Leading Through Innovation, Experiments, and Prototypes

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of the Leadership+Design Recharge as "Test, Learn Scale: Leading with a Bias Toward Action."

Our schools have academic cultures, so it’s no wonder we foster a passion for research, analysis, and debate. When it comes time to plan a new initiative, that can mean a year of meetings and research to create one perfect plan – whether it’s a new schedule, program, or policy.

But how can we get the best out of that kind of critical thinking, while avoiding the pitfalls of “death by debate”?

One answer lies in the book Whiplash, which calls for a commitment to “practice over theory.” I agree. One “perfect” plan will be never be as good as what emerges from many imperfect plans, provided that they start on a small scale, change in response to reality, and grow in scale as they get better.

Not that theory in itself is bad. But I’d argue the best theories are empirical, rooted in a careful attention to practice. And we can accelerate the benefits of that learning by launching prototypes that allow people to see, touch, and respond to new ideas for our schools.

One example: Watershed, my current school, faced a challenge in communicating the value of our unique middle school program. Rather than hiring a marketing firm to research the needs of middle school parents (theory), we launched two web pages with two different sets of messages (practice). These two pages were hidden for people who didn’t know how to find them, but were live for the people we shared them with – allowing us to solicit feedback, allowing us to iterate until we landed on a single page that hit the most emotionally resonant messages for our audience.

Another example: when developing a new transcript to describe our unique program, we researched what other progressive schools were sharing with colleges and universities (theory). However, we used that research to quickly develop a prototype, sharing it with parents and colleges for feedback (practice). Critically, it allowed us to identify possible parent flashpoints – some of which we honestly wouldn’t have seen coming. Rather than being blindsided by a community pushback, we were able to make early revisions and avoid a political landmine.

A bias toward action doesn’t mean acting blindly. Organizations that embrace practice over theory should ask what peer schools have learned, and use that information to inform their prototypes. Similarly, we need to be committed to measuring progress, to making changes quickly in light of feedback, and to always communicating your process and goals with your community.

Here are some steps I’ve found useful when leading with a bias toward action:

1.     Enter into your experiment with a “theory of action,” which could be an insight about an unmet need, a pattern that needs to be disrupted, or an opportunity that can be seized.

2.     Develop a prototype before you launch on a small scale, and use that feedback to plan a pilot project.

3.     When you launch a live pilot project, don’t turn your back on it. The point is to learn! Expect that some things will go well and others won’t – watch for what’s not working, and use that to make changes quickly.

4.     Communicate with stakeholders when you’ve received feedback that led you to make a change.

5.     Run experiments at a scale where failure is both survivable and a source of learning for your school. For example, we’re currently experimenting with a new mid-semester narrative about student progress, and we’re trying it with our entering class because it was perceived to be the lowest stake moment to tinker with anything related to grades.

School leaders often avoid a robust process of experimentation because we worry we’ll fail, thereby garnering community backlash. My experience is that by engaging in experimentation transparently, you build trust in your commitment to a better school. When we finally launched our new transcript and grading system, we were able to communicate all of the ways we had solicited and responded to feedback. That transparency sped buy-in and led to one of the easiest parent meetings I’ve ever been part of.

But crucially, the same can true when things don’t go according to plan. Last year, I gave a green light to a new arts elective that just didn’t work and left some parents feeling that we hadn’t lived up to the quality of the experience they had come to expect from Watershed.

I left wishing I had experimented with this curriculum had a smaller scale first – for example, by running a four-day course during our spring Intensive Week rather than moving straight to a full semester course. I also wished I had paid more attention to the experiment early on, allowing us to pivot.

But when I wrote the parents in that class, acknowledging the mistake we made, I was able to call upon our commitment to experimentation. And I could outline the steps we’d take to make future experiments more successful. In the end, this kind of ownership heightened trust with our parents.

You can’t be a school of the future without your mistakes. But a well-executed bias toward action allows your community to try new initiatives at a scale where mistakes are survivable, learn, and scale when ready. This process moves more quickly – and achieves a higher level of quality than you would have reached through a deliberative process alone. 

But it also requires leaders to be learners, not knowers – to be comfortable searching for the right answer, rather than knowing it.

Greg Bamford