5 Traps that Threaten the Success of Your Change Efforts This Year


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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number fifteen.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson. ​

Hey Builders, welcome back to another episode of the School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today, we’re talking about 5 Traps that Threaten the Success of Your Change Efforts. 

Someone asked me the other day if there was ever a time when you shouldn’t be a builder? In other words, aren’t there times when you just have to act like a boss?

It’s an interesting question isn’t it. I think we all are attracted to the idea of buildership but it seems like such a lofty ideal doesn’t it. Sure we’d all like to be builders and in a perfect world that’s exactly what we would be.

But sometimes there are some people or some situations that just call for a boss move. What do you do if you have someone who shows up for work high or drunk one day? Or what about a teacher who is refusing to implement a new change? In those situations, isn’t it better to be a boss?

At least that’s the argument I hear all the time.

But here’s the thing about buildership. It’s an all or nothing proposition. It’s not a hat you put on and then take it off when it’s no longer convenient or expedient. As a builder, you can handle those situations like a builder.

There is never a time when you NEED to be a bosshole. 

I bring this up because a lot of times we start out the year thinking like builders. So we go and we write that Meaningful Strategic Plan with those big 100% goals and then… we stop acting like a builder when it comes time to actually implementing that plan.

There’s a reason that we often don’t follow through on our strategic plans or frankly any change effort we are trying to implement. In fact, there are 5 BIG reasons, I call them TRAPS that seriously threaten the success of our change efforts and today, I’m going to go through these 5 traps one by one and show you why they are so insidious and exactly what you need to do to avoid them. 

So if you remember in episode 13, I talked about 5 non-education books you should be reading this year. If you haven’t listened to that episode, you really need to check out the book list. It’s one of the best ones I’ve ever done in my very humble opinion. I’ll put a link to episode 13 in the show notes.

Anyway, one of the books I mentioned was Influencer by the smart folks at Vital Smarts. This book is RICH with insights on how to influence others to bring about wide-scale pervasive change we’re talking eradicating common diseases, dramatically reducing AIDS in a region, or cutting the number of prisoners who return to prison within a year by almost 75% -- those kinds of BIG changes.

Well in order to have this kind of wide-sweeping impact, it means that you are going to have to help people change their behavior.

Now this is where most of us give up. We don’t really believe that we can influence people to change their behavior.

But what I love so much about this book is that not only does it make a compelling argument that you CAN influence people’s behavior is a dramatic and amazing way, it also lays out exactly how you can influence people’s behavior step by step.

I’ll link to the book in the show notes and you’ll have to get the book in order to see the exact steps. It would take me too long to go through them here but trust me it’s powerful stuff. You need to read this book.

But, as I was reading the book, I also noticed that there were a few subtle traps that if missed, could seriously derail your change efforts. So today, I want to go through these traps and talk specifically about how they can keep you from realizing your big audacious goals. I’m going to count them down from the smallest to the biggest trap so starting with trap number 5. 

Trap Number Five: Starting from Scratch

Summary: I really don’t remember how I came across this book. Oh wait a minute. Yes I do. I heard someone reference it on a podcast interview I was listening to. I was curious so I bought the book the next day.

From the moment I started reading it, I grabbed my notebook and furiously started scribbling notes. There is so much good stuff in this book!

It starts out by talking about how most of us has an upper limit problem, meaning that we often self-sabotage our success because we have an idea in our heads of just how successful we’re supposed to be. When we exceed that limit, it’s uncomfortable to us so what we do is that we subconsciously sabotage our success.

Well we could stay there all day but there’s more.

You see we all have what he calls a zone of genius. That is where we are our best selves and we do work that we were uniquely gifted to do. Hendricks argues that we should be spending the majority of our time in our zone of genius.

But there are also the zones of excellence, competence, and incompetence and more often than not, we tend to spend our majority of our time doing work at which we are competent or excellent but that does not represent our zone of genius.

