Tag Archives: Change management

How NYC Schools are Systematizing Innovation


Some people think innovation is about research and development or designing new and better products.   If I hear one more reference to the iPhone as an example of what innovation is, I think I will be sick.

Innovation has to do with making anything better. . . products, services, business processes, organizational strategies, the ways we lead, and the ways we do work.  The need for innovation and the tools that promote it are universal and can be applied in for or nonprofit, public or private sector, mission based of customer driven organizations.

I came across an article recently by Tom Vander Ark in Education Week, called Innovation Hub and Change Management Model. It describes a pretty interesting approach to guiding innovation throughout the largest school district in the United States.  Here are some learning points – a manifesto for leading innovation and change.

Create a Resource Center to Enable Change

The point here is that there is a body of knowledge that makes innovation happen more easily.   Before you push your people to do so, put in place the resource center to help them.

One idea in New York was to create the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation which they call the iZone.  It was created in 2010 as a community change management initiative.    The iZone is a place, (a physical space), a group of people (whose sole job is innovation thinking, planning and execution) and a network of external partners (knowledge resources to be leveraged).   They are working with organizations like Google, Harvard EdLabs, The Center for Secondary School Redesign, the Discovery Channel and many others.

The iZone is a resource hub to provide expertise to help local schools design curriculum for the knowledge age by applying technology smartly, redefining teaching roles, leveraging external real-world environments to support practical experiences and personalizing learning.

Have a Unifying Point of View

While it may seem empowering to simply tell people to “go forth and innovate,”  in practice it is much more effective when you focus your innovation efforts.

iZone started with a bold philosophical paradigm-shifting idea–to change schools from a classroom focused learning system to an individualized student-centered approach.

This is a radical change from the industrial age concept of processing students through a learning process in production-line fashion,  in batches based on their chronological age (as if that were the most relevant way to batch-process them).  Putting students at the center of the process is a stark departure from decades of tradition leaving many teachers feeling unsettled.   How do you redesign schools and curriculum from the bottom up when your work day is already jam-packed with tasks?

Make Innovation Voluntary

It is great to have the C-suite be in favor of innovative change, and to see them trying to drive it.  However, most of us react to top-down directives negatively.  Find some initial willing “guinea pigs” to be the first living case examples.  Once they achieve some initial successes, momentum will build.   From then on, make participation in innovation initiatives voluntary. (The door to change can only be opened from the inside).

In the case of NYC, they start by inviting schools to join the iZone (giving them access to these support resources), but in order to do so the school MUST AGREE to subscribe to the philosophy of personalized, student-centered learning as a way of being!  Office of Innovation director Stacey Gillett describes it this way:  “the iZone [is] a community of schools committed to personalization innovation.”

This is huge.   To participate, the school and all its connected stakeholders must first go through a process of imagining what they want to make different and then make the emotional leap to accept the philosophical perspective of the iZone.  So by the time they join, they are ready to learn and to work.

Use a Process

It is not sufficient to simply ask people to change, and then cheer them on.   Most of us  need help.

As you know from our prior articles, we think Innovation initiatives are greatly aided by having a deliberate process to guide it.  We at Xavier Leadership Center teach Lean, Creative Problem Solving and Design thinking as three specific methodologies.

Here is the process invented by iZone (see this Vimeo detailing the process.) In this case they planned six focused conferences spread out between February and June.  These participants came to learn core concepts and to share ideas.   Then they went back to their home schools to apply what they learned.   With each succeeding conference, they were pushed along the design thinking process.

  • Forming a design team
  • Informing the team (collecting information, engaging stakeholders)
  • Defining their problem(s)
  • Developing an idea for a new learning model
  • Prototyping it
  • Refining it
  • Implementing it

Have A Deadline 

Yes, innovation is an organic process that never ends.   We create ideas, implement them, learn from our successes and mistakes, and make ongoing improvements.   However, that doesn’t mean we should launch innovation initiatives without a purpose or deadline.   People work better when they can see a concrete endpoint to our initial efforts.

The iZone school community created a 1-year deadline for them to invent a new learning model.   Feb–June were allocated to learning, defining, designing and prototyping.  The summer months were created for planning implementation at the start of the upcoming school year.   Having a deadline helps us stay on track.

