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Middle Leadership Blog Series Reflection Post 2

Implementing change: outlining the pitfalls and complexities

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Who is this blog post for: Current or emerging middle leaders and for senior leaders or Headteachers who are developing middle leaders.

Author:  Stephanie Bingham

Posted on: 18th July 2023

Keywords: Implementation; plan; communication; complexity; pitfall; evidence; transferable skills. 


In our first reflection post we outlined some of the challenges and opportunities inherent in middle leadership: we referred to sandwich leadership, and the realities of being the layer between the senior leadership and the main staff body. We also outlined the differences between the operational and strategic aspects of leadership, and introduced the idea of the transition from teaching to leadership and the opportunities for transference of skills which that presents. 

The focus of this article and our next reflection post is another key aspect of middle leadership which can be daunting at first but which also presents opportunities for self-development, as well as the improvement of outcomes for learners and colleagues: implementation. Middle leaders are often required to implement change in order to raise attainment, to respond to government policy, or due to new school leadership. Successful implementation requires considerable skill. In our first reflection piece we said that ‘acknowledging that leadership requires new skills opens up the excitement of professional learning and growth’. In this post we will identify some of the pitfalls and complexities of implementation and give you the opportunity to reflect on what skills and knowledge you already have and where you need to develop and learn. In the next blog post we will introduce some implementation models and share some resources which will help as you engage with further professional learning. 

Understanding the potential pitfalls and the complexity of implementation 


The decision to implement a change in a school or college environment often comes with an inbuilt sense of urgency, and it is easy to rush into it. This will rarely lead to a successful outcome, however, and is the first pitfall to avoid. Regardless of the sense of urgency, time spent planning is never wasted - as the authors of the Education Endowment Fund Schools’ Guide to Implementation write: ‘In our collective haste to do better for pupils, new ideas are often introduced with too little consideration for how the changes will be managed and what steps are needed to maximise the chances of success’ (EEF, 2019, p.3). 

A second potential pitfall is poor communication. Implementation is rarely successful if the people involved and affected don’t understand what is being done or why, and if progress or problems are insufficiently shared. Poor communication can often be linked to the first pitfall since rushing in will rarely facilitate good communication. 

A third potential pitfall is trying to introduce too many changes at once. This often stems from the sense of urgency of the problem, or the enthusiasm to introduce something which has been successful elsewhere – and sometimes both.  

It is also still quite common to implement something which is not well supported by evidence or is not appropriate for the context. Successful practice in one setting won’t necessarily be appropriate for another and it is important to do the background preparation which confirms that this is the right initiative for the school’s priorities and context. In the first case study post in this collection, the spelling initiative was successfully implemented partly because it was addressing an identified need in a manner which was appropriate for the school community. Implementing an initiative which works somewhere else, and only for that reason, is unlikely to be successful.  

Leaders can also make the mistake of imposing change upon their team, requiring people to implement something without any consultation or any attempt to give them some ownership of or agency within the initiative. This links to the pitfall of poor communication, but it is separate from it in that leaders could communicate very clearly what is required but do so as an instruction or command. There is far less likely to be resistance and or resentment towards the proposed change if real consultation has also taken place. 

The final pitfall is inflexibility: whilst a plan is important, if it isn’t working there is no sense in sticking to it. Effective implementation includes monitoring the change and adapting when things aren’t working. 


One of the complexities of implementing change is managing the people alongside the logistics.  However good the plans are, if the team members don’t understand, are unwilling, or overstretched, then implementation is unlikely to go well. This links with what we said in our first reflection post about the importance of leading the team well through transferring the skills of the classroom to the leadership of adults – pedagogy versus andragogy – which we explored in the previous practice post. 

Implementation is also complicated by the ongoing demands of the day to day: schools are busy and the work of a middle leader extends well beyond the implementation of one particular strategy. In addition to their teaching there will be significant operational demands, some of them at short notice, which mean that implementing the change cannot always be the main focus of activity. An effective implementation plan will take account of this. 

Another complexity of implementation for middle leaders is the ‘sandwich’ nature of their role, which we talk about in our first reflection post. The decision and planning may have come from senior leaders, who delegate local aspects of it. This adds many complications, not least the middle leader’s own potential sense of lack of ownership and agency. If the middle leader lacks ownership and agency in relation to a planned change, it will be even more the case for the team they lead. This can result in low motivation and additional challenges for the leader to overcome. The implementation models we explore in the next post emphasise the need to have a clear aim and shared imperative, which will help to remove these barriers.

Applying the skills of the classroom to implementation  

As we mentioned in our first reflection post, one reason that highly effective teachers can become successful leaders is that many of the skills used in the classroom are transferable to leadership (explored further in practice post 1). 

Throughout the day effective teachers assess needs and adapt to the live situation in the classroom. There is continuous diagnosis, monitoring and evaluation, and plans are adapted or discarded as necessary. Appropriate responses are made to learners’ questions and behaviour, and communication is clear and pitched at the right level. This is possible if the knowledge and skills of the teacher are secure and the planning and preparation for a lesson and a sequence of learning have been done effectively, with the intentions for learning being fully understood. It is also possible if the teacher understands the learners and the relationships are strong. 

In teaching and in the leadership of implementation, the purpose needs to be shared and understood among all stakeholders so that resistance and or obstructions are minimised. Where learning needs to take place, pedagogical techniques can be adapted to suit the adult learners – this is called andragogy and is covered in practice post 1. 

All of these are transferable skills which can be adapted for all aspects of middle leadership, and especially implementation: diagnosing need and identifying a solution; planning for the short medium and long term; communicating clearly; adapting plans to suit the immediate situation; and building relationships to ensure success for all. 

Coming soon!

A case study on implementation demonstrating how the implementation models in our accompanying theory post play out in a real context.