Keep the fear off the set

800px-John_Cusack_HeadshotDo you remember the actor/director John Cusack? He of ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’ fame?  I recently heard about ‘The John Cusack Rule’. When asked in an interview how he saw his role as film producer, he said his main job was, ”To keep the set free from fear.”

This ‘rule’ was offered to me as a guiding principle for working in large-scale volunteering spaces – and it feels equally useful for anyone working with others through challenge and change. I have blogged twice this year about transformative change (‘Transforming learning’ and ‘Can we create conditions for transformation?’)  – and this post continues this theme.

The John Cusack story was shared by Joe McCannon and Becky Kanis Margiotta, the two founders of the Billions Institute, and I was lucky enough to spend a day working with them as part of the Carnegie Summit on Improvement Science that I attended last month. Both Joe and Becky have notched up years in health and social impact fields, rehousing thousands of homeless and scaling the rollout of vital health services. Not in education – and all the more refreshing for it! Looking to other sectors can help us make new connections that can fuel innovative thinking back at base.

The following ideas were shared by them on the day and I offer them as useful nuggets to help us support and scale innovation in our own contexts.

The unspeakable invisibles


Anyone who leads change would do well to look at how they are applying the John Cusack rule. Instigating and scaling change needs leaders who can be with others while they are afraid. And that fear can be palpable. These issues that can impact change efforts and create ‘fear on the set’ were described by Joe and Becky as the ‘unspeakable invisibles’, and they include:

  • People running on overwhelm
  • Lack of accountability
  • Lack of transparency
  • Indecision and over-reliance on consensus
  • Not being able to tolerate others’ discomfort so the leader jumps in to solve their own problems
  • Competition for approval from others
  • Trying to control things you can’t
  • Scarcity stories (we don’t have enough time, recognitions)
  • Fear of failure

Any of those sound familiar?

The challenge of scale


How many times have you tried to spread good ideas and encourage others to change — and been frustrated, despite the fact that you just know it will work and that students or colleagues will benefit in the long run? No matter how powerful your ideas, failure to spread those ideas can come down to four, very human, barriers:

  • We glorify discovery: People like to feel that they are working with something fresh and new, not an idea developed by someone else.
  • We believe in the myth of natural diffusion: Just stating an idea, or posting on a blog, does not miraculously spread to others in ways that make a change.
  • We tend to prefer our own control rather than trust others to be able to develop and pick up ideas for themselves.
  • It is hard because change brings fear and inertia: People have different contexts, values and beliefs, there are many theories and ideas out there to choose from, and the logistics required to work collaboratively over time are challenging.

So, how can we address ‘fear’ on organisational level? Don’t (just) talk about values and why change is needed. Instead ask: how can we remove fear and how can encourage creativity? As you try to scale ideas, you have less and less control, so modeling the culture and looking for ways to enable others is vital.

11 powerful steps to action

2529621866_fb6722b40f_zThe following actions were recommended as a proven process for scaling and rolling out new ideas in ways that enable others to take ownership:

    1. Get close to the people on whom you are focusing: Understand what is happening for your learners and their whānau at a deep level and in all its complexity. You might see learners who feel disengaged or a literacy initiative that isn’t working – spend time gathering rich data (not just assessment stats), talking to everyone involved, in the field.
    2. Grow a deep sense of the intervention you are trying to spread: Spend time as a team understanding the data you have gathered. According to Rogers’ ‘Diffusion of innovations‘, you and your team need to understand what is likely to make most difference for learners, be able to describe the focus succinctly, make sure the focus is compatible with the learners and your school and be ready to test ideas and observe.
    3. Some is not a number, soon is not a time:  Be specific with what you want to achieve – your shared ‘goal’ that you want for your learners will be what creates tension, drive and community. Does that goal drive action? Can you face it everyday? The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing every day!
    4. Relentless ‘obsession’ towards the learner: Our job is to remove barriers, spread good ideas and remove problems so that colleagues can test theories that will help learners learn best.
    5. Pursue a learning strategy, not a teaching strategy: Hold your theories lightly (they are almost certainly incomplete and possibly wrong!). Don’t assume there is one strategy or solution. Check your biases.
    6. Spread change and practice: Some methods spread ideas poorly, such as one-off courses or just reading up on ideas. Strong methods of scaling change require us to get in the field, work with each other people, try and test new knowledge. Innovate in small slices – a few students, a class – and grow from there.
    7. Face the data frequently: Select the strong signals that you would look for if your intervention made the difference for your learners that you want. Keep checking in with learners and don’t be afraid to embrace the information, even if it tells you what you don’t want to hear.
    8. Lose control: Create spaces that foster innovation and improvisation – think like jazz players rather than an orchestra.
    9. Consensus kills: Aim for consent, not consensus. Have faith that you and your team are trying to achieve the same thing and trust small groups to trial/test.
    10. Eliminate fear ruthlessly: If you fear punishment or embarrassment, you will limit yourself.  Apply the ‘John Cusack rule’ and remember that’ culture eats strategy for breakfast’.
    11. Create a recognition economy: Generally, people are not motivated by formal incentives like money or time; we yearn for recognition, that someone sees us and my work. When something goes well, stop and celebrate.

What resonates with you here? How are you scaling innovation in your organisation?

This post was originally published on the CORE Education blog.

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