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The burning house

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Hopefully not, but what would you do if you returned home to find your house has burned down? After the initial shock and understandable crisis response (putting out the fire, finding somewhere to stay etc.), what would you do? Would you build exactly the same house in exactly the same place with no changes, or build a different home because, (now you think about it), you weren't that happy with it before it set ablaze. Thinking about it, what about changing location, maybe you don't need to live there at all. Anyway, what do we mean by 'a house', we could even completely re-think what 'a house' is...? Who hasn't seen 'Grand Designs'?!

There are many possibilities. Covid-19 has created a scenario for everyone where we can't change the circumstances of life. But we can change how we think about our response to it, how it makes us feel and what we are going to do now. This applies in all public, private and third sector settings. So what do you want to do, how do you know and who is going to help you? Using tested and structured improvement approaches that involve people at the heart of change has never been more important. Our approaches also need to be flexible and adaptable, because change is often non-linear. It can be volatile and unpredictable, and so our responses need to reflect that need to be versatile, resilient and pragmatic.

There is no single 'right way', though, of dealing with change and improvement. And that's when being open-minded, creative and curious comes in to play. Those of you familiar with the work of Simon Sinek will know about the power of 'why'. Fundamentally, if we ask ourselves 'why?' from the outset and explore that very word first in order to create a real understanding of our mission, belief and values, we can only then move on to the 'how' and the 'what' to build a narrative and a plan for change and improvement. If we don't know 'why' we want to do something, the how and the what become much less important. So, if the 'house' has burned down, why do we take certain decisions in response? Because we need somewhere to live, a fire has destroyed our home, we feel unsafe...of course! But 'why' would we make particular choices in the longer term? Do we want exactly the same home, or something different, something better. Is it an opportunity to think differently? Can it make us happier? Sure, we need somewhere to live for shelter, warmth, safety, and sometimes there are temporary options that we may have to put in place before we rush into making choices that we may regret. Nevertheless, in the longer-term future, if we take ill-considered action it will take time to fix if things (if they can be fixed at all), are not right or we just become accustomed things because 'it's always been that way, not to mention the waste of resource and budget if we don't think strategically enough. I'm not advocating endless naval contemplation, action must be taken, but it should be considered, measured, and collectively understood and owned.

So, why do anything different? Questioning and creativity can help, along with a curious mindset. This fundamental attitude is important to make change that is effective and leads to improvement that is not just quantifiable, but also valued. I believe that there are always functional, social and personal considerations to take into account when we are trying to consider change and improvement. In the case of this now burned-out house and its replacement, for example, functionally, I need to consider what do I need in the house, how many rooms, how is it going to be watertight, built on solid foundations, can I afford it etc. Socially, what will the neighbours think, will it be an acceptable aesthetic, will someone else want to buy it someday, where is the best place to build it. Personally, will being in this version of a home fulfil my emotional needs - will it make me happy, will it make my family happy, will it be what I want as well as what I need?

We just wouldn't start to build a 'new house' without thinking about it, modelling it, asking questions and evaluating what it is we are trying to do before planning it. So, I think that this analogy applies to change and development in broader areas of improvement. Quality Improvement Models are important to create structure, direction, motivation and accountability. For instance, the 'How Good Is Our...' set of frameworks are helpful in self-evaluation and improvement planning. But before that, I advocate carefully considering the 'why' question. For example, with a simplified school analogy, imagine if we use the three broad areas of 'How Good Is Our School?' to look at literacy in a school, very simplistically you might do the following:

- how are we doing in literacy? Er, think it's good, but maybe could be better...?

- how do we know? Data, benchmarking, classroom observation, feedback etc.

- what are we going to do next? Improve learning and teaching in identified areas of literacy, targeted CPD for staff, use data for monitoring and target-setting etc.

All that's fine. But what about 'why'? Why do we want to improve literacy, what bigger picture does that become part of, why is our school any different to the next one in our approach to literacy... It might sound obvious, but is it? Why do you drive the car you do - they all get you from A to B, but why did you pick the one you've got? Why do you use the mobile phone you have? They all make calls, send texts and so on, but what is it about your phone that led you to buy it? Certainly, there will be some very practical reasons like cost, but are our choices always entirely conscious, or are there sub-conscious elements (prejudices, beliefs, hopes, desires, values, aspirations) that affect our decisions? Sometimes, there are hidden social norms and values that affect the choices that we make in life. How does this apply to yourself, your team, your organisation - have you thought about it? Have you talked about it?

Conversations are important. As are the frameworks we use to support them, but the framework is only part of it, because it's the human dimension that is fundamental to the success of any team, organisation, set of aspirations and beliefs. We need to know ourselves and the 'facts' before we can improve. And to do that, we have to answer the question: 'why'.

So, in three steps:

  1. Know 'why' before 'how' and 'what'

  2. Use improvement methodologies and tools wisely to frame human interactions and build programmes together (don't use a spanner instead of a knife when spreading butter on toast, it gets messy...)

  3. Then plan, take action, monitor, refine and improve, and use data because human 'feeling' is not enough

  4. Sometimes, break the rules (like having three steps). It can stimulate, challenge and be rewarding.

In the current climate, improvement methodologies can sound indulgent and wooly when things simply have to be done. Don't get me wrong, crisis management usually needs 'command control' approaches, but we don't live in the 'eye of the crisis storm' forever, but we do live in its residual impact a lot longer. That's why improvement methodologies are far from indulgent, they are vital if we are to respond to the consequences of circumstances and not just the circumstances themselves. Knowing how to keep going and deliver is hard to do on your own, and made much easier with objective and experienced help and guidance. The journey is inevitable...but how will you decide to travel?

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