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HOW DOES A VERTICAL SLICE TEAM WORK?

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Short version


Last week, we looked at the most powerful idea in implementation science: the Vertical Slice Team (VST)

This week, we’ll look more closely at how a VST works. In particular, we’ll explore the following questions:

  • What is a VST?

  • How many people should be in the VST?

  • How do you appoint the VST?

  • Should we appoint ‘dissenting voices’ to the VST?

  • What does the VST do?

  • How can we make sure the VST works together harmoniously?

  • How is the VST held accountable?

  • How can the VST make sure it represents people’s views accurately?



Full-fat version


Last week, we looked at the most powerful idea in implementation science: the Vertical Slice Team (VST).


This week, we’ll look more closely at how a VST works.



What's a VST?


A VST is a change team comprising representatives of different types of people from throughout an organisation or community.


In a school, a VST typically comprises some or all of the following people:

  • A senior leader

  • A middle leader

  • An early career teacher

  • A more experienced teacher

  • The Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Coordinator

  • A Teaching Assistant or Learning Support Assistant

Also, depending on the change initiative, you may wish to include:

  • Pupils

  • Parents/carers

  • Members of the support staff - e.g. caretakers, lunchtime supervisors, members of the admin team…

In primary schools, it’s a good idea to have a cross-section of different phases - early years, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 - and in secondary schools, you may wish to have a range of different subjects, departments or faculties represented on the team.



How many people should be in the VST?


The size of the VST depends on two factors:

  1. The size of your school

  2. The nature of the problem you’re trying to solve

In a small infant or primary school, it’s quite common to have 3 people on the VST. In a large secondary school or sixth form college, there may be as many as 12 people.


On average, a VST usually comprises around 5-6 people in a primary school and around 8-10 people in a secondary school.



How do you appoint the VST?


This is perhaps the most important decision you will make, so it’s important to get this right. Joining a VST is a fairly significant time commitment (see below). It’s a fantastic opportunity for professional development - especially for aspiring leaders, but really for anyone interested in making the world a better place. (Many aspects of implementation science are relevant and transferable to other areas of life).


For this reason, it’s a good idea to undertake a competitive selection process to appoint the team.


Firstly, advertise the position and ask people to apply. You may also have particular people in mind, and you may wish to tap some colleagues on the shoulder and quietly recommend that they apply.


Hold interviews and select on the basis of two key criteria:

  1. Each team member should be able to demonstrate that they are ready, willing and able to take on this additional level of responsibility for helping to plan and oversee a key aspect of school improvement. For example, they should be able to provide evidence that they are performing well in other areas of their role (e.g. managing behaviour, providing feedback to pupils in a timely manner), and that taking on this additional responsibility will not compromise their ability to “do the day job”.

  2. Appoint a team that represents a range of experiences and views. For this reason, it’s a good idea to interview everybody and only then make your decisions about who to appoint.


Should we appoint ‘dissenting voices’ to the VST?


As we will see below, it’s really important that all members of the VST feel able to air their honest views throughout the change process - and to engage in robust disagreements where appropriate.


However, you don’t want VST meetings to turn into a weekly bun fight, and if there are any colleagues in your school who like disagreeing a little too much, this may be counterproductive to the smooth running of the team. In short, this decision really boils down to your professional judgement, and your knowledge of your colleagues.


Don’t avoid conflict. But don’t seek it out either.



What does the VST do?


The work of the VST goes through two main phases: implementation planning, and making it happen.


Firstly, the VST works through the ‘Making Change Stick’ toolkit together. If you subscribe to the online course, this involves:

  • Watching the videos

  • Working completing all the exercises in the playbook

  • Writing a comprehensive 3-year implementation plan for a chosen avenue of school improvement

This initial phase - working through the toolkit and writing the plan - usually takes around 24 hours in total (e.g. 8x 3h sessions, or 12x 2h sessions, spread over a period of weeks or months). (There are no short-cuts here: if you really want to bring about lasting, positive change, with demonstrable, improved outcomes that are sustained indefinitely into the future, you have to put in the prep.)


Once you’ve written the implementation plan, you’re ready to move into the second phase: executing the implementation plan. This usually takes place over a 3-year period - as long as it takes to bring about sustained improvements - but the time commitment reduces quite significantly once the period of initial planning has been completed.

In the ‘making it happen’ phase, different team members often take on different roles:

  • Overseeing communications

  • Collecting and/or analysing data

  • Onboarding new colleagues (new to the school or new to the VST)

  • Coaching or mentoring colleagues who need additional support in developing their practice

These roles are usually co-ordinated by a senior leader.



How can we make sure the VST works together harmoniously?


To make sure the VST works together really effectively, it’s important to agree upon a set of ground rules that will govern how the team works together. Here are six tried-and-tested ground rules that you may wish to use, or adapt to your setting:


1. Everyone is an equal member of the team

Although the name ‘vertical slice’ implies a hierarchy - and of course, there usually is a hierarchy in a school - in the VST, everyone is considered an equal and their contributions (and votes, where required) are treated with equal weight. This means that each member is equally responsible a) for writing and b) for executing the implementation plan.


2. All relevant information should be shared – especially inconvenient information


To make sure the VST does not succumb to groupthink (see previous post on the trouble with top-down change), it’s important to make clear that in the VST, we will leave no stone unturned. If any team member has an opinion, evidence or even just a hunch that goes against what someone else is saying, it’s important to share it.


