Well, well, well – word, we meet again. My computer just decided to come out of hibernation and update out of nowhere and I’m apparently following suit.
First, I’m very sorry for not updating more but absolutely-not sorry in the slightest. To be quite honest, I desperately needed a break, and the only one who identified it was my old coach, Laci Knight – who basically said “when do you have time for you”? It took some hard listening with my eyes and heart instead of my ears to realize what she meant, which lead me to only writing when I felt the absolute urge to do so. I’ll be continuing with that trend moving forward, however I have a couple of posts that I’m thinking about right now. Get ‘em while they’re hot!
So today, I wanted to talk about systems change and the problem-solving process within our greater roller derby world, and yes – the simple solution to get your league on track. Let’s start with a familiar scenario:
You’re at a league meeting and people keep talking about the same issue XYZ that they’ve been talking about for ages. Leadership, often being overloaded with what they have to keep the league running says “thank you so much for your input – you are heard, and we need to make some changes”. The room goes from loud to quiet as a majority of members strike a familiar tone of pleased or jaded dependent upon how many times they’ve seen this happen. While leadership genuinely cares about what’s happening and the concerns of the membership, they have to get that bout going for next month, and there is barely enough in the bank for most leagues to keep a practice space running – let alone plan for bigger things. And don’t forget about the most important thing in roller derby: rankings.
Quarters 2 and 3 pass, and you’re at the end of the year with the same questions being brought up, and the concerns being brought to the top of the list. Perhaps, with the off-season, leadership has more bandwidth to do things, so small tweaks are made – some take, and some don’t, but concerns aren’t brought up until 4 quarters later (a full year passing) when the situation has hit a boiling point again.
Does that sound right? For some leagues, this is not the case, and for many leagues this is something that’s being actively worked on even without a clear path of how to adjust. But what’s the secret? What’s the easy thing? Let’s look at the background behind the problem solving model for systems change!
Problem Solving Model Background
So, I’m a school psychologist. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you might have caught that, but not quite sure if you did. Basically, I’m the problem solver in the room for our meetings at schools, although the position often possesses more hats than a haberdasher. Part of what I do on a daily basis is to utilize the problem-solving model on both a macro (e.g., classroom or school) and micro (e.g., individual student) scale.
The problem-solving model is pretty straight-forward, and was derived as a 4 step model based on the work of George Polya, who is often referred to as the father of modern problem solving. His widely published and wildly popular book, How to Solve It, rose to fame in 1945 and for good reason: it put into words a process that is easily expanded to other areas with minimal change. He basically said that there are 4 basic principles to problem solving:
- Understand the problem
- Devise a plan
- Carry out the plan
- Look back
While I’m admittedly having trouble with when this came into vogue within education, I can say with confidence that it has been a part of the Response to Intervention or Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports process for quite some time, and is used as a common way to support students before they arrive at a full evaluation (i.e., me and my team of rock star humans) to determine a need for support services.
The beautiful thing about this problem-solving model is that it’s easy to follow outside of education as well, and can strengthen your problem solving processes within your league. So, what does that look like?
Although the original problem-solving method was more a list of check-points, the much more applicable setup is a cycle. The reality is that change is a process and not an event. Your systems are constantly changing to fit your needs, so you should treat it as such. Below, we will review how to go through each one of these steps, but if you’re short on time – check out this video. The video breaks it down to a great acronym: IDEA. I encourage you to play along with us by defining a problem of your own and working out an actionable plan for it so you can experience the wonder of using this process. Here we go!
Step 1: Identify the problem
Problem identification is important in this process, and often the one thing that most people excel at. We can identify the problem easily. An example might be: work is unevenly distributed among skaters and leadership. What is easy is to identify the symptom. We see burnout and we see people doing uneven amounts of work, but what is even easier is to assume that this is also the root cause, when it is not.
When identifying the problem, make sure to start at what you observe and ask why. Once you answer that, ask why again. Keep going until you run out of answers, and that is likely the root of the cause. You may have to do this more than once for complex issues because, honestly, we do not live in a vacuum where every problem is solved by a single answer. It’s best to keep an open mind and focus solely on answering the question, or it’s easy to get caught in the very-scientifically-named existential spiral hole.
