Before Innovative Change is Possible


I was invited to deliver a speech last week to the Ohio Educational Service Centers annual conference in Columbus.   There were 150 ESC Superintendents and other senior officials in attendance, and they asked me to share the particulars of work we did a year ago helping Washtenaw County Michigan’s 10 school districts consolidate their school transportation operations.  The Washtenaw example was a pretty bold project that resulted in savings of about 22% of the annual transportation budget through improving operations, restructuring, and re-deploying transportation assets.

Speaker after speaker on the day I was in Columbus spoke about the need for innovative change in Ohio’s education community.  They spoke about the need for new solutions, collaboration, and innovation.  They spoke about the tectonic shifts that were already occurring in demographics, State and Federal funding, and economic forces.

The focus seemed to be about building a strong case for the NEED TO CHANGE.  Everyone seemed to agree on this point.  But there was not a lot of discussion about HOW.

I gave a similar speech in Michigan recently – talking about the Washtenaw case study – and afterwards two superintendents invited me to speak with them about how they might get started.  We talked about several ideas and they decided to ask their transportation department leaders to get together for a day, and explore the possibilities of collaboration and consolidation.

The meeting happened, and the end product was a 5 page report, detailing 23 reasons why collaboration steps WERE NOT POSSIBLE!  The list included:

  • Their in-ground storage tanks were not large enough to support larger purchases of fuel to reduce costs
  • The bell times were not the same between the two districts
  • One district provided tools to their mechanics, where the other had the mechanics purchase their own
  • Etc.

It seems to me that in a culture where the FIRST thought is about WHY WE CANT, instead of HOW CAN WE, the chances for innovative change are slim.  What further interested me about this example was that the two Superintendent’s who asked their teams to meet, accepted the report as submitted without challenging their teams further.  As a result, they chose to take no further actions along the path of collaboration.

To me this is a leadership problem, more than a problem of the two transportation departments.   For innovative change to be possible:

1)      The School Boards Must Demand It 

They must do so emphatically, and consistently.  Not only when the public is asking for something new.  If innovation and change aren’t seen as important to us as senior leaders, it is unlikely to be seen differently by our lieutenants. Boards can help play a role in educating the community about the need to change and invite discussion about where.

2)      The Superintendent Must Call For It

We all pay attention to what we see our bosses focus on.  If the two Superintendent’s mentioned above were really interested in change, instead of asking their teams “if collaboration were possible”, they could have said they “wanted to see a collaborative solution that could save _X_ dollars per year”.   One signals I am serious about it, and the other that I am just mildly curious.

3)      The Districts Must Recognize and Reward It

Tony DiCicco (former US women’s soccer team coach during the successful 2000 bid for the World Cup) said that the job of a coach is “to catch them in the act of doing something right . . . and then making a BIG DEAL out of it.”  He means, I think, we need to continually recognize when our team members are engaging in the kind of behaviors we seek – like developing new and better ways of doing things.  We must lavishly provide positive reinforcement.

4)      The Superintendent Must Lead By Example

If you want to accelerate a change culture – there is no better way than to lead by example.  Senior leaders should act in ways they want to see in their subordinates.  I you want them to innovate, launch innovative change initiatives yourself.  Make sure everyone is aware.

5)      The  Culture Must Tolerate Reasonable Failures

When we try anything we have never done before, sometimes things don’t turn out as planned.  We must all accept the idea that with change comes some risk, and sometimes it takes multiple tries to get it right.  If you want to kill innovation, then all you have to do is criticize or punish people who try and fail.

In addition to these five points, there is one last one more to consider.  There needs to be an environment of trust between you and your employees.  If you asked your managers this one question: “True of False – My boss always has my back” . . . what percentage would answer affirmatively?   No one will take a risk if they feel they could “get hung out to dry” when things don’t go right. If most of your people answer “NO” to that question, then you have work to do.  For more on this topic see our post –  7 Laws Of Innovation.

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Filed under Innovation, Leading

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