4 Ways to Move Compliance to the Side of Your Plate

complianceI’m enjoying reading the latest book from Lyle Kirtman and Michael Fullan: Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change. There are many ideas in this book that will challenge the thinking of most readers. Take for instance the title of Chapter 4 — Moving Compliance to the Side of Your Plate. Too many of us leaders are focused on managerial compliance to the detriment of the future of American public education and our organizations.

Maybe it’s because we are task oriented creatures and enjoy the feeling of checking items off a list. Compliance tasks are sometimes easy, often mindless and occasionally uselessly complicated. Take for example the new system of teacher evaluation. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a very complex system/formula that takes hours for principals to track the data and complete the calculations for an entire staff. Does it actually have any impact on what goes on in the classroom – what is best for our students and their growth and achievement? What are the results of this commitment of time, energy and human resources? Where is the evidence that this commitment of time is moving our organizations ahead? It’s too easy for us to dedicate our time to these kinds of compliance tasks and avoid the high-impact work. As Kirtman and Fullan share, “Filling out forms, documenting activities, gathering evidence, writing reports, and drafting updates take away time from the work of creating innovative environments.” (p. 60)

How is a leader to move compliance to the side so as to focus on the high-impact work? Here are 4 ways I’ve learned to make room for the high-priority work of growing our schools:

    1. Setting goals. Earlier this year I shared a blog post called SMART goals are DUMB. In the post I argued that the traditional SMART goal setting process keeps us too comfortable when we really need to be working at the edge. Goals should be dream-driven, uplifting, method-friendly and behavior-triggered. Set audacious goals, goals that will surely push you past the realm of compliance. After setting a few audacious goals, build in some accountability and share them with your school community. Focusing on big goals will compel you to devote less time to compliance and provide clarity to the larger vision for your organization.
    2. Tracking and prioritizing tasks. Now that you’ve identified those audacious goals, you’ll have to stay focused to make progress. You’ll need to have a system to track and prioritize your tasks. I use Evernote and a system called The Secret Weapon, based on the Getting Things Done principles of David Allen. I swear by it, but others find it overwhelming. With this system, I have a good handle on everything I’m responsible for, both short-term and long-term. Having a clear picture of what needs to get done allows me to prioritize the tasks of significance over the tasks of mere importance and urgency.  Tracking tasks allows me to prioritize the high-impact work and minimize the tasks associated with compliance. Once I prioritize the significant tasks, I book time on the calendar. What gets scheduled, gets done.
    3. Audit the compliance tasks. There will be compliance tasks on your organized list. The trick is to address the compliance tasks that actually matter. Ask how these tasks support your organization. Since they’re compliance tasks, they will likely not benefit the organization in any significant way nor support your goals. Ask yourself, “What is the minimum we have to do to remain compliant?” This almost always means never participating in any new pilot efforts run by bureaucrats. Not only will your energy be better spent on your strategic goals, but usually pilots end up changing regulations and enforcement anyway. Your time will be wasted as a result of changing state and federal initiatives. Best to wait until the dust settles, and then do only what you need to do to remain compliant.
    4. Reflect.Take an inquiry stance toward your leadership. Be thoughtful; not reactive. Clearly identify the work of significance. What is the high-leverage work that will move the organization forward and improve the opportunities for learners? Put the bulk of your efforts into these tasks.

As public school leaders, we live in a world of increasing compliance. Despite this fact, we ultimately have control and can choose to not be consumed by mundane, deflating management tasks. As leaders, we’d be wise to ponder this from the research of Kirtman and Fullan:

High-performing leaders were not rule followers and not overly compliant. This did not mean that high-performing leaders broke any laws. It does mean, however, that the best leaders focus on results first and put less personal effort into ensuring that rules and compliance tasks are followed. They usually delegate the more transactional compliance tasks to others and have good systems to make sure the compliance work is completed. One way of describing it is that they are prepared to get a grade of C on compliance as long as they get an A on learning. (pg. 16-17)

Now that you have four strategies for moving compliance to the side of your plate, will you? Where will you get your A? Remember, there is choice in compliance.

What other ways can you share for managing the reality of compliance?

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