Matt Foster

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Readiness for Change, A Principal’s First Step in Change Leadership

Change is rarely a one-time event. Your school’s readiness for change is the starting point for successful change - that is, change that results in long-term sustainable improvement. 

But how do we assess readiness for change? How do you build your school’s capacity to change? How can you create a culture of ongoing change?

It begins with your readiness for change. We’ll start there.

But first, here are some quick links to help you navigate this article:

Change Leadership Quick Tips

Assessing your school’s readiness for change is the quintessential step for initiating lasting improvements. Let’s keep it simple, readiness for change is about whether or not your school is ready for change in ways that allow improvements to stick around.

If you propose a change, no matter how perfect it is for your school, but your staff and teachers are not ready for the change, then you’ll face disappointment.

Here are some quick tips to ponder before we get into the details of change readiness:

  • Set goals that match your current stage of change readiness (see below).
  • Set goals that match your school’s stage of change readiness.
  • Build capacity for change by intentionally moving your teachers and teams through the stages of change.
  • Move beyond the maintenance stage with ongoing improvement cycles.

What Are The Stages of Changes?

We’ll avoid the academic lingo and jargon, but if you’re into research and all that, you’ll enjoy these free white pages on how to motivate people during the stages of change.

A well-researched change model from psychologist James O. Prochaska includes 5 stages of change:

  1. Precontemplation - “Ignorance is bliss.” Unaware of the need to change.
  2. Contemplation - “Sitting on the fence.” Ambivalent about the change.
  3. Preparation - “Testing the waters.” Trying out aspects of the change.
  4. Action - “Involved in the change.” Practicing new behaviors.
  5. Maintenance - “Building habits takes time.” Reinforce and refine the changes.

5 Stages of Change

  1. 1
    Stage 1. Precontemplation

    People or organizations at this stage of change are unaware of the need to change or flat-out deny that a change is needed.
  2. 2
    Stage 2. Contemplation

    At this stage of change, people are starting to realize there is a problem and need to initiate some type of change. They’re not sure that any particular change is the best next step - they only know something needs to happen.

    This stage usually has big ideas or plans, but no concrete steps and commitments are made.
  3. 3
    Stage 3. Preparation

    This is where planning gets detailed. The ideas are well-understood and now it’s time to make commitments and delegate action steps.

    This step is absolutely critical. If a team shortcuts this step, they limit their chances of success.
  4. 4
    Stage 4. Action

    This stage takes the most time and energy. It’s the mass adoption of a change and the visible enacting of all your planning and preparation. 
  5. 5
    Stage 5. Maintenance

    This is the longest stage, but’s also the stage where you discover the effectiveness of the change, relapse into prior behaviors, or move into further improvements.

    Intentional and dedicated collective effort is required during this stage of change if the change is to result in sustainable improvement.

Assessing Readiness for Change

The Harvard Business Review provides a working definition for assessing your school’s readiness for change:

"Change readiness is the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance."

Intentional personal change can not happen unless you are ready for it.

The same is true regarding change in your school. That’s why we need an assessment of change readiness.

Intentional personal change can not happen unless you are ready for it. The same is true for your organization.

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If we take this definition to guide our assessment, we should focus on five distinct areas of leadership skills and actions:

  1. Ability to Initiate Change
  2. Ability to Respond to Change
  3. Create Positive Steps Forward
  4. Minimizing Risks and Costs of Change
  5. Sustaining Improved Performance

These five leadership actions are align with the stages of change in the following ways:

  1. Precontemplation - Ability to initiate the idea of change.
  2. Contemplation - Allowing time for leadership teams, teachers, and staff to respond to change.
  3. Preparation - Well-planned and clearly articulated strategies to create positive steps forward.
  4. Action - Initiating the steps in ways that minimize the risks and costs of the change.
  5. Maintenance - Cueing, recognizing, and sustaining improved performance as a result of the change.
5 Stages of Change for School Leaders and Principals

Adapted from DiClemente and Prochaska, 1998

As the principal or school leader, it’s your role to accurately assess and plan for the five stages of change and to understand which actions to take within each stage.

