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Physics of the Implementation Dip

Trying new things is hard. Getting good at new things is even harder. In fact, our output often suffers at first. This is commonly referred to as the Implementation Dip and we see it all the time in education. We adopt a new set of materials and student performance drops as we get acquainted with the new product. We implement professional learning communities for the first time and teachers see the lost planning time before the benefits of collaboration. At best, the dip is recognized and viewed as something through which to persevere. At worst, it leads to a constant cycle of abandoning new things before seeing their effectiveness.

Rather than persevering through the dip, what if we leveraged it as an opportunity?

If you have any experience going up and down hills (running, cycling, driving), you’re probably familiar with the concept of acceleration and momentum. Gravity provides a natural acceleration as we go downhill, which builds momentum that carries us into the next uphill. We view gravity as being helpful to our progress when going down (but not so much when going uphill).

We can equate this to the implementation of a practice or structure that we know is effective. For example, learning and implementing the structures associated with high-performing professional learning communities accelerate our capacity as a team and lead to increased student outcomes (the upswing after the implementation dip). That work is necessary in building the momentum needed to pull out of the dip. In short, that work is acting like gravity in building our momentum.

Let’s go one step farther. If we “lean into” the dip, we can produce even more acceleration and therefore more momentum. Think about quickening your pace running or pushing downhill on the bike or even just adding a little gas while driving. That effort is magnified by the natural accelerant of gravity. Leaning into the implementation dip offers the same opportunity for our work in schools.

It’s important to note that we’re not trying to burn people out. You could theoretically push downward so hard that you create enough friction to stop your momentum or, very realistically, you could create so much speed that there is no way to control the acceleration and you crash before getting to the upslope.

On the other hand, you can also go too slow and never build the momentum needed to carry you uphill. This is one of the misunderstandings of the phrase “go slow to go fast.” In this case, “slow” should mean limiting the number of new initiatives, so that you can focus on one or two. We can then lean into those initiatives to give them enough momentum to be successful. We need that success to happen as soon as possible. If we don’t see results soon enough, we will not sustain the effort needed to see them later (working against gravity going uphill).

What to do:

  • Limit new initiatives (“go slow”)

  • Understand the dip. Recognize that it is necessary and can be leveraged.

  • Lean into the dip by applying the right amount of effort to accelerate progress without creating burn out.

  • Build momentum by capturing repeated, quick wins.

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