In any change initiative, there are distinct roles to be played. In education, the ones we pay attention to the most are the roles of sponsor and agent. Who are these folks, what are their roles, and why do they matter?
A quick primer: A sponsor is an individual who has authority over those responsible for implementation –line authority to be exact. In schools this is often the principal but it could be someone several rungs above the principal, such as the principal’s supervisor, or the superintendent. An agent is someone whose job it is to support the change. This could be an internal position (such as a staff developer) or external support (such as a school improvement coach). You’ll know you’re an agent if you have the responsibility to make something happen without the authority to mandate it.
Why do we pay so much attention to these roles when we know that sustainability requires broad-based ownership and that top-down mandates generally fail? We’ve found that oftentimes change initiatives need a jump-start (“just try this”) and that successful implementation is then dependent upon an ability to focus. Permission to choose one activity over another comes from a sponsor, someone in authority such as a supervisor. Much of our education system is organized in ways that separate sponsors and agents so that those supporting the work are unable to either require it or allow it. At the building level this might be an instructional coach who may (or may not) report to the principal but does not supervise those he or she is coaching. Another prevalent example is the way in which most central offices are structured, with a curriculum department (often incorporating professional development) that does not include those able to call the shots on use of time or who supervises those that do (such as the principal or principal supervisor). We call this phenomena responsibility without authority. And when we point this out in coaching venues (most often with agents), we see huge ah-ha’s and recognition of what’s missing in their efforts.
This reality simply means attention to roles so that necessary sponsorship takes place. For those in positions of authority, be certain that you are visibly supporting the work. Make it a public priority. Be present at high leverage events, if only to kick off and affirm the work underway. Make it a public priority. By doing so you will give those responsible for actual implementation permission to focus and a little nudge that this is important. If you are in an agent’s role, you’ll need to be strategic in how you make sure the work is sponsored. An agent operates through influence and relationships; he or she must determine which are the most important relationships to cultivate if the work is to be adequately sponsored. Sometimes an agent’s responsibility is not a priority of those needed for sponsorship and the agent will need to become the sponsor’s new “best friend.” In rare cases, it may be necessary to carefully move up the ladder of authority for adequate sponsorship. Delicate? Yes, but we can almost guarantee an initiative will fail without sponsorship.
Known as organizational alignment, establishing roles in any change or improvement effort is essential. So if implementation is not going as expected, one of the first questions we would ask is, “Who is sponsoring the change you want to see?”