Decades of research provide insights on the matter. Kotter and Schlesinger summarized their research this way:

“Few organizational change efforts tend to be complete failures, but few tend to be entirely successful either. Most efforts encounter problems; they often take longer than expected and desired, they sometimes kill morale, and they often cost a great deal in terms of managerial time or emotional upheaval. More than a few organizations have not even tried to initiate needed changes because the managers involved were afraid that they were simply incapable of successfully implementing them.” 

One way to assess readiness for change is to observe and make note of qualitative data.

Another method is to administer a survey or readiness for change questionnaire.

Readiness for Change Questionnaire

There are two types of change questionnaires that are worthy of your consideration:

  • The first is for your teachers and the school community.
  • The second is for you and your leadership team.

When preparing your own questionnaire, be sure to include questions about change readiness and questions about the change itself.

Example. Bryar Elementary School (BES) is contemplating the need to provide a virtual learning option for up to 50% of its students. When administering a change questionnaire, BES will want to assess their teachers’ and community’s understanding of what a virtual learning option would entail.

Additionally, a readiness for change questionnaire needs to be administered to the leadership team. After all, successful change is a function of successful leadership. If you and your team are not ready to lead change, it's likely the change will be less successful or altogether unsustainable.

We’ve prepared this Readiness for Change Assessment for you to take.

Successful change is a function of successful leadership.

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Readiness for Change Scale

The simplest way to quantify your change readiness assessment is to create a scale that matches the stages of change. Here’s an example of what might work for you.

1 = “I haven’t thought about that or I don’t think that’s important.”
2 = “I’ve thought about that before.”
3 = “This might be something we should do.”
4 = “I’m ready to start doing this now.”
5 = “I’m already doing this and hope that everyone else will do it too.”

In our Bryar Elementary School example, the principals might design 10 questions or statements regarding their idea to begin a virtual learning option. 

One of the statements would read:

Our school should provide Google Classroom to all students.
1 = “I haven’t thought about that or I don’t think that’s important.”
2 = “I’ve thought about that before.”
3 = “This might be something we should do.”
4 = “I’m ready to start doing this now.”
5 = “I’m already doing this and hope that everyone else will do it too.”

After a series of 10 statements such as this, the principal can have a quantifiable measure of the school’s readiness for change.

Principals' Seminar Research

Add to our research in this 4-question survey.

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Change Readiness Leadership Model

The 5 stages of change represent a model for all principals to understand. It is essential to understand when considering any major change in your school.

It's a model that shows you where your teachers and staff are and provides insights on where your need to lead.

After administering a change questionnaire like the one in the Bryar Elementary example, or after taking our readiness for change quiz (coming soon), reflect on the change model to determine what leadership steps are needed.

You should be able to determine:

  • The level of understanding about the change or project at the leadership level.
  • Your teachers’ understanding of the benefits and challenges associated with the change.
  • The collective belief as to whether the vision for the change has already been clearly communicated.
  • A baseline for your school’s capacity for change.

Transformational change occurs as a result of leaders taking full responsibility for leading through each stage of change and remaining focused on that stage until a critical mass has arrived.

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Organizational Readiness for Change

Your school, as an organization, goes through the same stages of change as individuals. And actually, organizational change can be easier to create than individual change. As authors Chip Heath & Dan Heath write, “It’s easy to go on a journey when you’re with a herd.”

Herd mentality, sometimes known as group think, is largely known to work against change efforts. But consider these examples where herd mentality increases the speed of change:

  • The growing popularity of organic food.
  • The virality and growth of social media platforms such as TikTok.
  • The change in how people think of eating animal meat.
  • Remember the change in clothing known as “bell-bottoms?”

Clearly these en-mass changes in our cultures weren’t a matter of one leader seeking to change large numbers of individuals.

Once a critical mass of people adopt a change, it’s easier for others to follow. There’s a sense of safety, acceptance, and other social/emotional cues that prompt changes in behavior.

That said, it’s the role of the leader to determine readiness for change. Is your school or district ready for the intended change? Is there a critical mass who will readily adopt the change and make it easier for others to adapt.

When you’re aware of where your school is in the stages of change, it becomes the map that tells you which leadership strategies to use.

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What is the importance of determining your school’s readiness for change?

Imagine an ocean navigator who decides to travel from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast of Mexico. However, before the trek, she did not consult the maps.

