When I was a little girl, I was not very athletic but I was very social. I wanted to be where everyone else was and do what they were doing, even if I was not very good at it. In the 1980s, everyone was jumping rope. That was a challenge for me—the timing, the coordination, the stamina—just a recipe for disaster. I volunteered to turn the rope as often as I could, but to earn my place on the playground, I had to show some versatility. My attempts were painful to watch. I would spend an obnoxious amount of time getting ready to jump in. Everyone has seen it—the rhythmic bouncing back and forth, waiting for the rope to hit just the right place to jump in, timing it just right. Except I just stayed there, content in my bobbing back and forth, carrying on for as long as I possibly could until others grew impatient waiting for their turn. Finally, I mustered the courage to jump in. I DID IT! I jumped “in.” I jumped about five times, hearing that delightful noise of the rope skipping against the concrete, celebrating myself, loving every moment. I even thought about getting fancy and doing a “180” to turn in the opposite direction. Then my euphoria was suddenly interrupted. I looked down and realized that I was not quite “in.” I found myself jumping just beside the rope. I was jumping, and the rope was turning…but I was not in it. I felt like I was jumping rope and I may have even been able to trick a few distant observers, but I was not actually doing anything at all.
As pitiful as it sounds, I find it a perfect analogy for the challenge we are often faced with in our work. We often avoid jumping in directly, choosing instead to stand along the edges, sometimes threatening to take action, sometimes getting close, but never actually getting directly at the core. I think we can all agree that true problems should be attacked from the core. Even though getting to the core is logically the right path, we do not always take it. As consultants, we often start our clients with a root cause analysis. But even once we identify the issue, it is not always the target for attack. I think there are a number of reasons for this and I will talk about a couple that are most relevant for me.
Level of Difficulty.
It is hard to get to the core. It requires skill, training and practice. It is a commitment that takes time, resources and planning. I was not naturally gifted with coordination but I was mainly bad at jumping rope because I never really learned how and never really practiced.
The same is true in our work. If we do not have the skills, we need to be trained and get plenty of practice. In our work with schools using SchoolStat, we have observed this to be true at times with teachers and the way they use data. They were accustomed to just staring at data, making guesses about what it meant and then making no real decisions. Instead of taking a deep dive into what the data say and what we might do next, it was much easier to talk around it. They splashed around in the data in the same way that I was jumping outside the rope. Over the course of the school year, we coached them on the SchoolStat process and allowed plenty of opportunities for practice. As a result, even though it was not always comfortable, they were able to make some very significant connections (particularly between teacher impact and student results), they made commitments to shift their behavior, and ultimately they saw improved results.
Approaching the work in this way—where we take the time to learn and practice—is well worth it. If we take the time to build skills and then practice those skills we may see real sustainable change.
Getting to the core is risky because it requires a lot of courage. In my case, the risk of embarrassment, fear and failure was high. I did not want to jump in because I was scared I would mess up and everyone would laugh at me. In our work, we may be afraid to take risks for a number of reasons—risk of failure, losing money, or being held accountable.
In our work with clients, we have seen instances when they were paralyzed by fear of pushback from key stakeholders. They failed to obtain buy-in, struggled to build shared ownership of decisions, and operated in constant fear of discord. Instead of doing the right work—the work that would make the most difference—they chose instead to do the work that would be least disputed. They missed out on several opportunities to make a big impact. They chose to work around the edges—and as a result, their progress was minimal.
The reality is there are ALWAYS risks and some level of difficulty in doing the work that really matters. But no one achieves anything worthwhile without navigating challenges.
A recent study published by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) examined state capacity to support struggling schools. The study revealed that even when school turnaround is a priority, states report limited success because it is difficult and they have gaps in expertise. In their approach to school turnaround, states and schools are attempting to get at core issues but acknowledge that doing so is HARD and requires skill.
Same is true in our work with clients—doing the right work is hard and requires skill, but is well worth it. I think approaching projects—whether in work or in life—with this in mind can help us use our time and resources in the right way. If we plan to focus on developing skill and find ways to decrease impact of risks, we may have a shot at doing the real work in spite of challenges in order to achieve real results.