Building Social Proof

EP 16

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Building social proof is a crucial step in any school change journey. When individuals see that others within your context have embraced the change and experienced positive outcomes, they are more likely to feel confident and motivated to follow suit. Social proof serves as evidence that the proposed change is feasible and beneficial. In this episode, Simon explores why developing ‘social proof’ can be one of the most powerful ways to gain the support and early buy-in of your staff. He unpacks simple strategies you can use to accelerate your current improvement efforts.


I wonder what you feel is the most effective strategy for winning over the sceptics and the cynics to the benefits of a new initiative or improvement idea in your context. I mean, there’s a whole range of things you could choose from. Maybe the first one is you want to make a really compelling case for change based on your analysis of the current weaknesses. Perhaps we could really make the case that the data suggests what we’re doing isn’t working, and we could bring that case together and say, Hey, look, we’ve got a problem and we need to solve it. And maybe a second alternative is to really strengthen the case by outlining the external research evidence and support that shows that this is the approach that the evidence suggests is the best bets for us to pursue.

Perhaps a third option might be to really share and unpack a case study of where the approaches you’re talking about have worked in other schools, in other places. All three of these strategies I think, are quite strong. They have a role to play in our case for change and our communication about change within our local contexts. Of course, unpack and come to a shared understanding of the nature of the problems. Of course, explore the evidence and the rigour of the evidence underlying the approach that we’re taking. If there are examples where this has worked before, seek them out and share them. But I found there’s one strategy that matters far more than those other three that we often spend a lot of time on, and that is to demonstrate that the approach is already having a positive benefit for real learners and educators within your current school context.

Within the implementation science literature, we’d call this social proof. That is there’s proof within your context that this approach can work and can create early positive benefits. This is one of the most powerful ways to bring other humans with you on the change journey. So what would it mean or what could it look like to prioritise this development of a working prototype or some social proof? Well, I think it would mean that, of course, it’s worth laying out the case of the problem and the research, but I wouldn’t expect people just to get on board because you’ve made that case so strong from the outset. Instead, lay out the case for change with the problem. Lay out the evidence. Yes, talk of course about how this has worked in other contexts, but then just get moving quietly with focus with a small group who are willing to come with you.

Start working with the design team and exploring what this approach could look like and get it up and running. Doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be just a version of what the future goal might be, but people on the ground, they’re always gonna have a healthy scepticism to things that have meant to have worked outside in other places, they’re gonna say, oh, it’s all right for them. They’ve got a different context, or they’re working with different students, or they’ve got a different trajectory as an organisational, the staff there are different, or the time or the resources. There’s always a difference that someone could spotlight, but it’s very different if you can actually focus on things that are already working within your constraints and within your context and when you can get those people within your context to humbly share. We’ve been trying this, it’s working pretty well.

We’ve had a few challenges here, but X, Y, Z are the positive impacts. We’re already seeing impacts for learners, impacts for our own workload in a positive direction, and that’s gonna be one of the most powerful things you can do. So have a think as you communicate change and have a think about historically when you have communicated change and tried to get people moving in the desired direction, have you placed enough of a focus on getting a real world demonstration of this occurring in your context? In my personal experience, I’ve never really found that either making a strong case from data, emphasising the research literature or pointing to examples out outside have ever really got the middle of the, of the common room across the line. Instead, in the schools that I work in partnership with, what they need is a demonstration that this approach is already bearing fruit and can work within the context that we’re in. So at the front end of an improvement journey, I would overinvest in a small group making progress because their stories, their examples, their insights, they’re gonna be the things that can help you move to the next level. So how do you normally go about overcoming some of that early resistance to change and how might focusing on developing social proof by over investing in a small team or group of educators, developing a working model of how this can look in your context, help you overcome some of the constraints that you’re facing.

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