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Enabling staff to adopt new forms of professional practice

Chris Thomson

How can leaders provide the right support for staff who are faced with new situations that require different forms of practice? 

The scenario faced by nearly every educational institution recently has seen a need to shift learning activities to fully or partially online spaces. Many teaching and support staff have found themselves having to adapt quickly to dramatically different ways of working.

New practices are required but often staff lack the skills and experience to respond which leads to high levels of stress and anxiety as well as compromising the organisation’s ability to maintain the quality of its provision.

Is training always the answer to changing practice?

Often the first step undertaken is a training needs analysis (TNA). The problem with that is that it risks presupposing that training is the correct way to support changing practice.

Training, when it’s appropriate and done well, can be a highly effective form of support but it’s not effective in all scenarios. In many cases, it can give a comforting illusion of progress and learning while not actually achieving the change that was needed.

Designing and delivering a training programme can be costly in time and resources. These are always limited so it’s important that they are used wisely. In some instances where energy and resource are put into a training programme, and where the outcomes are unsuccessful, it can lead to recriminations or responsibility for failure being mis-apportioned. This leads to a drain on another finite resource, one that is in short supply during periods of stress and change; goodwill!

Before deciding whether training is the correct approach to support a change in practice, it’s helpful to think carefully about the desired outcomes and to use a framework identify the appropriate actions to achieving them.

“Action mapping” as a suggested approach

Our recommended process draws directly from the methods of Cathy Moore, an organisational learning consultant. She calls this approach “action mapping” and its aim is to ensure that leaders use resources wisely in affecting behavioural changes in staff.

In summary, the process goes like this:

  • You need to identify as clearly as possible what changes in behaviour you are trying to achieve
  • Establish the current state of practice
  • Determine the nature of the barriers (Knowledge, Skills, Motivation, Environment)
  • Pick appropriate interventions
  • Evaluate

We suggest that an important guiding principle to follow is to include the people involved as partners in this process. Where people feel solutions have been imposed on them, it can be demoralising and demotivating which threatens staff wellbeing as well as the successful outcome of your project.

We’ll take each part of the process in turn…

 Identify the changes you want to see

Be as specific as you can here. You need to balance the need to describe what success looks like without becoming too prescriptive about exactly how it’s achieved. You also need to define the roles or individuals whose practice will be changing.

In short, you need to identify what it is you want to see people doing or hear them saying. Ideally you should be able to quantify the desired change and put time limits on it. Try summarising it in this sort of format:

We are going to change something we can measure, by this amount and by this date, as these people do something

It’s OK to retain flexibility within this but being as clear as you can will help all the later stages in this process as well as giving you the benchmark for evaluating success.

 Establishing current practice

Avoid the temptation to start with the question, “so, how do we get people to do this?”

Instead, ask “why aren’t people already doing this?”

The difference in phrasing is important as we are going to use the answers to identify barriers rather than jumping to solutions.

Finding out the answer to this can be complicated and is likely to need close collaboration with the people involved. It’s important to go about this in a spirit of appreciative enquiry, listening carefully to people’s answers and avoiding making any assumptions.

The answer may be obvious. Don’t overcomplicate things if you don’t have to.

It may be that the practice you want to see adopted widely already exists in some areas. Great! Note this down anyway. It will be useful information later on.

 Determine the nature of the barriers

Once you’ve collected your evidence of why the practice isn’t already widespread, you can start to classify those issues. This will help us to take the appropriate action.

Break the issues down into these four categories (think SMoKE):

  • Skills – people don’t know how to do/use something new or updated
  • Motivation – people are skilled and knowledgeable, but for some reason the activity is not taking place…
  • Knowledge – people don’t have access to vital information, updated processes etc
  • Environment – people are hindered by issues or obstructions outside of the immediate context and management of the task, or the influence of the individual

There will be overlap between these categories. For example, it can be hard to untangle whether an issue is to do with skills or knowledge of something.

 Pick the appropriate interventions


Give people the time and space to practice implementing new or existing knowledge to achieve a certain outcome. That could be done through a training workshop but that may not be your best option.

Consider when people are likely to put their new skills into action. If the relevant people have to begin doing something new at a determined point, running a timely workshop may work well here.

