Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Changing the Rules of the Game?

Understanding and managing change is both an art and a science. It usually involves a blend of honouring the past, explaining the future and creating a path to get there. Change agents have to engage the hearts and the minds of their constituents. Leaders who embark on a change initiative also need the courage to move people away from the comfort of the familiar.

One of my favourite stories to illustrate this courageous mindset is the story of Australian potato farmer Cliff Young.

In 1983, the 61-year-old potato farmer arrived at the start line of the Westfield to Melboune Ultra Marathon wearing rubber boots and overalls. The race itself is a gruelling test of endurance - spanning – a mere 875 kilometres/544 miles). A virtual unknown and probably mocked at the outset - Cliff Young won the race!

How did the 61 year old farmer, wearing rubber boots, competing against some of the finest runners, win the race?

The answer is simple yet profound.

Prior to Cliff Young running the race, ultra marathon “experts” and practioners had preconceived ideas of the most efficient manner to run the race – a combination of running, eating and sleeping.

Cliff Young never read the “expert’s” memo.

No one told Cliff that he had to sleep. He just ran! By denying himself sleep and running while the others slept, he won the race by landslide, breaking the previous record by two days!

Cliff’s courage to change the “rules” of what a ultra marathon runner should do, not only caused him to win the race, but also impact every Ultra Marathon since!

The Cliff Young story inspires us to move away from traditional practice and call into question our “it’s the way it has always been done” attitudes. He was courageous enough not to let conventional thinking stop him.

Here in BC there is a growing call to reform our education system. There has been a plea for urgency from various stakeholders in the system (teaching professionals, parents and students).

As we embark on this process I feel a tension. Any change to the system needs to embrace the well researched change management strategies that engage all stakeholders. Indeed, failure to manage this change properly will be disastrous (I am thinking about the Graduation Portfolio fiasco!)

However, as I commented in a recent post by Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy), there comes a time in a change initiative that requires courageous decisions by those that can make the biggest impact on the system. At the school & district level I am witnessing (and reading) many positive changes and shifts. 

My sense is that the time is coming for the next tier to, like Cliff Young, change the rules of the game!


  1. Great post! How are others changing the rules of the game? What does that look like in your school? We all encounter road blocks, but what sorts of solutions are working already (don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, right?)?
    I might have little impact on "the system" or the big picture, but I can start at my school. One example is trying to provide an alt. style learning environment in-house for those students who aren't succeeding in the regular classroom. We're working on designing a system and funding model that will allow those students to stay with us, in their neighbourhood and with their peers, but receive intensive supports. They will be able to move in and out of the room we're envisioning, depending on their need. Currently, we don't have anything like this in our district, and students younger than 12 yrs with severe behaviour issues are difficult to fit in "the system." I'd sure like to hear how others overcome this sort of difficulty, or others like it.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dan. The project you mention is a noble one - good luck with creating new "rules" to benefit many more students. When I wrote the post, I was focussed on those stakeholders at the government and Ministry levels of the system - but than again, after reading your comments - I shouldn't be quick to pass the buck! Thanks for taking the time.....

  3. Nicely said. It is a challenge of how do we meaningfully engage everyone who needs to be included in the conversation, while moving the conversation along quickly enough to ensure it translates into real change. It will be interesting where we go first - do we look at structures: school calendar, reporting, class size rules or do we look first at curriculum and assessment. We do have the great challenge of being a very high performing system - for some their success (or lack of success) can create urgency. Our urgency is coming from what we know and are learning about our changing world and also from what we see in other top jurisdictions whether that is Alberta, Singapore or Finland - even when you are at the top of your game you have to look where you go next.

    Exciting Times!

  4. Exciting indeed. Your point about where we will go first is interesting - structures or curriculum? Whichever it is, I would hope that it would cause the a major shift in thinking. I can only give a local school example. When we embarked on reforming our grading practices the decision to "keep grade books open" and not average terms had a profound impact on teachers' attitudes. It was a tipping point for broader changes!

    I do appreciate the comments and insights!

  5. Johnny, thoughtful post. I agree - change must be well researched and purposeful. As Chris said, we are a high performing entity in BC. Sometimes moving from good to great is the hardest leap. I am excited about the conversations that are happening in BC...all stakeholders are part of the conversations. Change can happen when there are positive relationships and trust - it's what will allow us to make the leap.

  6. Thanks Darcy - Relationships are so important. My sense is that the conversation is growing louder and louder. How we harness this chatter into something meaningful is the question. Thanks again for the comments!