When I first started implementing TeamLEAD (our Duke-NUS version of TBL), as expected, I frequently encountered push-back on my proposal. I have arranged the most common objections by three categories, as described in the book “buy*in” by Kotter and Whitehead (Harvard Business Review Press). For each of these questions, I have included my usual responses. Most of the quotes below were how I answered (a few are what I wished I said at the time; we have all been there).
My answers might not be appropriate for your situation or setting. The primary purpose of sharing these questions and answers with you is to help you prepare for the time when you face these questions yourself. They will inevitably come up in some form or another during your TBL change process. In addition, it is best to have local examples “up your sleeve” that fits your story and setting as you describe your new program.
1. Your solution is for a problem we don’t have
- We already teach at one of the best schools in the world; why should we change what isn’t broken?
- “True, we will be/have a great school. But the world is constantly changing, and we all know good examples of what happened to great institutions (Kodak, Nokia, Borders Bookstores, Blockbuster) that failed to keep innovating/adapting/improving and died as a result.
- I learned by listening to lectures, and I’m insulted that you are saying my education was deficient; why do we need to change the way we teach?
- “No, what I’m saying that many students aren’t going to be able to optimize their learning and accomplish what you were able to do. We did an incredible job educating students in the past, given we didn’t have the research to guide us on how to do it better. Our proposal now will incorporate what we scientifically understand is a better way to educate our students and allow more students to thrive as you did.”
2. There is indeed a problem, but your solution doesn’t solve it.
- We understand the need for education to change. But TBL is just the latest fad solution, and we will soon find something else after we institute this; Remember the last time we tried something like this? We tried to implement Problem-based learning, and it was a disaster.
- “When PBL was tried, it was a different time with different people involved. It failed because it didn’t entirely serve the school’s needs, and there was a different commitment to training all of the faculty on how to do it properly. We are now implementing TBL and making sure the proper supports are in place. And secondly, while TBL has some similarities to PBL, it is different in significant ways.”
- Why are you taking such a risk doing something so new, different, and untested? I know our faculty and students. You are going to fail.
- “I’m willing to go out on a limb here because that is where all the fruit is. If implemented well, students benefit in many new ways, from learning how to work in teams, evaluate and defend their perspectives, etc.”
- “TBL has been used successfully in a variety of settings and for a variety of disciplines.”
- What about if the students don’t like it? Have you thought about what would happen if this or something else (endless specific possibilities here) occurred?
- “Every good plan will have its share of obstacles. I appreciate your willingness to brainstorm with us to improve the proposal. I know I can convince students of why this teaching method is in their best interests. I want to be sure to stay big picture in this discussion and can take on your specific points later when we don’t have to take up everyone’s time.”
- TBL is too new and untested. Let’s just experiment and do this in one class session first to see if it works.
- “To do this right, we need to be fully committed. We need to dedicate our limited resources to make sure our faculty are successful. A small experiment won’t really accomplish our goals and won’t tell us enough about this proposal to be a useful test.”
3. I agree there is a problem; your solution works, except it won’t work here.
- This situation works for highly motivated US medical students, but our students are different. Our students in Singapore won’t talk in class.
- “I respectfully disagree with that assumption. I know how smart our students are, and they can do this if properly challenged and understand the benefit to them.”
- This isn’t the right time for us to do this; we are too busy/don’t have the necessary resources.
- “Time/money is rarely the issue that builds great institutions/schools. More money/time would definitely be nice though. However, the issue is more a matter of priorities of where to spend our limited time/money. Therefore, I ask that my TBL proposal should be judged on its own merits.”
- This is a good idea for other schools, but we can’t do this because we don’t have the skills.
- “Great projects are accomplished by individuals who rarely have all of the necessary skills to start. But I know we have dedicated and brilliant educators who can learn to do this well. And we will do everything we can to provide the proper support for those educators.”
- You aren’t Singaporean, so you don’t really understand how our students learn best. It won’t work because there is something wrong with you (personal attack) or something associated with the project.
- “I was recruited to Singapore because I know a lot about how people learn in general. Yes, you make a good point that I’m sure we’ll need to make some adjustments along the way. But would not be providing any value with my expertise as an educator if all I did was maintain the status quo and do what we always did. Instead, I want to use my knowledge to constantly make things better for students.”
Concluding thoughts: Kotter and Whitehead make the critical point that buy-in requires speaking as much to “the heart” as it is to “the mind.” BOTH are important to address. You need to have the reasons/facts behind your proposal, but they need to feel you and your reasons behind the changes. Today’s workers are especially looking for meaning. What is the real meaning of this change for your organization? Your team must emotionally engage with your change, not just understand the facts or the science behind it.
Encourage debate regarding your proposal and be respectful rather than defensive in your answers. (“I appreciate your willingness to share your concern, it is the only way we can make OUR proposal better” or ask “how can we make this proposal stronger?”).
If you try to attack back, or lose your temper, your attackers will look more sympathetic and win their argument (hearts) even if their reasons are not based on reality.
Remind yourself to get a sense if you face a vocal minority or the entire audience is skeptical. Your approach to these meetings will differ depending on the situation and your relationship with the audience.
Most importantly, prepare as best you can for the upcoming obstacles to your plans. Do you have other suggestions how I might have better handled these questions?