Sometimes the best way to innovate is to say no.
This may seem counterintuitive, but not if you talk to teachers or administrators who are dealing with initiative fatigue. Ask those educators to list the number of programs that are promoted in August and then completely forgotten by October—year after year after year.
We abandon initiatives for one of two reasons:
Overwhelmed abandonment: We lack the resources, primarily emotional energy, to persist.
Impatient abandonment: We are not patient enough to wait for results.
Abandoning initiatives for these reasons leads to frustration, disillusionment, and eventually, cynicism. Most importantly, these types of abandonment do not lead to productive innovations that benefit students.
We need what management expert Peter Drucker calls organized abandonment. Simply put, we cannot do everything well. If we attempt to be all things to all people, we will fail to do anything well. Therefore, school leaders should thoughtfully abandon those things that fail to serve students well, and even some things that would serve them well.
Using the Three Buckets Method
Bill Coon, award-winning principal of Meadow Glen Middle School in Lexington, South Carolina, is a strong believer in innovation. Coon brought EL Education to Meadow Glen—the first school in the state to use this model. The school’s mission statement is: “Learn by doing. Leading by example.”
At a recent convening of education leaders, someone asked Coon, “How do you and your teachers know which initiatives to pursue?”
Without hesitation, he responded, “If it is not in one of the three buckets that are part of our core mission [mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality work], then we don’t do it.”
With the three “buckets” or dimensions of achievement as a filter, Coon and his team determine how they will innovate based on what they will do and, maybe more importantly, what they will not do. These buckets encompass a great deal, but they also provide direction for when to say no.
Setting Up Rules to Help Say No
I recently conducted research in three high schools—one urban, one suburban, and one rural—to determine how they developed collective leadership, with teachers and administrators leading together.
Each school’s innovations employed “equifinality”—many ways of achieving a desired state. Because each context was different, they had to say no to different initiatives. For example:
No to PLCs: One school did not set aside time for formal professional learning communities because, with only 26 full-time teachers, there were too many “singletons”—teachers of subjects without any counterparts.
No to anything not in the SIP: Employing a method similar to the three buckets idea, one school’s leadership team used their school improvement plan (SIP) as their filter. Each spring, administrators, teachers, and students would participate in a two-day retreat to write the SIP. All initiatives were supported or rejected through this process.
No to traditional staff meetings: Another school had ended traditional staff meetings. Previously, 150 teachers would listen to a principal sharing what could have been communicated through an email. Staff meetings were now 30 minutes long, were led by teachers, and celebrated innovations occurring in classrooms and across the school.
Of course, innovation is about more than just saying no. These schools are saying yes to many grassroots ideas that are effervescing from the classrooms. Teacher leaders are making it easy for others to say yes because their ideas fit their school’s buckets of work—buckets they helped design.
Saying No to Good Things
What happens when a school is doing things really well, but there isn’t capacity—human or financial—to continue to do all of those things well? This is when innovation is really hard—and really important.
Innovation cannot be an add-on. Most administrators and teachers I know are working at or beyond their capacities. Innovation at many schools probably means streamlining good work that’s already happening.
One of the high schools I’ve studied prides itself on starting any club a student suggests. The goal is to create a safe space and sense of belonging for every student. This is a noble goal. However, over 40 clubs are sponsored by volunteer teachers, who do that work without any compensation. If the volunteer sponsorship is energizing for the faculty sponsors, this is great. If, however, faculty sponsors are being spread thin and losing energy for work that is closer to their own core missions or the school’s core mission, maybe some of these clubs should not exist. While there’s no compensation for the faculty sponsors, there is certainly a potential cost for individuals and the school.
Turning back to the example of Meadow Glen, many great initiatives there over the years did not fit into the three buckets. A cohesive and thoughtful leadership team had to determine those three buckets. Most initiative fatigue results from saying yes to too many good things too quickly. Maintaining focus requires discipline to determine how to use financial and human capital—especially when good initiatives might consume scarce resources. Sometimes we need to say no to good things in the interest of supporting the best things.
When it comes to innovation, saying no is more than OK—it’s essential. Remember, there is a no in innovate.