​How to Create a True Sense of Urgency


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

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.

Hello Builders!
Welcome to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined. I’m your host Robyn Jackson and I am really excited about today’s show.

I got a question on Linkedin a couple of weeks ago from a listener that I want to share with you. The listener is a principal who is new to her school this year. She’s working on some really big challenges with her staff as she attempts to raise the bar in her school and rebrand. She really wants to be a builder but she also has a sense of urgency for her students. So, she asked, how do you know when to be collaborative and when you should just make the decision yourself? After all, collaboration can sometimes feel unproductive. There is a lot of discussion and wordsmithing but no decision or action.

I think this is a really interesting question don’t you? I mean we’ve all been there haven’t we. We want to include people in the decision making. We want to be collaborative. But the problem is, no one seems to share our sense of urgency. No one seems to want to make a decision.

It’s something I see all the time and it can be really frustrating can’t it? The data is horrible. There is a critical need for change. And yet, everyone seems to be dragging their feet. People seem satisfied with the status quo. They pay a lot of lip service to the issue but they don’t want to change.

So today, we’re going to talk about how to create a real sense of urgency around an initiative and get people truly invested in making change happen instead of dragging their feet talking about the need for change but not doing anything about it.

It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about this year as we work with schools and districts to help them implement a change process.

In fact, in our original transformation process, we didn’t even include a stage for creating a sense of urgency. And then we found that we had a hard time getting initiatives off the ground and keeping people truly engaged throughout the process.

So after thinking about it for a while and looking at the work we were doing, we realized that if you are going to get change off the ground, you need to create a sense of urgency.

We call it the excite stage and after spending a considerable amount of time working it out, we now have a process to help you create a true sense of urgency with your staff.

So today, we’re going to talk about how to create a sense of urgency #likeabuilder.

But before I dive in,

I want to ask you a question. Do you ever find yourself saying, I could do amazing things in my students if it weren’t for the adults?

Like, are you trying your best to do the right thing for kids but the adults in your school or district are resistant, or worse apathetic?

It’s something that we go into detail about at Builder’s Lab 2019. In fact, if you are having any trouble getting people truly engaged in change, you need to come to Builder’s Lab because that’s what we are going to spend the entire 3 days doing.

So if you started the year full of the plans for improving your school this school year? And you might be making better progress towards your goals, if only your people would cooperate.

I get it. It’s hard to maintain momentum throughout the year when you have people dragging their feet or not fully invested in reaching your goals. That’s why you really need to come to Builder’s Lab 2019.

Because at Builder’s Lab 2019 you’ll take a good look at where you are right now in the year and get your staff recommitted and taking real action to achieve those goals you set at the beginning of the year THIS year.

At Builders’ Lab, you’ll learn the four things you need to do to get your staff moving consistently towards your school goals.

First, you’ll discover how to overcome toxic cultures and build a more positive culture where everyone is treating each other with respect.

Once you get the culture straight, you’ll learn to give your teachers feedback they will actually act on without pushback or hurt feelings or blank stares.

Then you’ll learn how to provide follow up and support for teachers to help them consistently improve throughout the year.

And finally, you’ll learn how to help teachers stay accountable for their part in achieving school goals without having to resort to writing people up or having really tense conversations with teachers.

This year doesn’t have to be a wash. There is still time for you to get people on board and make a difference in your school THIS SCHOOL YEAR. Go to mindstepsinc.com/Builders-Lab to get your ticket and let’s figure out together how to get your people moving in the right direction towards your school goals. 

Now the first step to get people moving towards your goals... 

and the one that most of us overlook is creating a real sense of urgency.

Part of the problem is that we assume that because we see the data and we feel a sense of urgency then it should be obvious to everyone else that things have to change right away.

But guess what?

They can look at the same data, see the same mess going on in the school, and give intellectual assent to the need for change without feeling a true sense of urgency that change needs to happen right away.

So what do you do? Do you just give up and start making executive decisions?

Sure, you could do that and yes, you may actually start to move a few things along that way initially.

But before long, you’ll be stalled again. That’s because when you move ahead without creating a sense of urgency first, you might get compliance, but you will not get cooperation and commitment.

The truth is, without people’s buy in, without that shared sense of urgency, it’s really hard to get anything going, even if you try to muscle it through.

So first, let’s look at why it’s so hard to create a sense of urgency. Then let’s look at 3 ways you can create a sense of urgency and get everyone focused on doing the right work and actually get moving in doing the right work.

Okay, so let’s look at why it’s so hard to create a real sense of urgency. After all, the data doesn’t lie. You have students who are failing abysmally or discipline issues are through the roof, or your absentee rate is appalling or your achievement gap if criminal. And sure, people see the data and meet about the data and explain away the data even wring their hands about the data. But then you come in and say, hey why don’t we actually DO something about the data and crickets. Nothing.

