders to pull the plug on something too soon, which can lead to initiative fatigue. Initiatives alone are not the problem, or even the number of them (which we’ll cover in the next pitfall) but rather how well we manage them. Many times we turn our back too fast before anything sticks, only to find ourselves searching for another initiative to implement to solve the same problem we originally were working on. (That’s one reason why we wrote 7 Mindshifts, by the way). 


This is the number one reason why seasoned teachers say, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work.” The reality is that we didn’t really “try” that before with fidelity. We started to try it but never got far enough into the new practice to benefit from the proposed new outcomes. If you study a change curve, like the J-Curve below, you’ll find the typical point at which weak leaders retreat–somewhere during the period of disruption, when folks are most confused, disgruntled, and feeling unproductive with the new initiative. That’s precisely when we see leaders listening to the people about their woes and worries and reverting back to the way we’ve always done it rather than staying the course. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Stay the Course 

Great school leaders anticipate the curve. We have to expect a timeline that includes disruption and even chaos. The best thing that we can do while this period unfolds is to focus on the data we have from prior to the initiative, the vision we have for the change, and a mere understanding that we’re going to have to suffer a bit until we get to the desired state. Let’s unpack each. 

Data from before: If you’re introducing a new math program, it’s likely because the last math program wasn’t working for all students. When people say that the new program isn’t working–and it might be true during the initial stages–we have to go back to the data we have that the last program wasn’t producing results. We always say that we would rather have new problems than old ones. This may require disaggregation if the general picture is good. Good is the enemy of great, and great initiatives are the ones that reach all students. Use the data you have from before, and don’t expect the new data to tell the story you want from the desired state. In schools, this may actually take years. 

Using the vision: Candid and compassionate communication is paramount to success. And, as much as we hear about vision, vision, and vision, we can’t communicate the vision enough. We work with schools on this kind of necessary leadership all the time–both learning to be candid and solidifying the vision. You can’t communicate your desired and proposed outcome enough while you stay the course. 

Knowing that we have to suffer: This might sound a bit weird, but leaders who stay the course also communicate upfront the challenges that will be encountered on the journey. It’s hard to tell people to row in a direction when they don’t know where they’re going. But, as John Maxwell says, the leader is the one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. We have to empathize with people, demonstrating and communicating that we understand the pain but we believe in their capacity to make the changes we’re expecting. Don’t confuse this with permitting low standards or lack of accountability for making the change. We’re just letting folks know that we expected there to be bumps and bruises along the way. 

“The Intranet Portal Guide” – David Viney 2005 [ISBN: 9780955077401] https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-intranet-portal-guide/david-victor-stephen-viney/9780955077401

#3. Failure to braid the new work with existing initiatives 

If you’re hearing people say, “This is one more thing,” as they refer to your new initiative, it’s likely because they don’t see the bigger picture or the vision was not communicated clearly. The leader has to zoom out so that people can see the forest for the trees and how the work weaves together. In this case, you have one of two problems: one, the initiative is actually one more thing, or, two, we haven’t done enough internal branding and marketing


Take, for example, restorative practices, if staff only see this as a different disciplinary tactic, or letting kids get off easy, rather than a full-scale approach to improving student behavior within the diversity, equity, and inclusion model, they won’t take ownership of the initiative. To bring everything into full view, you need three strategies: inventory your initiatives, develop buckets, and create materials to support how everything fits together. 

What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Braid the Work

Inventory your initiatives: The first step in braiding the work together is to know all of the work that’s going on. This is as simple as doing an initiative dump activity. Get a group of teachers or principals together and make a list of all the initiatives going on. 


Develop buckets: Your initiatives are likely to present in categories. Think broadly and then narrow them down. For example, your grading reform initiative, your inclusive teaching strategies, and your restorative practices can all fit under an umbrella core value of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These buckets can become core values or principles of some kind. 


Create branding materials: Much like CASEL has done with their work, you can create a visual representation of your key initiatives within the buckets you formed in the last step. These are materials for distribution and use at meetings to show staff how all the work braids together into important necessary work for your school or district. You’ll get much less of an argument from people when they can see the big picture, but you have to see and understand it first. 

#4. Failure to focus on the how as much as the what

Too many school leaders focus on what needs to change without spending enough time on how it needs to change. An easy example here is to spend all of your efforts getting people behind an initiative that amplifies student voice through classroom discourse without providing training on strategies, like Kagan so that teachers understand more about how they should implement them in the classroom. 


In recent years, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on communicating the WHY for organizational and individual success. We agree. People need to understand the vision and rationale as they begin to “buy in.” But, actual full-scale buy-in is a myth according to Dr. Douglas Reeves, until, of course, people attempt to make the change that’s expected of them. The buy-in myth is only debuncted by accountability structures for ensuring that the new initiative is being implemented with fidelity. You want to move from a culture of why to a culture of try, but first, you need everyone to know how to try the new practice in their space. This happens in three simple steps that any school leader can put in place to support an initiative. 


What School Leaders Can Do Differently: Focus on How

Step 1–Identify a new strategy: It doesn’t matter what initiative we’re discussing, you need to start small with one or two strategies that you want everyone to try. Think “cycles” for restorative practices or Round Robin in the case of Kagan or a new way that you want teachers to use the learning management system. Identify a practice that you want people to do differently, change, or more of. 


Step 2–Teach it to everyone: Use your faculty meeting, PLCs, or professional learning day to teach the new strategy, process, or procedure to everyone. Build in time for practice if possible. 


Step 3–Watch them practice it: Use an existing structure, like peer observation, coaching, or walkthroughs to literally check off the fact that everyone knows how to do it because you observed it in practice over a period of time after everyone learned it. This is the proper space for feedback, praise for the people who are successful and corrective feedback for those who need more support to be successful. And don’t get us started on feedback as a primary leadership skill; it’s still the most misunderstood and underused form of leadership in schools. We can help with that too, which leads us to our bonus failure. 

Bonus Failure for School Leaders Who Want to Lead Better 

Here’s a bonus failure that goes in all four buckets above: the failure to provide feedback on the initiative as it unfolds in practice. This is a two-way street–feedback for those implementing to get better at implementation and feedback from those doing the implementing on how it’s going and what parts need more support. Take, for example, what McKinsey Global reports about initiative implementation: “Three practices can significantly increase the chances of success: maintain implementation rigor across the transformation program’s later stages, using the program to upgrade talent, and investing in the right resources at every stage. Companies that implement all three practices are 3.4 times more likely than their peers to say their transformations’ impact was sustained for more than three years.” 

You can’t do any of these three practices without systems and cycles of performance feedback to support the people implementing. The good news is that more schools are dedicating resources for coaching (like instructional coaches for teachers and leadership development coaches for principals). The bad news is that we’re still seeing a lack of the systemization necessary for feedback to happen within cycles of improvement and a real need for training in the elements of feedback for it to be effective. In the school systems that have embraced the need for feedback, like the coaching work we’re doing with Long Beach Unified, we are seeing and hearing a difference in the way feedback is being delivered to transform new initiatives as well as everyday practices.

We fully acknowledge that the details and specific application of these principles vary based on the school, context, and needs of each organization. TheSchooHouse302 offers professional learning, coaching, training, and resources to support school and district leaders in implementing these principles effectively. Reach out. 



As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you.

Joe & T.J.


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