George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Collab Lab: An Experiment in Leadership and Growth

A high school principal’s experiment to encourage staff risk taking during a 1:1 launch year turned into a fluid, collaborative leadership model called the “Collab Lab.”

August 10, 2015

Editor's Note: Michael Podraza, Principal at East Greenwich (Rhode Island) High School, is on a mission to share and implement new ideas in education that will engage and empower students, educators, and school communities. This video looks at the planning and practice of a month-long experiment to model collaboration and risk taking by the school’s leadership team.

The 2014-2015 school year was East Greenwich High School's first year of 1:1 Chromebooks. Even with two years of planning and professional development for teachers and administrators, we still anticipated plenty of nervousness and fear of failure in the coming school year. It was with this in mind that I tried to support my faculty and encourage risk taking by labeling (and living) SY 14-15 as our "Year in Beta". I hoped that promoting risk taking in the classroom would benefit both teacher and student learning.

My assistant principal and I routinely survey faculty and staff throughout the school year to identify needs, gauge what we're doing well, and get perspective on where others believe we can improve. One day, we found the following feedback: "Living in beta is a nice idea, but many of us don't feel it day to day." This statement compelled me to reflect on whether my daily actions really supported the words that we promoted. This incident occurred around the same time that I visited Google's Boston headquarters, helping me realize that I needed to lead, not by words of reassurance, but by action.

Design for Desired Outcomes

Infused with this call to take action, we set out to make the Collab Lab a reality. One by one, I met with department chairs. "So, you up for an experiment?" I would ask. I was invigorated by the leadership team's positive responses to the following:


Increase opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinary connections between building leadership members, as well as providing future opportunities to create new learning spaces by changing the existing office spaces of the building leadership.


For one month, room 221A will become the academic leadership hub. Administration and department chairs will perform "interruptible" work here. When duties call for privacy or other considerations requiring a return to a traditional office setting, participants will catalog the type of work/duration/rationale on a Google Form. This information helps insure that adequate "private" and educational communal spaces are provided if this reconfiguration were to become permanent.

Potential Outcome

This trial will also contribute to the foundation of a redesign for other areas of East Greenwich High School. These areas would ultimately have a purpose, form, and function more closely aligned with our mission and core values.

All Aboard?!?

To get people on board and comfortable with this experiment, my assistant principal Timothy Chace and I took the following simple steps in designing this experience:

1. This is an "experiment."

By framing this change as an experiment, we increased our comfort level with the unknown. We also acknowledged that successful collaboration depends on many variables which must be explored (and potentially changed) to achieve the desired outcomes.

2. Debrief frequently.

We scheduled formal weekly sessions for participants to discuss what worked in the space and what didn't. As we openly and honestly communicated our observations and anxieties, some of our best collaboration occurred. We discussed our feelings, examined traditional work habits, and reached consensus about making the Collab Lab's work and the time we spent in the space more productive and enjoyable.

3. Set a timeline.

Designing this as a one-month experiment reduced the amount of "giving up" that we expected of participants, thereby reducing the perception of autonomous space "lost" to the new practice.

4. Ask "outsiders" for help.

By bringing in people unfamiliar with our culture, working conditions, and everyday relationships, we got fresh perspectives about our current environment, culture, and habits. Most importantly, these "outsiders" helped us acknowledge and discuss the "elephants in the room" without people taking it personally.

5. Give people what they really want: time!

Beyond purchasing some items to make the room more aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating, we repurposed desks, chairs, tables, and supplies from other classrooms. We kept our investment small and didn't manufacture new projects or create major tasks associated with this experiment. Educators are always having new things put on their plates, but we're terrible at taking things off our plates. We aimed for a cost-neutral experiment in terms of time allocation, hoping that the collaboration would be organic.

Lessons Learned and Do-Overs

As we redesign Collab Lab based on last year's experiences, we're considering the following:

1. Know what you're in for.

Collaboration is more than cordial conversations and collegiality. Collaboration is hard work, the collective commitment of participants to create meaningful outcomes. Difficult conversations must happen, egos must be put aside, and participants should be ready for results that look nothing like the original project or plan.

2. Have a destination, but don't be stubborn about the route.

I initially believed this experiment would model a willingness to innovate, take risks, and collaborate, leading to more collaboration directly with the leadership team, and that our collaboration would then gradually diffuse to the faculty, creating more opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration. However. . .

3. Go bigger than you planned.

Although we had the best of intentions, the "trickle-down" approach to fostering collaboration actually reinforces existing traditional hierarchies rather than breaking them down. One of the best parts of this experience for me was the team recognizing this paradigm after week one, and immediately shifting our thinking and actions to include everyone.

4. Don't take it personally.

There will be "no-shows." There will be scoffers at implemented protocols. There will be those who don't read the book that you gave as a present. Don't assume the worst. People are busy, and some protocols may inadvertently stifle rather than promote creativity. In the end, don't focus on who and what you didn't reach. Instead, focus, utilize, and celebrate who and what you did reach.

5. Sometimes, all you need to do is ask.

One of my biggest takeaways is that we shouldn't be afraid to ask. Take full advantage of relationships, and seize the opportunities from the people and organizations who offer to support an idea. For me, this means trusting a leadership team that's willing to try something new, reaching out to my professional networks for outside perspective and guidance, and digging into feedback from educators, even the stuff that you don't want to hear -- indeed, especially the stuff that you don't want to hear.

Moving Forward

The original design of the Collab Lab as documented in the above video has already evolved. What we originally intended as an experiment to model risk taking and increase collaboration between the school’s leadership team quickly improved through collaboration, opening up the space to include all members of the faculty.

In the coming school year, we'll continue to "hack" the Collab Lab. We'll continue to fail fast and learn from each new iteration. We will do so, not to insure a collaborative space, but to demonstrate our commitment to collaborating on work and learning that is meaningful, engaging, and empowering to our school’s community.

Stay tuned. Collab Lab 2.0 opens 8/31/2015.

The BIF Student Experience Lab partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to produce a free, online space for educators to discover and share creative ways of repurposing existing resources to give students opportunities for deeper learning. Go to School Hackers to find more school hacks or share your own.  

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