Once you’ve fully defined the complexities of your problem or concern, you can move-on to targeting solutions by developing the plan.
Step 2: Develop the plan
Plan development is not as tricky as it seems. You should already have gone through the varied root causes that are creating the symptoms that we see on the surface, which makes you more-likely to correctly identify the best solution. For instance: a person with a headache could be experiencing it for any number of reasons. But someone who is suffering from dehydration will not be similarly soothed by the same solution as someone with a migraine, and that person will not have their headache quelled in the same way that someone with a sinus headache might, or even a stress-induced headache.
So, it’s time to develop the plan. I like to start with each solution and create sticky notes (yay sticky notes!) for each need of how it could be achieved, and then try to work them together. Some people come across a much easier solution, and those people can probably do a pro-con list, or whatever other method of sorting out a plan works best for them. Just remember that your goal at the end of this must be SMART:
Make sure that you’re specific about what you want out of your plan – or what issue you want to solve by using the goal. By whittling down the symptoms to root causes, you can usually easily identify what is the most important and work on that as a main goal. Keep in mind that this is not infallible.
Example: League ZZY has difficulty with skater involvement in volunteering activities because leadership is taking on a large amount of responsibility, and the skaters not on leadership have no incentive to participate in larger projects
(These examples are all made-up, but are very true to issues faced by a lot of leadership teams)
Once you’ve been specific, it’s time to take a measurement. This is not “good” or “bad”, but a number. The reason that Waze and Maps tell us “in 1000 ft” is that a block is completely arbitrary, which 1000 ft is the same no matter where you are (sorry metric friends – I see you). You need to start somewhere, which means you have a number. This same number is how you’ll measure improvement over time. This also relates back to the process for measuring. For instance, is this observation that’s happening in practice, or is this a league feedback form that’s collected each month? You should have this setup from the beginning to ensure that you’re basing your solution and monitoring off of something consistent. It does not work to measure in a different way each month. Pick a thing; do a thing.
Example: Based on the above problem, League ZZY decided to measure the number of volunteer hours that were completed by non-leadership members and found that only 20% of members were completing 1 hour per month or more. Their hope was to raise this to 60% of members over the course of the full calendar year
Your actionable goal should be broken down into steps. While you can also break your overall goal down into percentage benchmarks, I like to break down into what I need to do to get there. My favorite way to do this is through a Gantt chart. This has been hit-or-miss depending upon who I’m working with, but overall breaks down the long-term goal into phases with steps that are tracked over time. Some favorite ways to track this include: Monday.com, Click-up, airtable, and good-old google sheets.
Taking-a-look at a whole goal, it can be daunting to break it down, so I say: start from the end and work backwards. When I do this for myself, I take-a-look at my personal goal and break it down bit-by-bit. For instance, let’s say I wanted to run a marathon (lol never). I wouldn’t say “I’m going to run 10 miles every day” right off the bat.
Example: Having identified the problem of league member involvement as being low at 20% of non-leadership members, the leadership team decided that they wanted 60% of members to be involved by the end of the next calendar year. The team decided to check in quarterly to review progress, with smaller goals of 30% (quarter 1), 40% (quarter 2), and 50% (quarter 3) over the next year. The leadership team determined that they would need to ramp up expectations and rewards over time to keep people interested and participating for the first year to reach their goal.
I think this is a huge thing for most leagues. We can come up with the best goals and the best plans, but none of them will work if we aren’t reasonable. Will it be reasonable to go from 20% participating to 100% participation in a year? No. Equally: will it be reasonable to do so without adequate resources to sustain your plan (e.g., you can’t give dues credits if you don’t have enough money in the bank)?
The term reasonable also interacts with the actionability of each portion of your plan because it has to be reasonable in order to be actionable to an extent. In my case, I would ask myself the following questions:
- How much time do I have to complete this?