When you’re aware of where your school is in the stages of change, it's the map that tells you which leadership strategies to use.

Leadership Change Strategies Through the Continuum

If change fails, it lays solely on the shoulders of the leader.

That’s a bold statement, but let’s consider it for a moment and then look into some strategies that make change possible.

First, very few change initiatives completely fail. Likewise, very completely succeed. Usually, an improvement is initiated and somewhat implemented by a number of staff members. It’s good enough to say “we tried it”. Then the leadership team is off to the next change initiative.

That's what we call good enough change leadership.

Good enough is essentially the same as getting some of your faculty to the action stage of change and then moving on to another change.

Instead, transformational change occurs as a result of leaders taking full responsibility for leading through each stage of change and remaining focused on that stage until a critical mass has arrived.

Consider the following leadership strategies depending on your school’s readiness for change.

Precontemplation

The Ideation Stage

Leadership Actions for Stage 1

Engage teams in collaborative inquiry into the problem that the change seeks to solve.

Clarify the vision of a better outcome.

Involve core team members in collectively defining that vision.

Contemplation

The Inward Step

Leadership Actions for Stage 2

Continue to clarify the vision as you engage more of your faculty in defining better outcomes for the school.

Solidify the need for change by inviting teams to share the results of their problem inquiries.

Engage teams in collective inquiries into solutions (or versions of a solution).

Preparation

Going Public

Leadership Actions for Stage 3

Continue to communicate the vision.

Engage teams in collaboratively learning about the change.

Begin goal-setting using OKRs and other action-oriented planning techniques.

Collaborate on timelines and time management protocols related to the change.

Action

Testing the New

Leadership Actions for Stage 4

Establish systems for measuring the effects of the change (such as A/B testing).

Support team leaders as they seek to innovate in ways you didn’t foresee.

Engage teams in collaborative discussion about results and adjustments.

Create cueing systems to provide prompts and feedback regarding the change.

Maintenance

Staying On Track

Leadership Actions for Stage 5

Recognize and affirm the successes.

Formalize the best practices into policy and written procedures.

Discard aspects of the change that do not create positive results.

Communicate the changes that created positive results.

Questions About Change Readiness and Change Leadership

Let's cover a few frequently asked questions that principals have regarding readiness for change, personal change, and change leadership in schools.

What is personal readiness for change?

Personal readiness for change is the degree to which someone is aware of the need to change, believes the rewards of a change outweigh the costs, and begins to act accordingly.
Take the assessment here >>

What is a school’s readiness for change?

A school's readiness for change is based on two factors: capacity for change and culture (the beliefs, habits, and goals) of the school.

How do you create readiness for change?

You can create readiness for change by building capacity for change. This happens through clarifying a vision, becoming knowledgable about the problem, and engaging faculty in collaborative learning about solutions.

How to assess organizational readiness for change?

It's the role of the principal to assess a school's change readiness using the 5 stages of change. This is accomplished through qualitative data (conversations, observations, etc) and quantitative data (data about the problem of practice, descriptive survey data, etc).

How to build my school’s readiness for change?

In addition to these leadership change strategies, we recommend building collective expertise about the problem of practice. Increased understanding of the problem will result in increased impetus for change.

Join The Discussion About Change Readiness

Let's talk aobut readiness for change in the comments below. How have you experienced the 5 stages of change personally or in your school organization? What obstacles have you faced while implementing a change? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

  • The biggest obstacle that I have faced is shifting mindsets. We are in the midst of a significant evolution in the way we think about and carry out what we define as “school”. As school leaders, we must think differently about our school cultures. What essential habits of mind and practice should be in place to create a school culture focused on maximizing adult and student learning?

  • Thanks for a great read on the stages of change. It’s so true, and if I’m leading at the Action stage, but my staff aren’t past Contemplation I’ll lose them.
    No wonder so many people dislike change.

    • Shawn, this was the same takeaway I had. It reminds me of Piaget’s stages of development. It’s about finding the strategies that match the stage of change for our school.
      Great article!

      • Monica, that’s an interesting connection. I know as an administrator my biggest mistakes were often related to applying the strategy for the wrong stage of change…and I was unaware of those stages at the time, which made it even worse!

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