Two of the biggest threats to a true sense of urgency are complacency and false urgency.

Complacency is where people have gotten comfortable with living with the problem and on some level, think that as much as they don’t like the problem, there is really not much they can do about it.

For instance, suppose your test scores are horrible and you come in and say, we need to do something about these. And people agree with you but then they say, but you know, we’ve been dealing with this for years. Or when you make a suggestion, they say, yeah we tried that before once and it really didn’t work but I appreciate your enthusiasm and passion. You’re new around here but you’ll learn.

Now as much as I am annoyed by complacency, I really feel kinda bad for people who have this attitude. They’ve given up. They’ve gotten used to underachieving. They no longer believe that things can get better.

Now false urgency is even worse. False urgency is when people PRETEND to really care and want to move on a problem but they aren’t serious. It’s like every year after Thanksgiving when I gain a few pounds and then I tell myself that I really need to slow down on the sweets. I believe that I shouldn’t eat all those treats that people bring to the office during the holidays and I even make a lot of noise about how I need to stop, as I shove another cookie in my mouth.

That’s false urgency and I am seeing it more and more. People make a lot of noise about what we should be doing but they don’t actually do anything.

The way you overcome complacency and false urgency is to intentionally create a true sense of urgency.

Here are 3 things you can do and I’m taking this from the book A Sense of Urgency by Eli Goldratt.

First, make the problem visible. 

As long as the problem is just a set of data, or test scores, or numbers, it doesn’t feel real and it’s pretty easy to ignore. You want to make sure that no one can ignore the problem.

So if you have a 40% proficiency rate in reading in your school that means that 60% of students are failing. Who are the 60%? Put their pictures up and let people know that we are failing Tyquan and Max and Sherita and Bethany and Ceasar and Moriah. Don’t talk about the 60%. Talk about Carmen and Sharon and Chip and May Ling and Jennifer.

Put the data up on the walls so that it’s a constant reminder. Send teachers to other schools with your same demographic who are performing well so that they can see the contrast.

Bring in current and former students into your next faculty meeting to talk about how bored or lost they are in the classroom.

Use the power of video to show people what they may have otherwise missed like the number of students who are in the halls after the bell rings.

Get bold here. It’s easy to ignore data. But you have to make the data tell a story. You have to tell the story of the data through pictures or vidoes or stories so that the data becomes real to people and not just something we meet about each week. How can you make the most important data hard to ignore?

That’s what you want to think about. How can you keep the real data story in front of people every day?

Do that and you can snap people out of their complacency and start to build a real sense of urgency.

Second, you need to make sure that you behave with urgency.

I know that you feel a sense of urgency and are frustrated that more people aren’t moving but a lot of us make the mistake of waiting for others to start feeling the sense of urgency before we start acting like it ourselves.

Here’s what I mean by that. We meet about an issue and try to raise the urgency of the situation with everyone. Then, when they don’t get moving, we get frustrated and we unintentionally slow down waiting for them to catch up.

But when you act with a sense of urgency yourself it doesn’t mean that you run ahead and make unilateral decisions for everyone else. What it does mean is that start to clear the clutter in your schedule and calendar so that can make sure that everyone stays focused on what is most important.

So, if you really want to focus on rigor. Then you need to delay the 20 other initiatives going on in your school this year and make sure that every training, every faculty meeting, every leadership team meeting, every professional development day, everything is focused on rigor.

Every time you talk to someone you need to be talking to them about rigor. A teacher comes to your office to complain that there is no toilet paper in the faculty bathroom and you say, thanks for letting me know about that. I’ll get some in there right away. Say, while you’re hear, how’s that rigorous lesson plan coming? What are you doing this week to increase the rigor of your lessons?

You’ve got to keep repeating your own sense of urgency around rigor until people get sick of it.

What’s more, you need to be visibly urgent. That means that if you really want to increase rigor in the classrooms, you need to be in classrooms giving people feedback around rigor. You need to be in their trainings (and you need to sit through the entire training and actually participate) so that they can see your commitment to rigor. You need to walk the talk yourself. You can’t ask others to make changes unless you are also willing to change. That means that you need to readjust your schedule and how you spend your time so that you are also hyperfocused on what needs to be done. People need to see that YOU have made it a prority before they will make it a priority.

You can’t just give passionate speeches at the faculty meeting about the changes that need to take place and not demonstrate that you are ready to make the changes yourself. People need to see you behave with urgency so that they can know that you are real and they can get a sense of urgency themselves.

And finally, you need to deal with the people who are actively trying to block your path.

Now not everyone is actively trying to obstruct what you are doing. Some people who are initially hesitant are simply skeptical. You can overcome their skepticism by making things more visible, behaving with urgency, and overcoming their resistance. Now I did an entire show about overcoming resistance. It’s episodes 20 and 21 and I’ll link to them in the show notes. 

