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!)


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  • WendiPillars

    Love the

     gamechanging simplicity of that graphic organizer, Bill. “Our Initiatives” and People Moving This Work Forward with Passion.” This alone got my wheels churning so much that I had to write some things down before finishing your post. There is a lot of innovation happening, or perhaps, trying to happen, and I’m grateful for your reminder to look at it through a new lens: 8 of 10 employees are passionately engaged! That is pretty monumental. Kind of like taking what works and building upon it, even though there is so much change afoot. 

    The key seems to be honesty, though, with what we see from all viewpoints, and asking ourselves what one thing will truly make a difference if we continue it. THEN, asking ourselves what one thing (to start with) will truly move our mission forward if we stop doing it.  

    Passionate teachers may abound, but the energy and enthusiasm may have a shelf-life, for sure. 

    PS–love the hashtag! #trudatchat


    • billferriter

      Hey Wendy, 

      Hey Wendy, 

      Glad you dug this bit.  And in all honesty, I never understand why limiting initiatives is so hard for school leaders.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the thinking in this post.  We all know that when we juggle too much, we drop everything.  And yet we somehow think that those same rules don’t apply to change efforts in schools.  

      That makes no sense to me.  

      I think the schools and businesses that are the most successful are the ones that are also the most focused — and focus is impossible when we prioritize everything.  


      (another one of my favorite hashtags!)


  • Algot Runeman

    “Our” Initiatives

    Stop for a moment to consider whose initiatives are in play. What percentage of the engaged staff originated any of the initiatives? Were these top down instead? Were any of the initiatives a result of student suggestions? Just whose needs are being addressed?

  • Parry Graham



    Two thoughts/questions that pop to mind.

    First, your comment "And in all honesty, I never understand why limiting initiatives is so hard for school leaders" got me thinking. I would imagine, having worked as a principal for a while, that it can be a combination of things: pressure externally to put in place specific initiatives (district, state, federal, parents); pressure internally to put in place/support specific initiatives (e.g., different teachers having different passions that they push); a lack of appreciation for the complexity of organizational behavior (which I think is part of the point of your post); a sense of wanting to "do something"; a keeping-up-with-the-joneses desire to make sure that your school isn't ignoring whatever fad the other schools are doing; etc.

    It's hard because limiting initiatives means you have to say No to a lot of people (your boss, your community, your colleagues, your staff), and that's not particularly easy. It's also hard because having initiatives "feels" like progress and can be the measuring stick that others use to measure progress.  Few schools or principals win awards for not doing something superfluous, but they often do win awards for something that might be objectively insubstantial but sounds great. Finally, it's not easy to know what the "right" initiatives are and how much is too many, particularly because schools are complex organizations.

    My second thought is, what if those are initiatives that come from the ground up rather than the top down? How many "initiatives" are too many when they are initiated by teachers? I believe most innovation arises from outside the principal's office, but what is the right balance between supporting teacher-driven initiatives (e.g., the second grade teachers who decide independently, based on student learning data, that they want to focus on improving science instruction) and keeping an organization focused on a few priorities? Could that "focus" then end up stifling innovation?

    Not questions I have the answer to, just ones that I think connect to your thoughts.