If it may be some time before people get a chance to enact their new skills you want to avoid a situation where they have largely forgotten what they learned in the workshop. Consider more just-in-time options instead.

Many organisations have had success with coaching models of support here. Some have identified “champions” that will directly support individuals as and when it becomes necessary.

Also consider asynchronous models of staff development such as a bank of short CPD videos that people can dip in and out of as needed. Some organisations subscribe to training video libraries and signpost people towards appropriate resources as the University of Westminster does with LinkedIn Learning. These can be a useful resource for refreshing skills later.


Issues of motivation are highly context-dependent and are affected by personal relationships and levels of trust. Knowing what your staff’s core motivations are will help you here. If these motivations are unclear, spend time actively listening to them.

Be clear about what change people are expected to undertake and more importantly why. People are unlikely to adapt well in situations where there is lack of a shared vision and understanding.

Refusal to participate in change is rarely to do with being obstructive for its own sake. Often there is sound reasoning from the individual or group’s perspective why they don’t want to engage and it may not be immediately obvious what that reasoning is.

For a more detailed explanation of this, read Anthropologist Donna Lanclos keynote, Listening to Refusal.

Training can have an impact on motivation but it tends to be short-lived and inconsistent.

Where possible, link the success of the goal to personal success. It could be that achieving the goal becomes part of someone’s objectives so there is individual accountability and reward. This also links the outcome to personal progression and recognition.

If there is a lack of motivation due to organisational culture, consider treating it as an Environmental issue (see below).


Determine whether the knowledge required to carry out a goal needs to be “learnt” or whether it just needs to be accessed at the right time.

If it needs to be learnt then this may require training in some form and possibly testing to gauge effectiveness.

Learnt knowledge can fade over time so any interventions will need to plan how to refresh it.

If the knowledge needs to be accessed, it becomes more of an information management issue. Ask yourself:

  • Do people know that the information exists?
  • Are they able to find it easily when they need it?
  • Is the information clear and accurate once they have found it?


Environmental factors will vary greatly depending on the goal you want to achieve and also the context. These issues are all the things that are beyond the control and influence of the people whose practice needs to change.


  • Have people been provided with the right tools?
  • Does the technical infrastructure enable the use of these tools?
  • Are the right related policies and processes in place?
  • Are there conflicting requirements on the people in question that need to be resolved?

Harder to solve are issues about culture. These tend to impact on individual’s and group’s motivations to change.


As with any complex project plan in from the start how you will evaluate success.

Use the goals you worked out at the start to determine success. The more specific you were able to make these, the easier your job will be now.

Make evaluation a collaborative exercise with the stakeholders. They will be able to provide rich information about progress and any unintended outcomes. It can also be a motivating factor in helping people to change practice.

Evaluation of success may involve re-appraising the original set of goals in the light of new information.

Other considerations

One risk of any form of skills development and the adoption of new practices and behaviours is rollback; practice changes successfully for a while but gradually reverts to the previous situation.

Following the steps above will help ensure that is less likely to happen but there are some other things to consider.

Empower your staff

Allow staff to express their individuality and expertise to find creative solutions that are effective but they can be more comfortable about adopting. You can be clear about the outcomes that need to be achieved and avoid micro-managing or mandating specific approaches when empowering staff may yield better results

Model attitudes and behaviours

As a leader, it’s important to demonstrate your own willingness and capacity to change practices if you are asking your staff to do the same.

This needn’t mean superficial shows of tech-savviness.

In order to enact the changes you’d like to see in the organisation, your staff will be required to demonstrate certain aptitudes, some of which may feel uncomfortable and stressful such as:

  • Being creative
  • Taking risks
  • Learning from failure
  • Acknowledging personal challenges
  • Asking for help
  • Showing vulnerability to peers and students

Reflect on what your staff see when they observe you at work. How do they see you demonstrating these things?

If the picture they get indicates a difference in expectation, this can be highly demotivating and demoralising.

But it is also your opportunity to lead by example and show willingness to share the challenges that your staff face.

Effective modelling of expected behaviours and attitudes by leadership can be an important motivator (alternatively, lack of modelling can be a de-motivator!).