- How can I evenly break this up, or fit this in with how my life naturally flows?
By focusing on breaking the goal down like this, I’ll end up with a better set of actions instead of just assuming that I’m perfect because (spoiler alert) I am not perfect. The same idea goes for larger organizations. I’m going to wager that your league will have less bandwidth available as they go to Continental Cups, Playoffs, Champs, or even into an intense strength factor game. These are not times to say that “the same as the last portion” is reasonable. It’s ok to adjust, but take a look at these factors when making these decisions.
Example: League ZZY identified the problem of a lack of skater involvement at only 20% and wanted to raise that to 60% within one calendar year. To keep up with the goal, they estimated a 10% increase each quarter, which appeared reasonable as-long-as rewards were slowly increased to create incentive, and consequences were held strong (e.g., not being rostered) despite frustration from skaters.
The key to developing this plan is in the timing. This is one of the last criteria, but in-truth is woven throughout the full process as you have to have a goal that is time-sensitive in order to be actionable and reasonable. For all of my examples, you’ll notice that my actions are based on time, and this is true across all projects that cross my path. The problem with not being clear about a set time is that things are too loose and never get done. I assume you’ve seen that happen with initiatives before in leagues? I sure have – and it’s a shame. The easiest way to make this happen is to set a date for review. I recommend monthly or quarterly to give enough time to collect your data.
Example: League ZZY identified the problem of a lack of skater involvement at only 20% and wanted to raise that to 60% within one calendar year. To keep up with the goal, they estimated a 10% increase each quarter, which appeared reasonable as-long-as rewards were slowly increased to create incentive, and consequences were held strong (e.g., not being rostered) despite frustration from skaters. League ZZY then set a date to review each quarter, and a final date to review at the end of the year.
Step 3: Execute the plan
Ok, so this is the hardest part. Do. Not. For. Any. Reason. Change. Your. Plan. During. A. Measurement. Period.
If you measure quarterly, you do the same thing the whole quarter. If you measure monthly, you do the same thing the entire month. You cannot waver on what is being executed because it will mess up your data, and you won’t find what works. Just do it. If you get backlash, then that’s good data. Did it not work? Equally good data. Did it work? Great data and an easy talk about it later. But – above all – do not change your stuff between measurements.
During each phase of execution, you’ll have things that work for you and things that don’t. Write them down, take note, gather feedback, and save it. You’ll use it in the 4th step.
Step 4: Assess your results
Assess your results. This is my favorite part because it’s the most interesting to me. On a base level, take-a-look at your data. I’m talking the data points. Take out all of the numbers and have your math-y-est person slam them into excel and make you a pretty graph. You need to graph a thing to watch the change over time (whether you like it or not). At each check-in (your measurement points), take a look and ask yourself and your team the following questions:
- Are we on-track?
- How do we know that we are, or that we are not on-track?
- What elements of that last measurement period were successful?
- What is one element that might need to be changed? (there could be none, or several, but stick to one)
- How can we adjust that element for success?
- Does the adjustment fit into our greater resources/plan?
- What is the effect we will look for in the data next time to determine if any changes have been effective?
The simple answer to your league’s difficulty with change
Wow, Hedonic. That didn’t seem simple at all! You’re right, it’s often not – but it’s also intuitive if you just remember one thing:
If you do nothing else but know yourself and your league to be fallible, then you will be successful. The problem that comes from problem solving is to assume that it’s a single event. We assume that our changes live-on after our decree and are simply in effect for years to come. Honestly, this is also why we end up with the OG skaters who say “but we have always done it this way”, while your league is left out to dry. The reality is that you should just always anticipate change. If you and your league embrace that change is a natural process that is constantly occurring, then you will readily embrace the problem-solving process, its 4 steps, and its never-ending cycle of consistent improvement and teamwork.
 “At various times throughout its history, the term “haberdasher” has referred to a dealer of hats or caps, a seller of notions (sewing supplies such as needles and thimbles), and apparently (perhaps somewhat coyly) as a person who sells liquor”; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haberdasher