Hacking Simple Systems: The Tale of an Incomplete Soccer Uniform

” This blog post explores the latter: systems redesign as not just a means to innovate but as a means to make due, be resourceful, and get by as a mom.” Being scrappy and making things work within the current context is the only way new initiatives will thrive.

Making Thinking Happen

All dressed up but not quite ready to go. Tatum's daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do? All dressed up but not quite ready to go: Tatum’s daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author

When I used to think about systems redesign, and what would inspire a person to redesign something in the first place, images of super smarties standing next to state of the art tech contraptions immediately came to mind. Now that I’ve had a chance to work with Agency by Design as a member of the Oakland Learning Community, I realize that systems are everywhere. There are high tech systems, such as the parts and pieces that go together to make your car start in the morning, and low tech systems, say the parts and pieces that go together to transform your child into a soccer player. This blog post explores the latter: systems…

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Making It Happen: “When Change Has Legs”


The problem with new initiatives is that nobody wants another thing to do.  Everyone is full-up, drowning in a plate that is over-full.  Still, continuous improvement seems necessary.  Change , naturally, falls out of the need to get better at what we do.  Better means smarter; more focused and full of intent.  Embedding new frameworks and specific practices into our schools can be tricky.  Failure rates can be high and sustaining efforts over time requires keen leadership.

In a previous entry, I stated

For lasting change, we must build upon the good things that are already happening within the school ecology.

In an article written for Educational Leadership (“SPECIAL TOPIC: When Change Has Legs”), David Perkins and Jim Reese elaborate on four key factors that  help determine whether change efforts will be sustained over time.

“we might think of change as traveling on four legs: frameworks, leaders, community, and institutionalization.”



  • teachers are more likely to warm to frameworks they can adapt to their personal styles and circumstances
  • teachers can often work effectively with two or three frameworks simultaneously, as long as the frameworks are not contradictory

Roadblocks that thwart change

  • stiff, rigid frameworks with little room for individualization
  • juggling more than a few frameworks that don’t “fit” together well

What seems to work

  • allowing for individual implementation of the framework with frequent feedback from colleagues
  • choosing just a few roomy frameworks that fit well together.



  • Initiatives need a political visionary (often the principal) who advocates for the initiative relentlessly,   making it a priority, defending it against critics, explaining it to parents, appearing for key events, and allocating resources
  • They also need a practical visionary (often teachers) who is given the time and resources to manages the program on the ground, organizing faculty groups and events and conducting some training and coaching.

Roadblocks that thwart change

  • simply being “friendly” toward an initiative is not leading the initiative
  • administrators cannot easily play the dual role of political and practical visionary

What seems to work

  • Leadership with a slow but constant presence
  • The initiative is not a bulky mandate, but instead becomes more about “who we are”



  • widespread change efforts include a complex set of interactions
  • varying degrees of acceptance are to be expected and planned for by all
  • a collegial culture is crucial; transparency essential

Roadblocks that thwart change

  • a strong in-group and out-group can form if leaders are not careful about initial work
  • the polarization can grow, making success increasingly unlikely

What seems to work

  •  make information widely available to staff, community and other school leaders
  • recruit teachers with experience in new initiative to share stories; remain inclusive



  • sustaining over time is difficult as the context changes
  • initiatives need to be written into the school’s “dna”

Roadblocks that thwart change

  • practical and/or political visionaries leave
  • change was not planned for; momentum subsides

What seems to work

  • plan for teaching new staff
  • create a framework for sharing practices; place events on calendar

It is not enough to simply adopt a new initiative with integrity.  Instead, we must be intentional about HOW we put legs on the framework.  Our choices will determine the degree to which new practices emerge; change in practice becomes systemic.

Perkins and Reese add:

” The main point is that teachers like talking about teaching. So with a shared language and a shared approach there is loads of room for talking. It brings teachers out of their classrooms, their grades and their departments, and creates a more collaborative school environment.”

Perkins, David N. and Reese, James D.   “Special Topic:  When Change Has Legs“. Educational Leadership.  71 ( 8),     2014.  42-47. Print. Electronic.

If the Shoe Fits: Nurturing an Ecology

In a recent post, I highlighted an integrated plan for change that was created by one thoughtful staff at a public elementary school.  While the plan was created by the staff, based on their unique needs, it includes (as a vehicle for change) several “programs”.   Rollout can happen in one of two very different ways:    
  • We can “install” the system as a shiny, dangly “new” initiative
  • We can “build” the system within the current , complex ecology

The subtle, but important,  difference between the two methodologies is important to understand.  People do not embrace change if it is too bulky, too rigid, too boring or laborious.  Change must be graceful, even when it is somewhat disruptive.  

For lasting change, we must build upon the good things that are already happening within the school ecology.

I have written about The Genius of And and the false dichotomies that plague education.  I challenge people to step back and to modify how they view new initiatives.  They must be roomy enough to integrate what already is with what can be.

If the shoes fit, people will wear them.

An Integrated Plan for Change

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A thoughtful plan for improvement from an elementary school in Michigan

I had great fortune to work with a great school principal to discuss how we might support her school with one of its identified needs.   The picture is a visual representation of  the principal’s work with her staff over the past year to identify overarching needs and then engage in collective  inquiry around innovating change for the students.

The principal lead her staff  through a process whereby she built consensus to solve the identified problems.  Collaborative teams were formed and the focus was on learning.  The comprehensive, integrated plan for improvement includes a roll-out schedule for professional learning and implementation of the interventions articulated.  We were very impressed with how everything came together to support the identified needs.  Implementing this in a careful and thorough manner without taking on too much at once will be this school’s challenge.

In her article, Central Office Support for Learning Communities (embedded in Richard DuFour’s article Building a professional Learning Community)  Rebecca DuFour addresses the discouragement that comes from “disconnected, fragmented, competing initiatives generated from numerous central-office departments”.  Dufour makes two recommendations to central office administrators:  

” limit the number of new initiatives and coordinate the array of central office services”

This dedicated  elementary  school is in a position to innovate change effectively because they did the hard work first.   They will be able to refer to their overarching goals at all times to help them stay on track during implementation, monitoring and modeling of the work.