Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

Not long ago, I was grabbing dinner with a principal friend who lives on the West Coast.  Let’s call him Carl*.

It was a great evening, full of provocative conversation that challenged my thinking.  At one point, Carl mentioned that he was frustrated with the pace of change at his building.  “I’m constantly finding pockets of innovation in my building,” he said.  “But nothing spreads across our entire school.”

At that point, I pulled a piece of paper out of my backpack and drew a simple T-Chart.  On one side of the paper, I wrote “Our Initiatives” and on the other, I wrote “People Moving This Work Forward with Passion.”  I pushed the paper across the table and told Carl to start writing.  Then, I headed to the bar to order another round.

When I got back with our beers, Carl had finished writing — and what I saw in the “our initiatives” column was no surprise at all.

His school was working on 7 major change projects all at the same time.  Like many schools, they were wrestling with PBIS, the 4Cs, RTI and PLCs — all while tinkering with Genius Hour and integrating both the Common Core and the Next Gen Science Standards into the work they were doing with students.  Oh yeah — and their district had just gone 1:1 with Google Chromebooks.

The real eye-opener was what we found in the “people moving this work forward with passion” column:  Eighty percent of the teachers in Carl’s school were listed somewhere in the table, but less than ten percent were moving more than one initiative forward.

There was also inconsistency across grade levels and departments.  He had a third grade teacher who was a district leader with new math standards, a fifth grade team that was doing great things with PBIS, and an art teacher who had used her Chromebooks to reimagine the elementary art classroom.  He was proud of the science instruction happening in second grade, but embarrassed by the quality of the reading instruction happening on the exact same team.  His special educators were actively creating differentiated remediation activities for students struggling in core classrooms, but they seemed ambivalent about things like critical thinking and creativity.

Carl was disappointed, convinced that his faculty had grown stagnant.  He even seemed a little hurt by what he saw as an apparent unwillingness on the part of his teachers to fully embrace all of the projects that he had brought to the building.  I saw real reason for celebration, though — and I pushed Carl to look at his T-Chart through a different lens.  “You lead an organization where eight out of every ten employees are truly passionate about driving change,” I said.  “How’s THAT a bad thing?”

You see the lesson in this story, don’t you?

Sometimes “pockets of innovation” are a sign that you are trying to do too much all at once.  Forced to wrestle with tons of new change efforts, your teachers are committing their professional energy and enthusiasm to the ideas that resonate the most and letting everything else fall by the wayside.  That’s not because they are resistant to your leadership.  That’s because change is a heck of a lot harder than people think — and most people only have the professional bandwidth to tackle one or two new projects at a time.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not questioning your authority or your passion for seeing your school improve.  You can roll out as many new projects and programs as you want to — and the chances are that every project and program you embrace has the potential to change your school for the better.

But if you are pushing more than one or two change efforts at a time, don’t be surprised when your results are scattered.  Asking teachers to successfully embrace too many new ideas all at the same time just isn’t realistic no matter how important those ideas may be.



(*Carl’s real.  But this name isn’t!)


Related Radical Reads:

School Leadership is a Lot Like Lifeguarding

Real Progress Doesn’t Happen in Leaps and Bounds

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

5 thoughts on “Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

  1. Philip Cummings

    I agree with you and Matt, Bill. The lists need to be paired down, or at the every least, they need to be prioritized for teachers. Some innovations and initiatives can also impede others. If I am spending a significant amount of time and energy trying to implement a new program, there may not be time for me to work on the other stuff. And sometimes the programs directly compete with each other.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Dude. You brought up a really interesting point: Sometimes the initiatives that we are asked to work on actively contradict each other! I never thought of that directly, but can list dozens of times and places where that was true in my career.

      It’s lunacy — and yet it keeps on happening.


  2. Dienne

    “…doing great things with PBIS…”

    Not possible. It’s an inherently evil system using bribes and punishments (including public humiliation) to control behavior. Scrap the whole thing, focus on the other iniitatives.

  3. Matt Townsley

    Bill, you said: “Sometimes “pockets of innovation” are a sign that you are trying to do too much all at once.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Are you familiar with Doug Reeves’ writing around the idea of initiative fatigue? I see more than one connection between your posts and Reeves’ ideas. As a teacher turned district administrator myself, I believe those in positions of decision-making authority owe it to the staff to narrow down those lists. It’s no wonder teachers are often feeling overworked with never ending “to do” lists related to so-called district initiatives! When those in authority do not take the time to prioritize the initiative lists (e.g. “Here are the two or three things we’re working on this year…and here’s how and when resources will be provided to support them”), teachers may be left wondering where they are to be putting their finite time and energy. This isn’t to say early adopters should be squelched from trying out new things — but I believe there should be a clear line between voluntary pilots and “the way we’re all headed to support students.” I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here — I think you’ve struck a nerve! To make it even more practical, here’s a step-by-step process I’ve found to be helpful moving beyond initiative fatigue. http://mctownsley.net/a-few-steps-to-move-beyond-initiative-fatigue/

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      I love that Doug Reeves notion! I heard him speak about it at ASCD several years ago and it has driven my thinking ever since. My favorite metaphor is that of leader as lifeguard:


      So the key question becomes if this stuff is common sense-ish to all of us, why the heck are we still struggling to get (and keep) schools and districts focused on a smaller number of manageable change efforts?


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