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White Paper

Push, Pull, or Nudge? 3 Paths to EdTech Buy-In

Technology leaders can only do so much without the buy-in of their staff. What can we learn from existing leadership research?

This paper draws on Andy Hargreaves’ 2013 contribution to educational leadership literature, Push, Pull and Nudge: The Future of Teaching and Educational Change. We’ve taken Mr. Hargreaves’ leadership precepts and dropped them into an edtech context, because that just so happens to be our area of expertise.

What does it mean to “integrate technology” into the educational environment? If we were to take this very complex issue and boil it down to its barest bones, we could call it:

“The act of adapting or replacing traditional practices with those that better leverage the efficiency, power, and ubiquity of modern computing.”

The end result of technology integration should always be a better learning experience for students. If that’s not the goal (either direct or via the trickle-down effect), then what’s the point?

As technology becomes more ubiquitous, school district CTOs and tech directors are being asked to take on a larger share of organizational leadership, including project management, training, and ongoing professional development. Thousands (or millions) of dollars hang on every new implementation, but with so many moving parts comes the added pressure to show results.

What can we learn from the research that's already been done in the educational space? Let's read on and lead on. 

If you're asking your stakeholders to commit to a new way of doing things, they have every right to expect an equally strong commitment from you to see it through.


What it looks like: 

Your desktop computers have reached their end of life. After looking at the budget and comparing the utility of your hardware, you have decided to transition to a fully laptop-based environment with BYOD support. You send an email notifying all school personnel that this will be the last year for desktops in offices and classrooms.

“Push” is a word with so much negative baggage that it’s almost surprising to see it on any list of leadership tactics. Yet, anyone who has ever been in a leadership position can tell you that there are times when it’s the obvious option.

At some point, you’ll have to push. You’ll have to say to your team, “The old way is no longer going to fly. Here’s how we’ll do things going forward.”

But how can you make such a pronouncement without coming across as dictatorial and losing large chunks of buy-in before you’ve even started?


1) Be transparent

Yes, you’re the one making the decisions, and you've certainly earned that right, but your team will be the first to feel the consequences of change. It never hurts to be up front about the “why.” Communicate progress at every milestone and tie it all up nicely with a recap at the end of year one. Consider setting up a webpage on your internal network to keep stakeholders abreast of the project lifecycle, including setbacks and adjustments.


2) Show empathy

Sometimes, your most stubborn resisters aren’t just trying to be a thorn in your side. Whether they’ve had years to build up a level of comfort and security with “the old way” or they fervently believe that what they’re doing now is better for them or their students, much of the pushback comes from a place we can all relate to. Listen to feedback and provide encouragement. It’s ok to compromise on the little things.


3) Follow up, then follow up again

No matter how valuable the tech you’re trying to push might be, your efforts will fall flat if you decide to take the sink or swim approach. Lead with a thorough and clearly communicated plan for training and continuously reinforce your commitment to ongoing support and professional development. One training session is never enough and retention is never as high as you expect it to be.

The secret to a successful push is simple. If you're asking your stakeholders to commit to a new way of doing things, they have every right to expect an equally strong commitment from you to see it through. 
No matter how exciting a new tool might be, some people will still hold on to the old way for as long as the crutch remains.


What it looks like:

You are leading the effort to improve communication within the district by adopting an instant messaging system and moving away from email for collaboration or time-sensitive correspondence. You roll out and discuss the preferred approach in an all-staff meeting, but you don’t have a good way to enforce it. Besides, you’d rather see your employees change their communication style of their own volition, not because you told them to.

The idea of “pull” is most easily summed up as “leading to the desired result, rather than leading with said result.” Your first steps in the pull approach are to raise awareness of the technology you want your staff to adopt and then drive home the value enough that your stakeholders come on board because they want to. It takes promotion and patience, but if you can do it right, the payoff is worth the effort.

Where push typically represents the least desired approach, pull is the dream scenario. Even so, the fear of change is still the biggest hurdle to overcome.

No matter how exciting a new tool might be or how clearly you demonstrate the benefits to those who will be using it, some people will still hold on to the old way for as long as the crutch remains. How can you make it easier for your team to let go?

1) Find champions

If you want to pull your team anywhere, you’re going to need some key people in your corner. Take the time to identify a handful of influential members from every key stakeholder group and work closely with them to clarify the value of your proposed initiative. These champions should be the charter members of your power user group, and the go-to points of contact for those who have questions in the early stages of adoption. If you’re having trouble enlisting volunteers, badging, recognition, and other rewards can make it worth their while.


