Transformational Change: Montana Style

Liz Weaver of Tamarack Institute recently released Transformational Change is Possible, in which she reflects on six elements that support collaborative efforts to make lasting change possible. She reminds us that complex problems require a different way of working, and begins by reviewing the framework of collective impact: (1) build a common agenda; (2) engage in shared measurement; (3) support the work through mutually reinforcing activities; (4) keep partners engaged through continuous communications; and (5) ensure ongoing support through a backbone infrastructure.

Weaver then offers us an opportunity to learn from the evolving lessons of collective impact efforts throughout the world: What, she asks, does it take to make transformational change possible? 

Knowing full well how challenging – yet, as I’ve previously written, how necessary – it can be to realize deep and lasting change, I read Weaver’s article with great interest. Since launching Graduation Matters Montana in 2010, in which we engage over 50 communities to connect at the local level to raise high school graduation rates, we have seen real change happen. It is more than numbers. (Though we recently celebrated the highest high school graduation rate in our state’s history.)

  • Students are engaged in school improvement: serving on local planning teams, speaking out at community forums, and presenting workshops on student voice at our annual GMM Summer Summit.
  • School staff are looking ever more closely at what’s working, which students need focused attention, and what more can be done, together.
  • Local community and business leaders are finding meaningful ways to support local GMM work that goes beyond funding the booster club, such as significant mentoring and internship opportunities, and helping to fund work that connects school needs to community supports.

Certainly, change is happening. How, I have wondered, can we understand what has made that change possible, and what more can we do from a state government perspective to support this work going forward? What follows are the six elements that Weaver identifies, seen through the lens of GMM.

(1) Practice system leadership “System leaders have the capacity to both see and understand the complex problem from micro and macro perspectives. They bring a relentless focus to the health of the whole.”  

GMM teams consist of school staff, students, community and business leaders who come together to talk about the challenges and opportunities to all students graduating from high school. They then look at data – qualitative and quantitative – to better understand what’s working and not working, and what more can be done.

This practice of “seeing the elephant” or “leaving your hat at the door” allows folks to begin to ascertain the system – how it works and doesn’t work in service of student graduation. This is crucial to the success of local teams, as it brings a deeper understanding of the challenges and – as importantly – opens up real opportunities for new approaches.

Students in one GMM community shared that they felt that teachers didn’t really care about them: they didn’t go to their sporting events, and rarely saw them outside of their classroom environment. When asked, teachers responded that the gym had very limited seating which made attending school events challenging. The GMM team arranged to reserve a row of seating for teachers, teachers started attending evening school events, and almost overnight the vibe in the school improved, as teachers joshed with the students and students felt seen. That “low tech/high impact” approach would not have surfaced had there not been multiple perspectives engaged in an honest discussion about what more can be done, together.

(2) Embrace a framework “While each community or collaborative effort is unique, a framework provides a container for testing and prototyping system changes.” 

The GMM framework – team, data, practices, and communicate/celebrate – is instrumental to helping local communities come together. We’ve developed a GMM Toolkit that lays out this framework and provides concrete examples from Montana communities on how to approach these steps along the path.

More recently, we are exploring how the GMM framework can be of service to Montana communities that are expanding early learning opportunities. To that end, last week we brought together over 60 early educators, K-12 staff, United Way staff, business members and funders for a workshop led by StriveTogether, a Cincinnati-based “cradle to career continuum” collective impact initiative. The workshop was funded by a grant from the National Governor’s Association, which is also funding the development of a GMM-Early Learning Roadmap – a new tool kit we will release this fall which reflects on what we’re learning about using the GMM framework in local efforts to expand early learning opportunities.

(3) Assess community readinessChange happens when all the sectors of the community believe in the need for the change to occur and embrace their individual and collective contributions to this change.” 

The tagline of GMM is “Locally designed, locally implemented based on what works in Montana”. In the words of Margaret Wheatley, people only own that which they build, and thus GMM is a voluntary initiative – communities can opt in or opt out.  We support local initiatives through a variety of capacities: GMM coaches work with local teams; we convene practitioners at our GMM Summer Summit to share what’s working; and we raise private funds (to date, $1.3 million) to give out grants of up to $10,000/year to pursue the work. In this way, we seed the ground of community readiness, and yet local communities are the ones to determine if GMM fits.

(4) Focus on data and measurement Two of the most challenging elements of transformational change is maintaining the persistent focus on using data to inform the problem and identifying and tracking measures that lead to outcomes.”

The GMM initiative benefits from the wealth of data currently available in the K-12 system. As the state education agency, we have graduation and dropout rates by grade and socioeconomics; schools can track attendance and credit accumulation. Many Montana schools also track school climate and student sense of belonging. The challenge is less how to get data and more about what to do with it. We are constantly working to support better ways to present data in tangible, digestible ways that lead to better discussions, grounded in what we can measure and learn from over time.

(A terrific new SSIR article, Community Engagement Matters describes how data is being developed through community engagement, not in isolation of community. The Aspen Institute sponsored a great panel discussion on the paper.)

(5) Communicate and engage  “Often seen as a peripheral element in community change efforts, a focus on communication and deep engagement is foundational.”

One of the four components of the GMM framework is Communicate & Celebrate – we say it is as important as looking at data, as gathering multi-stakeholders and reflecting on what practices are working. It is easy to underestimate the power of continuous communication, of telling our story, of celebrating the work that is done. The 50+ communities with a GMM initiative all adopt the same language: Graduation Matters Billings, Graduation Matters Wolf Point, Graduation Matters Livingston. That means the media throughout the state can recognize that local efforts are tying into a larger effort; and practitioners can connect with one another across communities to share effective strategies and efforts.

One of the big game changers in GMM is when a local community authentically engages students who have a direct or one-step-removed experience of dropping out of school. Their lived experience enlivens the discussion of adults, and makes the work real, progress possible, and celebrations more meaningful.

(6) Ask, what’s next  “Be curious about the future and embed continuous learning and reflection into the work.”

Our work is never done – there will always be something new that challenges us to look at our work a little differently, that calls on us to see our efforts with new eyes: resources flux, leadership shifts. As practitioners, we know that there is no ONE solution, no ONE program or policy change that will solve all of our woes. Rather, it is the relationships we build and the way in which we come together again and again that makes for functioning, vibrant community.

Through GMM, people work together a bit differently, a little more holistically and joyfully. We are having real impact. We are seeing, as Weaver would say, what is possible.

3 thoughts on “Transformational Change: Montana Style”

    1. Hi Tim – I think it makes sense to involve students if the issue you’re organizing around is either directly related to students, and/or individual students really care about the issue. We’ve found that engaged youth can really energize an effort.

      1. How would you making the connection with the students? I seems like finding a teacher(s) that is motivated would be a good place to start. Would it be best to tie it into a subject related to community service?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *