How to avoid potential planning and implementation pitfalls.
NOTE: This content is unpacked in detail as a guide.
An array of initiatives are continually imposed—externally or internally—on the education system. But how do educators make sense of these initiatives and implement them effectively? To mitigate implementation challenges, I developed what I call the "Five Process Elements" to help organizations ensure a seamless transition from planning to implementation. To explain the process elements, I highlight an actual case study of a major multi-million dollar grant initiative in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
A key point to keep in mind is that this process is agnostic. It is not prescriptive. It is meant for organizations to use the best way they know how for their context. There is another important key point, about which I am unabashedly upfront: there is nothing ground breaking about the Five Process Elements.
Process Elements: Purpose, Assess, Leadership, Expertise, Impactful Meetings
Why should we pursue this initiative?
The first process element, Purpose, is about thinking through what would galvanize an organization to pursue an initiative, regardless if it is internal or externally imposed. What’s the elevator speech? What can be articulated, verbally and/or visually, so that people are motivated to take time from their busy schedules to contribute to the planning process?
It was quite simple for my STEM case study example:
Over 90% of students, especially disproportionately impacted, failed to persist in STEM.
Sometimes it only takes a statistic to help galvanize an organization.
Of all the process elements, I found that Purpose is often the most challenging and time consuming for organizations to articulate. Many organizations are so used to focusing on the initiative dollar amounts and/or mandates that they neglect about the right messaging to the broader organization and/or community.
Write a 1-3 sentence elevator speech and/or impactful visual of why the organization should implement the initiative.
If educators take quality time to perform this task they will create a common language throughout the organization for a specific initiative (especially one that is labor intensive). Anyone involved with the initiative should understand why they are contributing their valuable time and effort to the planning of this endeavor. Stating it is mandated is insufficient. People need buy-in and a sense of ownership to make any initiative viable and sustainable.
What will make the planning and implementation process successful?
The second process element, Assess, is about helping educators understand what indicators of success they should be looking for as they move through their planning. For my case study example, they were continually checking for:
• Faculty member buy-in and ownership
• Data that supports the initiative
• Multi-divisional coordination and contribution
This institution had a history of writing multi-million dollar grants through consultants who did not coach them to ensure that they had buy-in/ownership for many of the interventions incorporated into the proposals. The organization also had a habit of focusing on how to fill budgets as opposed to focusing on the data to ensure that the interventions were directly aligned with the needs. Lastly, because this STEM initiative included the natural sciences, physical sciences (including math), and student services areas it was critical that these divisions coordinated with one another to contribute to the process.
Helping an institution list anticipated challenges could help avoid a tremendous waste of time. For example, I worked on a major federal initiative, Promise Neighborhoods. This initiative required many partnerships within the community to create cradle to career services. One of the key partners was the City. Therefore, a key indicator of success for the planning process was to ensure buy-in from the City. The City was at first enthusiastic about participating but once they learned that the government required a dollar-for-dollar match, they bowed out. We learned this in the early stages of the process. All work ceased immediately. Imagine if we had not listed City buy-in as an indicator of success in the early stages? It would have been a waste of time and effort.
List what indicators of success to look for as the organization proceeds with planning.
Think about examples such as timely data collection, buy-in from key stakeholders, issues of capacity, and so on. They key is to be aware of anticipated challenges in order to be better prepared to problem-solve them.
Who is the champion to thoughtfully shepherd the work?
The third process element, Leadership, focuses on helping an organization identify who will be the leader(s) to shepherd the hard work, dealing with everything from maneuvering internal politics to continually gauging indicators of success.
In my case study example, the lead point of contact had been directing STEM efforts in the past. This individual had support from higher levels of the organization and from faculty. It was an easy pick.
Leadership identification varies depending on the organization. It can often be completed rather quickly. However, in many instances when I asked, “OK, so who will be the lead for the organization to prepare this initiative?” I have received deer-in-the-headlight looks. In fact, some responded, “We thought that was you!” I cannot dictate the interventions and how they will implement them. I remind them of how often initiatives fall apart during implementation because key stakeholders never agreed to the interventions (i.e., lack of buy-in/ownership).
Decide who will provide effective leadership to shepherd the hard work ahead.
Keep in mind that the best person to choose for this leadership role does not necessarily need to be an expert in the content area of the initiative. They should consider this person’s skills and personality. Can this person facilitate a meeting? Can this person listen to other people’s ideas without shooting them down? Is this person highly organized? Does this person have a strong record of follow through? Does this person communicate in a timely manner?
I have been in situations where the leader chosen is highly knowledgeable about the content area of an initiative but quite frankly could not, for example, facilitate a meeting effectively. In fact, being a content expert made him feel like he needed to dominate the conversation, shutting down the rest of the group. He was more concerned with hearing himself talk than listening to what other people had to say.
I am not suggesting to exclude someone from a leadership opportunity who is an expert in an initiative’s content area. What I highly recommend is to remember other key qualities when choosing the initiative team leader(s). I had situations where the institution took this advice to heart and actually decided on a different leader than they had originally planned. These subtle but powerful suggestions will make the planning process much more productive for everyone.
Who will assist to improve the quality of the work?
The fourth process element, Expertise, is about helping educators identify who will make the quality of the work better. In my case study example, the Expertise identified was the Information Technology Director and me. Institutions often need to decide to onboard an external person for a specific initiative. For example, if the institution is creating a program in logistics but has minimal experience in this area, an expert can significantly improve the quality of the work. In terms of grants, sometimes the expert is a grant writer who has a strong track record in a particular grant focus or perhaps a generalist who can make an effective argument regardless of the topic. In terms of a comprehensive initiative such as Guided Pathways, an external perspective and coaching support has proven vital to ensure that the organization continually works on clarity, coherence, and consensus.
Identify what expertise is necessary to improve the quality of the work.
Expertise does not always need to be external. In my case study, the internal IT person was identified because the institution wanted to make investments in technology for the STEM initiative. The IT director ended up providing a dose of reality as he reminded the institution that it lacked the capacity and infrastructure for some of the technology suggestions.
5. Impactful Meetings
What are our settings and how do we make the best use of meeting time?
The fifth and final process element, Impactful Meetings, is one of the most highly underestimated tasks one can undertake. If not done well, the planning and implementation process can easily fall apart.
In my case study, we established a STEM grant team meeting with key stakeholders. The key to a successful primary team meeting is the pre-meeting meeting.
Create a team(s) composed of key stakeholders and a setting – a pre-meeting meeting – to support the team meeting. What does this look like for your context?
The pre-meeting meeting helps ensure that the team meeting is as productive as possible. This is where the agenda is crafted, where the group will troubleshoot, and where next steps are followed through from the team meeting.
When establishing these meetings, consider:
• Who should participate in each of the settings and how will they be invited
• How frequently should each setting take place
• Who will be in charge of coordinating schedules
• Who will take minutes
• Who will facilitate the meetings
I believe that excellence can often be defined by doing the ordinary extraordinarily well. The five process elements help ensure a seamless transition from planning to implementation. If possible, the tasks should be drafted in one session, and revisited throughout the planning and implementation process.
The process elements could also be summarized as five essential questions to answer before launching initiatives:
Sometimes a particular vernacular gets the point across effectively.
Five Process Elements copyright of A. Solano