3. Team members should feel free to air their honest views without fear of repercussion


When we are making decisions that affect many people’s lives, we need to make sure the decision-making process is as robust as possible. This may require a junior member of staff to contradict a senior member of staff - and vice versa. To support the robust exchange of views within the VST, it’s important that all team members feel safe to engage in such robust exchanges, and this needs to be made explicit at the outset.


4. Team members should be prepared to have their own views challenged where appropriate


Linked to the point above, it’s really important that people in the team enter into the process prepared to have their own views tested and questioned, and to be open to changing their mind as the data comes in. All VST members need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, where discomfort is necessary in the service of the greater good.


5. Work toward agreement where possible


Having said all of this, the VST also needs to be mindful that “we are trying to get something done here”, and team members should not seek out disagreement for its own sake. We should not agree to disagree too easily - but there will come a time when agreement is necessary. This may require negotiation, compromise and, where the occasion calls for it, voting.


6. Confidentiality


The robust exchange of views required to stress-test the decision-making process can often involve sensitive information, especially if it relates to particular colleagues, pupils or parents. So, the usual caveat around confidentiality applies. What’s said in the VST stays in the VST, unless everyone agrees it should go into the communications plan, the implementation plan or the meeting minutes.


To make sure people know what they are letting themselves in for, it’s a good idea to share these ground rules with people when advertising the post, and again when interviewing people to join the team. It’s really important that everyone in the school community knows how the team operates, and that they will be represented on the change team - and that they will be able and encouraged to share their thoughts with their VST representative throughout the implementation period.



How is the VST held accountable?


In a previous post (LINK), we talked about the problem with ‘black box’ decision-making. This is where all the decisions are essentially made behind closed doors, and then ‘announced’ to the rest of the school community,


To counter this, it’s important that the VST operates as a ‘glass box’ rather than a ‘black box’.


One way to achieve this is to publish the minutes of all VST meetings.


Whenever the VST meets, appoint someone to make a brief note of any key points and action items, while ensuring that no sensitive information is included (especially anything that can be used to identify particular colleagues, pupils or parents).


A brief email should be sent to the whole staff to let them know that the meeting has taken place, and where they can find the meeting minutes should they feel inclined to do so.


Each member of the VST is a representative of a different group of people within the school - teaching assistants, early career teachers, middle leaders and so on. In these emails, it’s a good idea to remind people of this fact. For example, you might include the line:


If anyone has any questions or concerns or ideas about the change initiative you’re working on, please feel free to contact your VST representative and make your feelings known.

It’s also a good idea to allow people to share their thoughts anonymously from time to time, e.g. through the use of an anonymous survey or a question box in the staff room.



How can the VST make sure it represents people’s views accurately?


In short: through ongoing data collection and sampling. We’ll look at data collection in more detail in a future post. For now, let’s just look at one powerful example: 5-minute interviews.


Early in the change process - as soon as the ‘area of focus’ has been identified and agreed upon - the VST undertakes a round of baseline data collection to capture people’s thoughts on the change initiative.


Let’s say the change initiative is focused around feedback.


First, come up with a short list of questions - the things you most want to know. These might include the following:

  1. What do you think about this ‘feedback’ initiative?

  2. Do you agree that this is a priority for the school at this point in time?

  3. What questions do you have?

  4. What concerns do you have?

  5. What ideas do you have for how we might improve the way we provide feedback to learners?

Then, each member of the VST goes away and holds a series of 5-minute interviews with a representative sample of people in the same or similar role. I recommend a maximum of 3 interviews per VST member (i.e. a 15-minute task in total). So the Teaching Assistant interviews 3 other TAs, the middle leader interviews 3 other middle leaders - and so on.


This data should be collected through interviews rather than as a survey: the human touch is important at this early stage. Also, interviews allow you to sense-check what people are saying in a way that surveys do not. It’s also important that each VST member interviews a representative sample of people - not just people who think like you do, or who you know will be likely to support the initiative.


The next time the VST meets, each team member shares a summary of what people said. It is important that this is done anonymously. So instead of saying “Bob thinks this is a load of old bollocks”, you might say “some people are concerned that this is not really a priority for the school at this time, and that we really need to focus on improving behaviour first”.


If they wish, VST members can also include their own views in their summary of responses. This again anonymises the process, and allows team members to air their honest views in a “safe” way.


Senior leaders tell me that once you have used a VST to carry out 5–minute interviews, you’ll never implement a change initiative again without doing this exercise.


As Kate Barry, formerly an Assistant Head at UCL Academy told me, “It was like we really knew what people were thinking for the first time”.



Next time, on 'Making Change Stick'...


Using a VST to implement change helps us to overcome many of the problems with top-down change. However, this approach is not anti-leadership.


Next week, we’ll look at the role of school leaders in the ‘Making Change Stick’ process.


Do you have any questions about VSTs that we haven’t covered here?

Comment below or drop me a line using the contact form on the homepage.


Summary

  • Appoint a VST comprising representative stakeholders from throughout the organisation (size of team depends on context)

  • Every member is responsible for a) writing and b) executing a comprehensive, 3-5 year implementation plan

  • Agree a set of ground rules for working together

  • Carry out 5-minute interviews with representative stakeholders

  • Operate as a glass box, rather than a black box

Reflection points

  • Have you ever worked in this way before?

  • What might be the advantages of working in this way?

  • What challenges might arise?


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