That stopped me in my tracks right there and it has stayed with me ever since. Not only do I see this all the time in my life where I am doing something inside of my zone of excellence but not my zone of genius, but I see so many educators who are so used to operating in their zone of competence or even their zone of excellence, but rarely operating in their true zone of genius and i honestly think this is the reason so many of us are so overwhelmed and dissatisfied with our jobs right now.

So I am going to devote an entire show to this sometime in the near future, but trust me, this book is really eye-opening and helping us realize what is really our zone of genius and showing us how to re-orient our lives and operate more fully in our zone of genius and banish those upper limit problems for good.

Trap Number Four: Tinkering with Change

I addressed this one a bit last time when I challenged you to set big audacious goals but it’s worth revisiting here. A lot of time we tinker with change instead of committing to it all the way.

Here’s what I mean by that. I once worked with a high school that had several serious issues -- the absentee rate was unbelievable. In fact most first period classes would have about 3-5 students each day -- but not the same 3-5 students. Kids were skipping classes. Referrals were through the roof. The graduation rate was embarassing, there were tons of fights happening in the halls. The school had about 47 entrances so it was pretty porous and a lot of the issues in the community like gang violence were leaking into the school.Teachers were demoralized. It was a mess.

So you know what the principal decided to focus on?


You heard me. Uniforms. She instituted a uniform policy ostensibly to cut down on the number of non-students in the building each day and she made some vague argument about being able to catch ditchers if they were wearing uniforms.

But what she was really doing is tinkering with change. She focused on uniforms instead of dealing with the more pressing problems she was facing.

Now as ridiculous as that sounds, how many of us are doing the same thing? How many of us are tinkering around the edges of change instead of committing to a full-scale change?

Are you focusing on increasing achievement by only a few percentage points each year.


Are you attacking the symptom instead of addressing the problem?


Are you chipping away at your issue and telling yourself that you need to deal with it bit by bit instead of taking it on all at once.


Are you spending more time making sure that your goals are SMART goals than you are working to achieve your goals?


Are you stretching your time line to give yourself more time to get organized?


Are you out looking for additional resources or waiting until you have everything set up just so before you begin?


Hear me when I say this. You will not realize real change by tinkering. Unless you are committed to take on the issue head on, unless you commit to full-scale change, you will never be successful with your change efforts.

Now I get it. Big change is daunting and it may seem better to bite off only as much as you chew. After all, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

But you’ve got to take a bite. Most people are busy setting the table, selecting the right fork, running to target to get matching napkins, and they are never actually sitting down and taking a bite out of their issue.

You’ll never eat an elephant if you don’t take the bite.

The reason people tinker with change is that they are afraid to actually get started. They don’t really believe that change is possible or more important, they don’t believe that they have what it takes to make change happen.

And that’s really at the heart of a lot of these traps. We doubt ourselves. We really don’t believe that we have what it takes to make change happen so we’d rather tinker with change than actually commit to full-scale change so that we can stay busy but never actually prove our fears correct.

So the first step is to deal with our own self doubts. And then the next step is to actually take the bite. Even if you don’t feel ready yet. Take the bite. 

Trap Number Three: Prescription before Diagnosis

This one is pretty pervasive. We prescribe a solution before we properly diagnose the problem.

For instance, I was working with a small school system recently and they were trying to raise student achievement across the board. For years they had struggled to raise student achievement. This was a high poverty district with a lot of student mobility. About 30% of their teaching staff was not certified, provisionally certified, or a long-term substitute. They had a hard time recruiting teachers to work in the district. They had a huge drop out issue and very low graduation rates. They were at the bottom of their state in terms of test scores. In other words, they were facing some pretty big challenges.

Well, they had just been awarded a HUGE grant to help them, I’m talking millions of dollars over the next 5 years and do you know the first thing that what they wanted to spend the money on? More computers.

Their argument was that their students didn’t have access to computers therefore they weren’t doing their homework.

I am not arguing that a lack of computers may be a barrier. But I asked them, if you put a computer in every student’s hand, will that immediately solve the homework issue? How about the high student mobility issue? How about the dropout issue?

If the answer is no, then why are we focusing on computers first?

