An Introduction to Readiness

Author’s Note: So this is a draft a book chapter that didn’t really go anywhere. I might go back to it at some point, but in the spirit of emptying the archives before rolling into the new year, I’m putting it up here. I wrote this back in June prepping for some work with The Center for Implementation, and then sat on it for too long.

Let’s timestamp this book right at the beginning. We started writing this manuscript during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. If, by chance, you are a reader in the distant future, welcome! Early in 2020, a virus spread across the world, forcing the closing of businesses, restaurants, schools, really any activity that required social and in-person interactions with one another. This shutdown phase lasted a long time. Organizations tried many different solutions to reopening. Sports went on, played in empty stadiums with no fans, with tv networks piping in simulated crowd noise. Retail stores had one-way aisles and strict limits on how many people could be inside. Masks, when you could get people to wear them, were abundant.

And lots of people got sick, and a lot died.

The educational system was especially hard hit. School districts throughout the United States were confronted with the challenge of keeping education going while keeping the kids, teachers, and staff apart, lest this highly virulent disease jump from kid to kid to elderly teachers, grandparents, and at-risk relatives.

At the beginning, when things started to get really serious (so mid-March) this transition to distance learned created many problems. Let’s take my (Jonathan) oldest, who was a kindergartener at the time. Kindergarten is a fairly dynamic and lively environment, with lots of interactions, games, songs, and one-on-one attention. As many of us learned as online video-conferencing took over our work lives, this type of dynamism is not something that easily translates to an online setting.

Another barrier was technological. Even though the school district was fairly well-to-do, there was no guarantee that all children had access to the internet or even access to the computer. So “attendance,” such as it was, became a crapshoot.

And yet another barrier was content delivery.  It’s one thing to turn on a webcam and talk for 40 minutes on phonics. It’s quite another to do this while trying to engaging and keep the attention of a bunch of 6 year olds.

And then logistically, classroom material has to be put in a centralized location.  In practice, this ended up being six (six!) different learning platforms with different logins and passwords.

Suffice to say, there were many changes very fast.  And how well the teachers, the administrators, the students, the parents, and the community did at supporting those changes is an example of readiness.

Readiness is what this book is about. There’s a common phrase that has been floating around since at least 1716 (we looked it up.) Ready, Willing, and Able. However, each of these terms warrants further exploration and discussion. Through our research in organizational development and community-based change effortse over the past decade, we have found that it is more accurate to say readiness means that you ARE willing and able. Further, being willing and able are two distinct things that don’t always point in the same direction.  An organization or a person can have all the willingness in the world, but no ability.

Back in college, our humble author Jonathan was a distance runner. He still is, under much more limited conditions. But back then, he was pulled up the rear on a nationally competitive team. He went to all the practices, followed his coaches’ directions, studied nutrition and fitness and sleep, and put in the time and effort to maximize his talent. And, as a result of all this training, he achieved….very mediocre to poor times. While the motivation to become a good runner was there, the underlying ability was not. Jonathan got probably as good as he could get, which was not very.

There was another runner, whom we will call Bird Bones. Bird Bones was, as you might imagine, incredibly light on his feet. He appeared to all outsiders as nothing but lungs and legs. And boy, what a beautiful runner he was! Because his talent level was so far about Jonathan his fellow scrubs, the high-intensity workout routines were different. The scrubs used to sit on a curb underneath the wall of fame and watch in amazing as Bird Bones would hit an incredible lap split after lap split. And after two years, <poof!> he was gone!.

Because while Bird Bones had all the talent in the world, the willingness wasn’t there. The workouts weren’t fun for him. To be fair, they weren’t fun for us, either, but at least we had some fulfillment out of them by seeing how they connected to a more extensive training plan. Bird Bones had other priorities and other goals. Running 70 miles a week, 30 of which were high-intensity miles, just wasn’t for him. Ability, but no willingness.

Let’s not put value judgments here. Indeed, Bird Bones went on to do some pretty incredible things in the field he was passionate about. Rather, let’s separate out what it means to be ready. Even though we may have all been on the starting line together, ready to start, we weren’t all equally ready to race. Across the whole team, and the other competitors, there were variations in how ready we were.

Circling back to how school districts responded to COVID-19, there are certainly variations in how ready these districts were. Some had the underlying capacities to quickly pivot to distance learning because the hardware, software, and training were already in place. Others really wanted to pivot, but had no idea what the best practices were, and were forced to piece together different elements and platforms quickly so that no time would be lost. The school district where Jonathan lived definitely fell into this second category. Other districts just threw up their hands, and recognizing both deficits in willingness and ability, decided to just call the academic year off. Not all districts were equally ready to respond to COVID-19.

