Best Practice
May 7, 2012

A Canadian’s skinny on change

Motion Leadership
Michael Fullan,
Corwin, 85 pages, $21.25

When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty set as a prime goal of his leadership to rejuvenate the public education system, he turned to Michael Fullan as his special advisor. Fullan, a professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has written extensively on change and, more important, has helped to guide many public sector change initiatives. He also has links to other experts on change in the public sector such as Britain’s Michael Barber, former PM Tony Blair’s lieutenant on igniting key initiatives in the British bureaucracy.

Fullan’s latest book, Motion Leadership, brings together what he has learned from his own work and that of his collaborators. It’s a small book – in page size and number of pages – and promises readers “the skinny on becoming change savvy.” But it’s not a thin book when it comes to ideas. There’s lots of them, and unlike other change books, they have been tested in the public service cauldron, albeit mostly in the delivery of a single service, education.

One of his featured change leaders is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose passion for food led him to try to move youngsters in schools from French fries and gravy to a healthier diet at lunch. (And you thought you had challenges!) One of the key obstacles Oliver faced was overcoming his own judgmentalism and learning that instead of treating the school cooks, or dinner ladies as they are known, as numbskull incompetents he had to build their capacity for making the change he envisioned.

“Capacity building concerns the knowledge, skills and disposition of people individually but especially collectively. It is the group with shared purpose and skills that gets things done,” Fullan writes.

You increase capacity in two ways – and leaders need to try both paths. The first is to hire people with the appropriate capacities and potential in the first place. That means making changes in key leadership positions sooner rather than later, something most of us shy away from. Once you have the right people, you must ensure continuous learning.

But he says there is one skill that is crucial yet difficult to master: how to focus directly on things that need improving without letting judgmentalism get in the way. You don’t want to send a pejorative message because change is about “moving” people, and that means motivating them to take new action. “Savvy change leaders become good at identifying problems, being candid about their presence, and yet being emphatic enough that the person affected does not feel personally judged. Indeed, the best leaders make people feel good about working on and making progress relative to a tough problem or set of circumstances,” he notes.

Oliver couldn’t wave a wand and hire new people to shape his change (you may be familiar with that predicament) so he started with building the capacity of Nora, the head dinner lady at the first school he worked at. That meant – here’s another important change principle – putting her behaviour before her beliefs. “Do not load up on vision, evidence and sense of urgency,” says Fullan, brushing aside three activities most change experts insist on. “Rather, give people new experiences in relatively non-threatening circumstances, and build on it, especially through interaction with trusted peers – very simple but hard to do when you’re impatient for buy-in.”

Nora wanted no part of the haute cuisine chef’s fancy ways. She had over 1,000 mouths to feed, on time every day, and at a mere 37 pence a stomach. Oliver tried to work alongside her, but couldn’t do anything right as far as she was concerned. In order to get her out of the kitchen – to preserve his sanity – and have her experience first-hand what it was like to cook properly, he arranged for her to spend a week working with the chefs at his famous London restaurant, Fifteen.

Head chef Arthur Potts showed her basic knife skills for cutting vegetables. Then he moved on to not overcooking. Then came a rule that she had not heard before: never send out a dish you haven’t tasted first. As these behaviours started to make sense, her beliefs started to change as well, and as she converted to the cause Oliver started to make progress. Behaviours before beliefs.

One down, 60 more schools to go, as he took his change effort to Greenwich borough. He realized that to succeed he now needed to get 60 head dinner ladies onboard. And so he brought in one of their peers, Nora, from the pilot school. He also recruited the help of the military and their chefs to conduct a three-day boot camp to improve the cooking skills of his new team of dinner ladies, since the military must cook for the masses, nutritiously and on a limited budget. 

Oliver was frustrated at what he saw from the dinner ladies as they over-boiled vegetables and massacred the butternut squash. And obviously three days didn’t transmute them into wonderful cooks. But he remained optimistic, boosting their spirits by reminding them Nora had resembled them initially and was now only six months further down the path. He beat back his feeling that they were terrible cooks – indeed, not cooks but mere re-heaters of the food delivered to the school. Instead, he worked at capacity building, as all leaders must do in change efforts, keeping his judgmentalism in check.

Fullan says it’s vital to understand exactly how change operates. Among the factors he highlights are: 

·    Relationships first: You must establish relationships first with the people you hope to lead into change rather than rushing right into doing. That’s what Oliver did with Nora. It’s especially vital if you are an outsider, as Greg Mortenson, co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, tells in an anecdote in his book, Three Cups of Tea, that Fullan repeats. Mortensen was eager to build schools in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, but was warned by a village leader to slow down and instead just have some tea. The first time he shared tea with a person in Baltistan, it was explained, he was a stranger; the second time, an honoured guest; and the third time, he would become family. “And for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,” the village leader elaborated. “Dr. Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea.”

·    Honour the implementation dip: Leaders assume that when change is introduced an immediate burst of productivity will follow. Fat chance. Usually performance drops. The future benefits will seem far away, and as Fullan stresses, the leader won’t exactly be receiving any compliments. You must help your flustered colleagues through the dip, trying as quickly as possible to return to their former level of productivity before you can dream of more.

·    Beware of fat plans: We tend to over-plan change, writing lengthy blueprints. But fat plans don’t work. Skinny is in. It’s best to start implementing, and fix what isn’t working than get hung up on developing elaborate plans. Your motto should be the initially counter-intuitive phrase: ready, fire, aim.

Those are just some of the ideas Fullan shares from his work and his colleagues’ efforts around the globe. It’s the skinny on change, from a man used to grappling with change in the public service, and may be of value to you. Since change is vital for government leaders, I’ll have a look at another recent book next month.

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