Choose Some Specific Initiatives

Leading an innovative change program is a blend of empowering people at lowest levels to invent solutions that best meet their needs.  No one other than them knows their issues and problems better.  In addition, however, there should be an overarching “strategic” plan that aligns the lower level activities around the overall goals and direction of the entire organization.  Empowering teams builds engagement, and connecting them to organizational strategic intent makes it powerful.    In the case of NYC schools, while each schools programs might look different on the ground, they are ALL required to be connected to this framework:

  • Next Generation Curriculum and Assessment
  • Personalized Learning Plans and Progress Tracking
  • New Student and Staff Roles
  • Flexible and Real-world learning environments

Flexible, focused, and aligned.
Decide how to Measure Success

We are not fans of innovation for its own sake.  We need to define up front what success looks like to us in sufficient detail so that we would recognize it if we actually succeeded.

In the case of the iZone schools who engaged in the Feb-June sequence of planning, they all defined measurable outcomes they believed would be impacted though the implementation of their new learning model.  Start with the end in mind.   Pick your goals and define how to measure them. Be as  multi-dimensional as you can.   (Look, for example not only at student achievement, but how about measuring teacher, community and student engagement as well?)

Here is a statement of mission for iZone:

“The iZone aims to increase student achievement in K-12, college and career by supporting innovative educational models that will best meet the needs, motivations and strengths of each student.”

It helps to have a clear understanding of purpose when deciding what to measure.

So how innovative is your organization?   We can all take a lesson from iZone and the suggested steps listed above.  The only mistake is not to start.

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Unsticking Yourself – First Step of Change


I enjoy writing on the topic of change.  A common concept suggests that we are metaphorically, psychologically or emotionally “stuck” in patterns of thinking and behavior that can paralyze us from action.  Stuck is stuck – – – like the man struggling to turn over the domino in the picture on the left.    Before change or action is possible, something must happen to “unstick us”.  Harvard change theorist John Kotter calls it “unfreezing”.

You need to do something that helps people feel emotionally ready to accept a new order of things.  In my experience, it is possible to accomplish this by three principal methods:

  • Restructuring – re-do your organization chart or force from the top – a completely new process or system, which can force people into new patterns of work . . .  this does work, but can be expensive and anxiety provoking.
  • Visioning – the act of a charismatic leader who has a clear vision and communicates it with such clarity and passion that people instinctively want to go there.  While this does work, such charisma and communication power are in relatively short supply.
  • Exploit a crisis – the third way I know to accomplish change is to exploit a challenge or crisis . . . because when crisis occurs, this automatically creates a sense of urgency that can both unify and help galvanize even normally un-collaborative teams. (I would caution against trying to deliberately create a crisis – since it can come across as manipulative.)

Here is a 10 minute clip where John Kotter talks about the importance of that sense of urgency.

The story described in Using Crisis for Good – Driving Innovation and Change is a real story of crisis that happened to me.  The link tells about a crisis, what happened, and the rich array of insights that came from it.

In the scenario, we were on the verge of losing a major contract, the loss of which would have brought with it very painful consequences.   We tried a fairly unconventional response to it.

The sense of urgency was already there.  (Once word got out, it wasn’t difficult to paint a chilling picture of what would happen if we lost that business.)

We laid all our cards on the table.  We shared all our information (including sensitive financial data openly with all employees.  They saw we were serious, and that we trusted them.

We eliminated management people from the equation.  (While many of you may see this as unproductive and controversial, I believe that it is mainly our middle managers who erect departmental barriers.  If you read the article, you will see why it isn’t their fault though.)

We largely empowered our employees.   (Except of things that violated safety or Federal regulations, virtually no idea was off the table.)

The results of this approach not only helped us turn defeat into victory, but set in motion a revolution in how we started to think about managing our business.  I hope you enjoy it

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Change Must Be Pulled from the Top, Pushed from Below


Driving innovative change in an organization is not seen as easy by most of us.  As discussed in my article We Love Change – We Just Hate How You Try to Change Us, we suggest that top down autocratic approaches often leave the organization flat.  You can’t cram change down people’s throats – no matter how good the idea is.

So the implication is that change initiatives need to engage employees at all levels.  That seems right, people will more likely support changes they had a hand in influencing.  But that does not mean you can always just relegate the project to the organization below you.