2) Put on your marketing hat

To better understand the pull concept as it applies to edtech, we need only glance at the private sector to realize that the planning, execution, and analysis you’ll be undertaking for your project is not unlike a marketing campaign.

You’ll need to start by identifying your audience and determining what type of content will provide the most value (informational, instructional, promotional), and which medium will work best (handout/email/video). Your initial pitch is key – capture your audience’s attention right away or you’ll have a hard time doing it later. Finally, review the data – how many people are engaging with your efforts and how much of your audience are you reaching? The data can help you determine your next course of action.

3) Carry your own banner

As a leader, your name and face are tied to the projects under your purview, whether you ask for it or not. You’ll be expected to take a little less credit for the success of these implementations and a little more blame for any failures along the way. Don’t dip your toe in the water when making a change – dive right in. If the technology is something you can use in your role, do it. If you have an opportunity to extoll the benefits of change with large chunks of your audience, don’t pass it up.

The pull can't happen without awareness and a critical mass of advocates. That's where you can bring the most value. 
Push too hard and you might lose the very people your technology is meant to help; pull too soft and you might end up with only a handful of adopters.


What it looks like:

You have recently implemented a new student information system, with one of your goals being the improvement of school-home relations. You’d like to see all of your teachers move away from newsletters and embrace the value of digital communication, so you make this a primary focal point of your messaging and training.

To ensure the message doesn’t end with implementation, you set up regular reports for principals to view parent engagement levels, and demonstrate in clear terms the correlation between high engagement and effective use of the new communication tool. Important announcements are communicated to teachers with the closing line of, “We recommend sharing this with parents via the parent portal in [insert name of SIS here].”

Besides being the gentlest-sounding of the three, “nudge” is also the most important. By combining the best elements of push and pull, the nudge is such a fundamental part of leadership that you’re probably already doing it, even if you’ve never put that word to the concept.

Edtech implementations are rarely black and white – push too hard and you might lose the very people your technology is meant to help; pull too soft and you might end up with only a handful of adopters. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge in the right direction.

When you hear talk in edtech circles about a coaching culture, widespread collaboration, and an ongoing commitment to professional development, those are all signs of a leadership team that has mastered the nudge. Promote your technology tools, take efforts to make everyone aware of the resources available to them, and never stop offering suggestions and opportunities for improvement. It sounds like edtech utopia, but what can you do to get there?


1) Stay persistent

The nudge approach relies on your stick-to-itiveness above all else. It’s not a quick-hitting strategy and it will require a very detailed understanding of your entire technology infrastructure. Organic mentions along the lines of, “Oh, you want to accomplish x – have you considered using y?” should be worked in on a daily basis.

Make sure you have a representative in as many departmental collaboration meetings as possible – frustrations will bubble to the surface and there’s never a better time to nudge the team in a certain direction than when you already have a solution that’s just not being used effectively.

2) Give them a reason

Nothing says “nudge” better than a phased integration plan to wean your stakeholders off of the old way and into the new. If you’re adopting a new scheduling system, create a short training video for teachers on how to enter course recommendations, then ask your IT staff to direct people there instead of walking them through the same steps every time it comes up. In the long run, everyone will come out ahead.


3) Amplify success

Edtech is often met with a healthy dose of skepticism, but early results can turn the tide back in your favor. Don’t underestimate the value of sharing success as it happens. Anecdotal works every bit as well as data-backed for this purpose. Seek out the people who are the most positive about the change and provide a forum for them to tell their stories on the aforementioned website or in departmental meetings. A passionate peer can turn more heads than a vague explanation of benefits from a vendor (or from you).

To nudge is to lead. Every time you help an employee find his or her way to a better process or a new idea, you are strengthening the culture and performance of your entire organization. 
Technology without leadership is a waste of everybody's time and money.

The Finish Line

Every edtech scenario is different, and the leadership style you use will need to vary on a case-by-case basis. The most important takeaway is perhaps the most obvious – technology without leadership is a waste of everybody’s time and money. Today’s CTOs and tech directors can’t work from the shadows (or the server room, for that matter) and expect to find a whole lot of success.

Technology leaders have seen their roles change more than just about any other field in the past couple of decades, but a common theme is starting to emerge: those who have learned to complement their vast level of technical knowledge with a dollop of emotional intelligence and a healthy scoop of leadership are the ones who consistently rise to the top.

So, the next time you’re faced with a new edtech project, take a moment to ask yourself this one question:

Push, pull, or nudge?


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