We do that a lot. We prescribe the answer before we spend the proper time diagnosing the problem. Kids not reading on grade level? It must mean that we need a reading program. Discipline problems on the rise? We need PBIS. Graduation rates low? We need credit recovery! Is there a fundamental lack of rigor in the classroom? AVID is the answer! Teachers not teaching the way that we should? PLC’s!

You would never allow your doctor to examine you and give you a prescription without first hearing the diagnosis so why do we allow ourselves to prescribe a solution before we really understand the problem?

I suspect that the reason we do this, the reason that we are so quick to prescribe before we diagnose is that often the symptoms are pretty painful and we want to address them right away.

But when we rush to prescribe a cure before we have the right diagnosis, we waste a lot of time and energy guessing. If we would just wait a bit, take time to properly diagnose the issue before we prescribe the cure, we have a greater shot at solving the issue and solving it for good. 

Trap Number Two: Change on the Cheap

This trap is very similar to tinkering with change but with one big difference. In this trap, you KNOW that you need to commit to full-scale change but you don’t think that you CAN with the resources you have.

You know you’re dealing with this trap when you find yourself saying something like, I WISH we could do that next year but… and you can fill that but in with anything no money, no time, no teachers, whatever, BUT we can’t so we’re going to do this little piece of it instead.

So instead, you try to carve off a small part that you think you can do right now this year with the resources you have.

What’s so sneaky about this trap is that it actually may be true. You may not have all the money or resources or teachers you need to implement large-scale change right now. But that doesn’t mean that you should water down your change efforts so that they fit your budget.

It means that you should still set big goals and then FIND A WAY TO REACH THEM.

Can I get on my soapbox for a second? We overestimate how important money is in achieving our goals. I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. But what I am saying is that money is not the only way to achieve our goals. Sure it may be the fastest way, maybe. I mean I’ve seen too many school get a windfall of money or a grant and have all this extra money and because they don’t have a real plan they waste money and still don’t reach their goals. I’ve seen other schools who haven’t had the money and figured out a way to reach their goals with the money they have.

I’m thinking of one of our clients who called us and wanted me to come out and do a 4-part series of rigorous instruction training but when we looked at her budget, she didn’t have enough money to invest.

So we worked with her and asked her why she wanted the training. Once she explained to us her goals, we helped her come up with a plan to reach her goals with the budget she had. In the end, we did ONE day of training to kick things off, then she got one of our Staff Development Kits so that she and her team could lead out in helping the teachers make their instruction more rigorous. That way, they could get consistent, job-embedded professional development to teachers each week in a cost-efficient manner. Later, they hired us to come back out to provide coaching to the teachers but the entire package we created for them fit their budget.

By the end of the school year, they had completely revamped their school to the point that they went from a failing school to a high-achieving school. Their transformation is amazing. In fact, we have a short video that shows you what they did to achieve their transformation and I’ll link to that video in the show notes if you want to check them out.

They had big goals and they achieved them. Did they let budget stop them? Heck no! They focused on the change they wanted to achieve and then figured out how to achieve it with the budget they have.

We think that money will solve our problems. But in most schools where I’ve worked, money isn’t their main issue. In fact, many of the most powerful things I’ve seen schools do have not cost much money at all.

So, don’t fall for change on the cheap. Don’t let your budget dictate the changes you want to make. Set big goals. Develop a plan. Then figure out how to make your plan work with the resources you have. 

Trap Number One: No Real Focus.

This one is the biggest trap that keeps us from achieving big goals in our school. We set a goal and then we get all active trying to achieve the goal and we miss one important step.

We don’t focus our efforts.

We spend far too little time thinking through to the root cause of the problem we are trying to solve. Instead, we have a problem and we just jump to the solution.

In the book Influencer, one of my biggest takeaways was how careful they were about thinking through the problem first before they settled on a plan to solve it. It’s the pareto principle in action.

You know the Pareto principle don’t you. 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. For instance, did you know that 80% of your student test score gains come from 20% of your efforts? It’s true and if you can pinpoint which of your efforts are producing the greatest amount of gains, you could double down on those efforts and increase your gains even more.

