Sunday, August 6, 2017

Avoiding Initiative Overload

As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 

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Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  

"I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

  • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
  • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
  • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
  • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort. 


  1. This is so often true! I once worked for a district where we felt that initiative had been turned into a verb because they occurred so frequently and had minimal impacts. It was perceived as one more thing being piled on us with no consideration to the human factor.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    Question would you suggest a teacher approach admin who have repeatedly had moments of numerous initiatives be raised up (with many failures or ideas fall by the wayside) and they don't realize they're doing it? Tony's 4 reasons hit it on the head.

    1. Well the easiest and most practical suggestion would be to somehow get this post into their hands or inbox ;) Now if that doesn't work here is another idea. As Principal I set up a forum for teaching representatives to attend and openly discuss pertinent issues. It was an opportunity for me to listen to legitimate concerns and then collaboratively plan with them to develop solutions. If something like this does not exist in your school then I would suggest to your admin to create it.