But there are others who are not skeptics. They are actively and committedly against what you are trying to do. In fact, given the chance they will sabotage your efforts at every turn.

Here’s the thing about these people. Don’t waste your time trying to get them to feel a sense of urgency. They won’t. Instead, they will try to disrupt the process and delay action as much as they can.

But that doesn’t mean that you ignore them either because if you ignore them, they will create a lot of trouble just because they don’t like being ignored.

So what do you do with someone who is disrupting your attempts to generate real urgency around an issue and get people to act?

Well, I’m about to give you a ninja move that’s pretty powerful.

You don’t try to convince the naysayers and you don’t ignore them. You distract them.

That’s right. Get them involved in something else that keeps them occupied while you get the real work done.

For instance, once I was trying to create a sense of urgency around some equity issues we were experiencing in my middle school. There was a rise in racially motivated incidents against some of our African American students that were pretty disturbing.

But, because the school was predominanty white and because there were so few African American students in the school and because my staff was predominantly white, people started saying, well this is just a few isolated incidents. We don’t really have a race problem here.

Some parents were calling me and saying things like, Is it really necessary to make such a big deal about this. It’s only a few kids involved and well, you know how kids are anyway. They make stupid mistakes. It doesn’t make them racist.

I had one staff member in particular who was pretty vocal about how we were making too big of a deal about things. She even implied that maybe I was making such a big deal about it was because I am African American and a little overly sensitive. She even went as far as to say in the staff meeting that we were being too politically correct and stifling free speech because we were coming down hard on some students who were using hate speech.

We tried to reason with her but the more we did, the more stubbornly she resisted. So finally, we decided to distract her. We had a big Rennaissance festival coming up where every year students would study the renaissance, dress up in costumes and complete all these multidisciplinary activities around the renaissance. So what we did is we asked her to get more involved in that and kept her far, far away from the equity work we were doing. She was so happy to be involved and got so involved that we could have meetings and get work moving without her interference.

Here’s what else. One person on our admin team volunteered to personally keep her so busy and distracted that she couldn’t create problems. He would ask her to meet with him about the festival plans during critical meetings that we were having about equity. When we sent out material to the staff, he’s always send her a long email right after with a ton of questions about the event so that she would focus on that email instead of writing a nasty response to the other email.

By the time she looked up, we were well on our way with our plans.

That didn’t mean that she didn’t try to interfere. But, by the time she tried, so many other people on the staff had developed their own sense of urgency that we didn’t have to shut her down, they did.

If someone is committed to trying to block an initiative and quelch the sense of urgency, stop trying to reason with them. Distract them with something that takes them far away from what you are working on and by the time they realize what’s happening and start acting up, you’ll have built a critical mass of others who now share your sense of urgency and they can create so much momentum that it will be hard to squelch.

So let’s review the bigggest threats to a real sense of urgency:

the biggest threats to a real sense of urgency are complacency and false urgency. And if you want to create a true sense of urgency, you need to make the data visible and unignorable, you need to act with urgency yourself, and you need to find a way to isolate the saboteurs by keeping them distracted until you can build a critical mass of urgency. 

Now here’s the thing.

Creating a sense of urgency is really only one part of the picture.

One of the things we often neglect is that we make everything urgent. 

And when everything is “urgent” nothing is. 

So, you can’t just go out there and keep folks in a heightened state of urgency. You need to save urgency for those things that are truly urgent.

Here’s something else. Urgency is necessary to get people moving but it’s not the work itself.

So creating a sense of urgency without actually following up with real work is kinda like serving icing without the cake.

Now I love icing. I really do. I actually think that cupcakes are simply efficient carriers for the icing.

But as much as I love icing, I don’t want to eat an entire glob of it. At some point, you need more. You need to actually do the work.

So, yes, create a sense of urgency to get everyone focused on the right work. But, once you have their attention, you need to actually do the work. Otherwise people will develop cynicism over time because you keep crying the sky is falling.

Now #likeabuilder.


Okay, now before we go,..

don’t forget to get your ticket to Builder’s Lab 2019. If you want to find out how to get your people on board and moving so that you can still reach your goals THIS year, even the resistant nay-sayers or the people who are just plain stuck, then you need to come to Builder’s Lab 2019.

Just go to www.mindstepsinc.com/builders-lab and get your ticket now.  

Next week...

Okay, next time I’m going to tackle a BIG barrier many of us are facing right now.

What do you do when you give someone feedback and you are met with a blank stare? Or what do you do when you make a major presentation to your staff about how you will move forward as a school and then crickets? Nada. Nothing. No response.

Well, next time, we’re going to dive into WHY you are being met with blank stares and inaction and discover exactly what you can do about it.

Next time we’re going to learn how to get people moving #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/

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.