So, back to readiness being a product of willingness and ability. If we accept the intuitive premise that readiness is not just an all or nothing construct, we can build different models of how organizations are ready and what it really means to be ready.  We can break readiness down into its constituent parts.

The first core concept that makes up readiness is ability, or, as we will refer to it from now on, capacity. Capacities are the requirements and conditions that are necessary to make something happen. In this developmental world, this is also the difference between giving a person a fish (resources) and teaching a person to fish (capacity). Within capacity, though, we can break things down even further into two categories that are critical for understanding readiness.

First is innovation-specific capacity. These are the skill and conditions that are needed to make a particular innovation happen. As an example, for a teacher to make distance learning happen, they might need:

  1. Knowledge of the distribution software,
  2. Ability to access the software,
  3. The support of their principle and/or superintendent to use the software.
  4. A way to get help for using the software, so the tech support.
  5. potentially the technology to record their lectures,
  6. knowledge of best practice for putting online lectures together (and this is most certainly an area of growth for many teachers.  The quality gap between good education lectures and not-so-good ones is immense. Actually, this can be a whole set of capacities itself.)  
  7. Knowledge on how to engage kindergartners.

The list can go on.  The idea is that there are very specific things that are need to something specific

Second is general capacities. These are the skills and conditions that are needed for any innovation. Think of this as the underlying backbone or infrastructure of an organization. This isn’t necessarily the physical space though. It includes more emergent characteristics like what the culture is, the effectiveness of the leadership, the overall receptivity to change, and many more. If you were to ask the question, what makes a “good school,” your answer would probably involve at lot of individual capacities.

The distinction between these two capacities is important because often training or technical support has focused on just the innovation at the expense of the general organizational characteristic. If an organization is a mess or stringing along by the seat of their pants, it’s going to be really hard to make a specific innovation stick.

What we did is think about how to systematize motivation. That is, what are the incentives or disincentives that contribute to whether or not an innovation is used? We wanted to put the psychology back in organization psychology. As a few false starts with other theories, we settled on the seminal work of Everett Rogers.

Let’s put all of these things together. In order to think about how an organization can be ready, we need to distinguish between what they can do and whether they want to do it.  To put it simply, readiness is equal to motivation, innovation-specific capacity, and general capacity. We abbreviate this as:

R = MC2

Yes, we know it is cheeky and way-too-boastful. However, it is very easy to remember, and because of that we’ve continued to use it when we explain the concepts to people.  There’s another twist to this though, and one that we spend chapter two, three, and four discussing.  For each of this high-level components, we can break things down even further to identify the different things that contribute to motivation and capacities.  For now, we just show these in a table to whet your appetite.

That covers what readiness is, at least at a high level.  There are also a number of properties about how readiness behaves that are worth diving into.  We go into these properties more in-depth in chapter five, but for now, we introduce the concepts.

First and foremost, readiness is important throughout a change effort, not just at the beginning. Frankly, “readiness” is somewhat of an unfortunate word choice. When we talk about readiness with our friends, family, and co-workers, we almost always mean “ready to start.”

The problem with this is that any change effort isn’t just the results of a single, point-in time-decision. There are a whole host of conditions that have to be maintained over time if the implementation of that decision is to be successful. Motivation and capacities might be at a very different place one week or one month from now. Successful implementation of any change efforts requires that readiness be maintained over time. Readiness is not just important at the beginning of any change effort. It is important throughout a change effort.

Second, it then follows that readiness is not static but dynamic. The conditions that make implementation more successful can change up and down over time. This can be for reasons both predictable and unpredictable. A common way to build capacity within an organization is training. For most people, this involves sitting in a classroom (or, more recently, watching an online module). So, by providing training, the trainer plans to increase the knowledge and skills of the trainees so that they can go off and do *something*.

Unpredictable changes can also influence readiness. Years ago, our team was working with a technical assistance provider helping a Caribbean island get a clean air initiative into place. This is one of those policies that involve banning smoking in restaurants and other public places. So, on this island, the polices were written, the legislature was in session, the implementation plan was prepared…..

And then Hurricane Maria came through and decimated the island’s infrastructure.

Quite suddenly, the motivation of the government to enact a clear air policy was no longer a priority. There were much more significant challenges to address, like getting electricity and clean water flowing again.

Big changes can also be predictable. Several years back, we were working with an area of Western New York that was partially governed by the Seneca Nation. The territories are considered sovereign and self-governing, and it is necessary to work with the tribe to make sure that any health policy can be enacted. One major challenge is that tribal elections happened every two years. These frequent leadership changes can cause some whiplash in terms of which policies are emphasized over time. While a tobacco reduction policy may be a priority of one administration, the one the follows may see it as a dependable revenue stream, and round and round we go.  Therefore, planning had to have a very short time horizon.

