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It's Not About The Thing


As part of the process of exploring new resources in schools, teachers and administrators reach out to each other to see what others are using. Within the last 24-hours of writing this, for example, I received two emails from my peers in other school districts. The first wondered what other districts use for 3-5 Social Studies textbooks and the second wondered about how other districts were using commencement assessment scores. I do this all of the time too. I’m interested in knowing what others are doing and how it’s going for them. If they like what they’re using, I am inclined to learn more about it. If they don’t like what they’re using, I am more likely to steer clear. That’s how word-of-mouth advertising works. This reminds me of when I used to watch the show Reading Rainbow as a child. There was a segment where children would provide short book reviews for the television audience. The transition into the children’s book reviews was made by the host, Levar Burton, who said, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

I was thinking about this because a couple of weeks ago while teaching my graduate students, we were talking about how curriculum connects with social-emotional learning. One of the students shared a program his school district adopted and he spoke so highly of it that we all wrote down the name of the program. Many of us, including me, even Googled it while he was talking. He said at first the district reached out to use the program with the adults because there was a conflict. They liked it so much that they committed to using it with the students too. The person who they primarily worked with was full of energy and extremely engaging. This is all compelling stuff, right? Wouldn’t it be great to have an awesome resource that met the needs of not only your students but your adults? I’m sure many of you reading this want me to tell you exactly what the program was so you can look into it too (if so, please be sure to read this week's Catch of the Week at the end of this post).

Commercial Interruption

Let me pause for a moment and ask you a question…Have you ever bought something that got rave reviews from others only to find out it didn’t work for you as it did for them? I’m not talking about something you saw at 1:00 am on an infomercial when you couldn’t sleep that was recommended by paid actors—but something an actual friend or relative used and loved. So as not to malign anything specific, I won’t name names here, but I will give some general examples of what it might look like when you use someone else’s experiences to determine where you will invest your resources. For example, when my kids got phones, I installed an app on their phones and mine to tell us where the other person was at any time because my friend said she loved the app. When she was at work, she knew exactly when her kids got home from school thanks to the app. I found the idea of knowing where my kids were appealing. Unfortunately, the app drained my phone’s battery so much that using it was more inconvenient than I expected. While I knew where my kids were, I now also needed to track down my charging cord. Given that my kids were only in middle school and not driving or living miles away, my need to see where they were (which was truly limited to being at school or home) was not worth the drain on my battery at the time.

Even without actually speaking with anyone, I still seek out experiences from others. I look at reviews for products before I buy them—even if those products are free. I look at the number of positive reviews before downloading free apps or games just as much as I look at the number of comments and likes recipes may have before choosing which one I will try when I search for recipes on Google. My husband always asks about the seller’s ratings when I purchase something on Ebay or Etsy. I look at reviews of products on Amazon before clicking Buy Now. I read my sister’s favorite book because I love her and she and I both love to read. Truth be told, I really did not enjoy my sister's favorite book at all. Conversely, I recommended a book to her recently that she struggled to finish because she didn’t like it. The bottom line is sometimes what works for others doesn’t work for me.

A Fork In the Road

While certainly, we can all relate to this personally, it’s important to think about this in our professional lives too. Testimonials, endorsements, and general word-of-mouth advertisements from our trusted peers matter. Even so, their success or struggle does not actually have an impact on how the “thing” will succeed or struggle where you are. Why not? Because success and struggle are not really about the “thing” but about two very important components related to the “thing” which actually have nothing to do with the “thing” at all.

The first component is the implementation strategy, i.e., how will the “thing” be rolled out and supported? Implementation strategy, when done well, is not just about how to launch the “thing,” it’s also about how to support the ongoing and necessary use of it. Investing a lot in the launch and neglecting what comes afterward would be like spending a lot on a wedding and forgetting about the marriage. Even the most fun and well-planned wedding is insufficient for a healthy and long-lasting marriage. What’s more, most of us marry someone whom we love. We want to be with this person for the rest of our lives. Even so, the divorce rate shows that “almost 50 percent of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce or separation.” This means about half of the time, even when people marry the person they wanted to, they change their minds. If that’s the success rate for marriages—something people agree they want and something only two people have to navigate and negotiate—then let’s not be surprised when something like organization-wide initiatives struggle to succeed.