But the opposite is also true? 20% of anything can cause 80% of your challenges. For instance, 80% of your discipline problems probably come from 20% of your students. 80% of your challenges with teachers probably come from 20% of your teachers.

So if that’s true then it means that you are better off spending time dealing with the right 20% of your problems because if you do, you solve 80% of your issues.

Think about that. If you could pinpoint the right parts of your challenges to work on, the 20% that will make 80% of the difference and you solve that 20%, you can accomplish a far greater improvement than if you go to work on everything at once.

But what we do most of the time is that we try to tackle the entire challenge at once. We try to solve the whole thing all at once.

Any time you want to accomplish big changes in your school, any time you are trying to tackle a big challenge, you need to spend WAY more time than you think thinking through the problem. What are the causes? Why is it a problem? Is this the root cause or is it something else?

Do that, and you will figure out the most important thing to tackle first. This is perhaps the BIGGEST mistake I see people make. They don’t take time to really uncover the root cause before they go out and try to fix things. We do this when we are evaluating teachers, we do this when we are supporting struggling learners, we do this when we are planning lessons or trying to motivate reluctant learners or reluctant adults for that matter. We jump to a solution before we really understand the problem.

When you focus on the root cause the vital behaviors that need to change, when you really take time to figure out what these are and then you focus on changing those vital behaviors or addressing that root cause, that is how you make HUGE, LASTING, and MEANINGFUL change.

Remember if everything is important it means nothing is important. So focus. Ask yourself what’s the 20% that’s going to have the biggest impact? Find that first and then spend all of your efforts fixing that 20% because if you do, you will have solved 80% of the problem. 

And before we go, I just want to recap...

the 5 Traps that threaten the success of your change efforts:

  • Trap Number 5: Starting from Scratch
  • Trap Number 4: Prescription before Diagnosis
  • Trap Number 3: Tinkering with Change
  • Trap Number 2: Change on the Cheap
  • Trap Number 1: No Real Focus

Here’s the thing about all of these traps. They are sneaky little buggers. A lot of times you don’t even realize that you’ve fallen for one of these traps until you’re already in the midst of them.

But the good news is that once you recognize that you are in one of these traps, it’s pretty easy to extricate yourself and get back to Building again. The hard part is recognizing them and that’s because on the surface, they seem so logical. It seems perfectly logical to start from scratch each year or to do change on the cheap or whatever. We can make a pretty good argument for why we have to do things that way. And as long as we look at our change efforts or our strategic planning on the surface, our excuses can feel totally legitimate.

That’s why Builders look past the surface. They don’t just focus on what’s immediately in front of them. They are always thinking about their BIG goals and how they can best achieve them. That singular focus, that vigilance is the only protection you have against these traps. Lose your focus, start slacking off, and I promise you you will fall for these traps without even realizing it.

So stay vigilant my friends. It’s the only way to protect your vision from succumbing to these traps. 

Okay, now before we go,

I want to remind you about today’s spon​ser the Feedback Fast-Track Formula which is a 4-part online training program that helps you shave up to half the amount of time you are spending giving feedback to teachers while making your feedback twice as effective. In fact, if you use this process, you can help every teacher you work with score at least one level higher in at least one domain or problem area in one school year. Again, you can sign up for the training at mindstepsinc.com/feedback. 

And as I do almost every week, I want to connect with you on linked in. Would you please find me at Robyn Jackson on Linked In and let’s connect? I’d love for us to be connected.

Next ​week...

So for the last few episodes we’ve talked about setting big goals and getting people to buy into achieving those big goals. Next time, we’re going to actually get down to the nitty gritty and talk about how we do the work of achieving big goals and the answer is that we have to put systems in place. Now I know that on the surface, there’s nothing inherently sexy about systems. But trust me once we’re finished talking systems next time, you’re going to find them completely irresistible -- like bomb chicka bow wow irresistible. So make sure that you tune in next time to find out how to put systems in place #likeabuilder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/

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