Less dramatically, we have all likely worked with organizations where a key person leaves, and with it, takes a set of knowledge, skills, and influence out the door. Sometimes, this person was so core to that effort that implementation sputters to a halt before it withers on the vine.

The core message here: all three of the component and their associated subcomponents can go up and down over time. This has been further supported in our measurement work where we see changes, not always in a positive direction, over the course of an implementation effort. We need to recognize that there can be a staccato flow to progress.

Third, readiness in innovation-specific. We previously defined innovation-specific capacity as the knowledge and skills that are specific to a particular innovation. The same is true of motivation: the factors that push or pull someone to implement are specific to whatever is being implemented. Because of this, there can be different readiness profiles for different innovations.

For example, in community coalitions, the readiness to implement a nutrition program can be very different than the readiness to implement an obesity prevention program, even those they are both targeting better health in the long run. It is a mistake to assume that just because an organization can do one thing well that it can quickly pivot to something new, even if the initiatives are related.

Fourth, readiness applies at different levels. It’s a fairly common phenomenon that people at different levels have different perspectives about how ready they are to implement. Leaders at the top may be disconnected from the day-to-day realities of what front line professionals are facing. Going in the other direction, people on the front lines may be siloed from initiatives across an organization or what the overall vision of an organization might be.

In nearly every project that we have been involved in, have seen a difference between readiness that varies by roles within organizations. This has major implications for planning and implemented because there might not be agreement on how the motivational and capacity conditions impact a change effort

We can even step outside of an organization to see have readiness differs across levels. Let’s return to the example of kindergarten instruction in the time of COVID. A teacher’s particular readiness to implement distance learning is undoubtedly different from other teachers within the same school.

On aggregate, a school’s readiness to implement distance learning can be different than the other schools within the same district. Perhaps they have different capacities that are influenced by the differences in neighborhoods that they serve. Or maybe the within-school leadership, the principles, had different styles of leadership that made adoption of distance learning simpler for the teachers.

 Going still further up the ladder, the readiness of a school district writ large to implement distance learning can be different from the neighboring school districts. The culture set by the Superintendent and School Board may be more or less receptive to trying novel approaches to working in the COVID environment. Perhaps a forward-thinking district had already invested in an electronic platform for monitoring homework assignments that could be quickly adapted and expanded to host other types of materials?

Finally, going all the way up to the state-level, the readiness of Departments of Education differed widely between the states, influenced by variables like geography, socio-political climate, and available funding.

The implication of all this is that effectively considering and using readiness requires thinking about the appropriate level, and then negotiating between levels to make an effective plan is in place. Finally, Readiness can be built. People have been engaged in change efforts throughout recorded history. Because of that, there is quite a bit known about how to engage in change management. Whole fields and journals are devoted to the topic. However, managing a change can be difficult without explicitly considering the conditions that will make the change happened. Remember, change is a process. By breaking down a change into the constituent readiness part, we can match specific strategies to them so that we are building up the specific conditions to make things happen. In our work, we talk about a readiness learning system, as seen in the figure below

Why Care about Readiness?

Well, we generally want to see our change efforts be effective.  For us though, we have a deeper commitment to using readiness a vehicle for accelerating change.  Traditionally, many organizations and people are described as being “not ready” for something. Our respective research teams found this label to be very unsatisfying. We came out of a community-development, social justice, and empowerment perspective.  It is very important for us to be able to help all individuals and organizations improve.  This must be the humanists in us.  If an organization gets the label of “not ready,” are they then excluded from new projects or initiatives?

This isn’t a thought experiment, by the way. Billions of dollars, whether distributed by governments or private philanthropic organizations, are given out according to pretty basic criteria: are they ready to do this? And that’s Billions with a B.  According to giving US, in 2019 Foundations distributed ~76 Billion, corporations distributed 21 Billions, bequests 43 Billion, and individuals a whopping 309 Billion: Source Giving USA 2020: Charitable giving showed solid growth, climbing to $449.64 billion in 2019, one of the highest years for giving on record

And that doesn’t even count the money distributed by governments! On the surface, this makes sense. The problem with this type of approach is that the organizations that might most benefit from money or extra support are probably the ones least likely to get it. This can set up some perpetuating cycles where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Again, we found this very unsatisfactory. So, if we can find a way to help all organizations improve, at scale, well, this could be a way to help lessen inequities in our society.  A lofty goal, but we thrive off of these BHAGs: BIG HAIR AUDACIOUS GOALS.