The second component is the climate and culture where the “thing” will be used. Climate refers to how we feel and culture refers to how we behave. These are two sides of the same coin. We feel trusted (climate) so we behave in trusting ways (culture). The inverse may also be true. We behave in ways that demonstrate trust (culture) so we feel trusted (climate). These are both examples of healthy climates and cultures. On the other hand, we may feel defensive (climate) so we behave in ways that are guarded (culture) OR we behave in guarded ways (culture) so we feel defensive (climate). In this way, climate and culture feed into each other.

The matrix below shows what happens in response to the “thing” depending on the combination of these two variables.

Again, no matter what the “thing” is, the likelihood of the “thing’s” success depends on the plan for implementing the “thing” coupled with the climate and culture in which the “thing” will be implemented. Another way to express this is with the following equations.

  • Low Climate/Culture + Low Strategy = Resistance

  • Low Climate/Culture + High Strategy = Skepticism

  • High Climate/Culture + Low Strategy = Faith

  • High Climate/Culture + High Strategy = Synergy

It’s important to understand even if you are in the Synergy Quadrant, success is not definite. This quadrant only increases your likelihood of success, it does not guarantee it.

Creating A Culture of Trust

If trusting cultures achieve more than non-trusting cultures (and they do), then a great question to ask is how to create a culture of trust. There is certainly much written about this topic, but I want to point out that creating trust is not about being afraid to do new things for fear of creating stress. In fact, one of the main reasons stress is stressful is due to lack of clarity regarding the intended outcome—and not about the intended work. In other words, clarity and achievability regarding implementation reduce stress and actually lead to trust and success for those connected to the work.

Paul J. Zak is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, and the CEO of Immersion Neuroscience. He wrote Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies and the article “The Neuroscience of Trust” in the Harvard Business Review. In his article, Zak writes:

When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start. Leaders should check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach.
The need for achievability is reinforced by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile’s findings on the power of progress: When Amabile analyzed 12,000 diary entries of employees from a variety of industries, she found that 76% of people reported that their best days involved making progress toward goals.

In other words, cultures of trust use strategies like creating achievable goals with frequent check-ins and concrete mile markers. These factors of culture and strategy are agnostic and independent of whatever the initiative is because success is less about the thing you’re trying to implement and more about the conditions connected to the implementation.

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Listening to those around you to learn what they’re doing and how it’s going makes good sense. As I said, this is something I routinely do. What’s newer to my thinking is the notion that before investing in things that work for others or sidelining things that didn’t work for them, I need to give careful consideration to what my climate and culture are like compared to theirs. Furthermore, I need to think critically about what the plan will be for implementing this new thing. After all, I can predict the outcome of the initiative based on these factors alone since the thing is it’s never just about the “thing.” But, you don’t just have to take my word for it.


P.S. My Catch of the Week is the program that my student raved about called "Top 20 Training." Specifically, my student highlighted Willow Sweeney, the trainer his school worked with. He said she was dynamic and engaging...most importantly, that the work they did with Willow made a difference for the students and staff.

Top 20’s primary goal is to revolutionize education in America by helping students become more engaged in school and providing teachers with a new way of seeing themselves as relevant educators in the 21st century. In addition, because it uses common language, easily understood concepts and practical tools for dealing with everyday situations and problems, Top 20 can have a profoundly positive effect on any organization, from business to government to healthcare, enhancing relationships and experiences for all. The video below shares more information.

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Lori DeCarlo
Lori DeCarlo

Great post, Heather! Love the matrix and find to reflect what really happens with implementation of restorative practices in schools. Thanks for sharing your insights and the wisdom that comes from experience.

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