Not everyone has vision – so you need to ensure that the project team has someone on it with the ability to lift their heads up out of the bunker to look more broadly at the world around you.

Lower level teams are influenced by your culture – When we develop new solutions, we are heavily influenced by our work environment.  If your team members feel they are in silos, and that current structures, policies, and leadership biases are standing in the way, they will not likely promote solutions they feel will “never be accepted by other departments or executives.  Great innovation happens when we are able to suspend all our biases about what is – in order to think freely about the possibilities.   Lower level teams have a hard time doing this in a vacuum.

The solution lies in what I call a “two-front” campaign.  For change to occur, first,

senior executive leadership has to WANT it and make sure the organization knows it.  The role of such an executive is to imbue the project team with a sense of empowerment, AND to work hard to help break down barriers that might be holding the team back.  In my company, I made sure I always let my middle managers and executives know that I was strongly in favor of an idea. They generally knew that when I was deeply motivated around an idea that getting in the way of it would usually lead to a confrontation.  So, by communicating my support in advance, I created an environment that gave the project team a “wide berth” and reduced the likelihood that other departments would throw up roadblocks.  Sure, the less heavy-handed your intervention the better, but you, as a senior executive need to be prepared to step in as much as needed to insure success.

When the project team sees that you are engaged around the idea — it energizes them.  They start to believe that implementation is really possible, that their work is being noticed by the boss, and that they are being appreciated.  I would often meet with project teams along the way – both formally (and informally – casually chatting about an idea in the hallway or in the break room).  When I saw that they were perhaps “afraid” to get themselves far enough “out of the box” – offering a few words of encouragement or challenging them to stretch a little farther can really help.

Look to unlikely places for your project teams. A mistake many of us (myself included) make is that we think about selecting project teams from the parts of the organization that already have a vested interest in the current systems.  This is a natural human condition.  When I or my department created a product; or the payroll, incentive compensation, or ERP system (for example) we likely worked hard on the initial effort and are probably not the most OBJECTIVE people to consider throwing them out and starting over.  If your goal is DISRUPTIVE or GAME CHANGING Innovation, the current bureaucracy is probably the last place to turn.  Again it has nothing to do with competence, IQ, or dedication to the company – it is just human nature that we always think our baby is the cutest one.  So my suggestion is to hand-pick mainly a diverse team of people who have no stake in the current system.  Such team members are probably your younger ones, with less seniority, not bound by how we have done things in the past, and don’t know enough to think that an idea “could never work”.  I like to rely on enthusiastic, even naïve candidates with a lot to prove, who are ambitious and likely to pour their heart and soul into the work.  (Yes, you need to have some people on the team with sufficient technical knowledge of the system or process in question, — but make sure these are outnumbered by the newbies.)

I remember hiring a high school intern one year, a young man who was trying to decide if he wanted to go to college and pursue an engineering degree.   We assigned him to study a process  that punched holes in sheet metal in our stamping department using a CNC rotary index press machine.   It had a large turret with positions in it for several dies of various shapes and sizes.  These punched holes in steel and aluminum for lights and buttons etc in our electronic control cabinets.  The process problem was that the turret held only 24 dies, and when you needed to do a changeover – it took 2.5-3 hours to do so.  That was a lot of downtime.  As we were trying to reduce in-process inventory – the need for changeovers was increasing – we were hitting a kind of  a technical wall.

The high school kid ran around at first trying to persuade our sales and engineering departments that we needed to standardize and reduce the number of hole styles in our various products.  (if we could get it down to only 24 items, — then we would have enough stations in the turret and would never have to change over.)  Of course, our engineers and sales people had lots of reasons why this was not possible – not supported with evidence or data mind you – but lots of reasons none the less.

The solution he came up with was astonishingly simple.   It turns out that by using the press to strike multiple times with one die, you could make many different shapes.  (A 5cm square die could make not only a 5cm square hole, but if you struck it 4 times in adjacent locations, you could make a 10 x 10cm larger square, or by striking the die 5 times in a row, you could make a 5 x 25cm rectangle.)  I still wonder why not one of our experienced engineers could never see such a simple solution.  It took a young, completely inexperienced guy with a desire to succeed and a little encouragement.

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