Vaccinate Against Solutionitis

Driven by urgency to discover and enact solutions, leaders often fail to first fully understand the context and causes of problems.

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Melrose Huang, writing for the Carnegie Foundation, defines solutionitis as the tendency to seize on solutions without adequate study of the problem or the context and system that produces the problem.  She further describes the problem with quick fixes is that they fail to address the entirety of complex problems.

Leaders who want to vaccinate themselves against solutionitis should answer these types of questions before committing to any solutions:

  • Have they discovered the cause of the problem?
  • Are they fixated with or championing a particular solution without considering alternatives or other perspectives?
  • Have they involved those who will implement the solution in its development?

Lillian Kivel, also writing for the Carnegie Foundation, recognizes the unfortunate appeal of solutionitis to educational leaders,

“Today in education, we are trying to achieve increasingly high aspirations. Simultaneously, key resources, such as time and money, seem constantly shrinking. Under this pressure of rising expectations and limited supports, we often rush to find solutions. The silver bullet that will suddenly help us to evaluate teachers seamlessly or that plug-and-play curriculum that will ensure high levels of student engagement are presented as solutions to pressing problems.”

How else can leaders resist the allure of jumping to quick fixes and instead commit to first investigating the causes and contexts of problems?  Share  your thoughts with me via Twitter 

“Going All In” to Develop and Support Principals

Principals make many crucial decisions each day, often with limited information, inadequate resources, and all within unforgiving time constraints.  Further, the consequences of making a mistake on any of these decisions can be devastating for the campus, school system, or the principal themselves.

Herbert O’Neil and Troy Mooney

The axiom, oft attributed to the U.S Navy SEALs, ”We do not rise to the occasion, but rather sink to the level of our training” is equally applicable to principals and other campus leaders.  Most leadership preparation programs fail to authentically prepare campus leaders for the crucial decision-making that is an essential part of their job. School systems need more effective leaders, authentically developed at a faster rate, and spread throughout all levels of their organization than most current district leadership preparation programs are scaled to produce. District executives must commit to creating an aligned, authentic, competency based system to recruit, select, develop, support, and evaluate leaders. Otherwise they fail to prepare their principals for the actual challenges they will encounter while leading their schools.


Tearing down “old fences” is often appealing to those new leaders who want to demonstrate their decisiveness to their new staff.  These “old fences” are the procedures and practices of the organization established by the previous leadership.

New leaders will be quickly approached by the staff who have particular practices or procedures that they want to be changed.  Rebuffed by the prior leadership, they see in the new leader a chance to mold things more to their liking. Their arguments may even be well thought out and are convincing since the new leader has no experience with their issue.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “Before you tear down a fence find out why it was built in the first place.”  This is good advice because with only the limited perspective of a new leader it may not be obvious what the unintended consequences of a procedure or practice change might be to the organization.  The “fence” was created for some reason.  Discover that first and then decide if a change is needed.

And if a change is needed, then involve everyone affected by that change in the development and implementation of the solution to the greatest degree possible. (Consider reading: What is 3iA?)


World War 1 began just over 100 years ago.  It is worthy of study for many reasons.  Hardcore History Podcast author Dan Carlin suggests that the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated the war, represents one of the most influential events in modern history.

The failed resolution of that world war created the framework for the next. The war also provides to us many illustrations of the abject failure of people to respond to innovative disruptions.

Germans in Lowicz

At the beginning of the war,  there were still people convinced of the use of horse cavalry as an effective attacking force in 1914.  Certainly cavalry had usefulness due to its mobility advantage and the lack of automobiles during this time, but several conflicts since the early 1800’s had revealed the disastrous effects of modern military technology on the mass cavalry charge.  Many cavalry units still carried spears and swords just like cavalry units had been armed for centuries.


Another tactic that was no longer effective was the infantry charge against a fortified position.   The disruptive innovation of constructing elaborate trenches and defending them with machine guns rendered this tactic obsolete yet it was repeated over and over throughout the war.  In one of the earliest engagements of the war, during the Battle of the Frontiers,  the French army suffered 27,000 dead in a single day.  Over 329,000 French soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the first 30 days of World War 1 as a result of their leader’s commitment to a now ineffective offensive strategy.  Yet, despite many other examples of these incredible losses, both sides were slow to adapt to these disruptive technologies and tactics that had now changed warfare.

Machine Gun World War 1-Jager Battaliaon n. 12 hoosiermarine

There was plenty of evidence that old ideas were no longer working.  Battlefield reports of failure and first hand observations were dismissed because they were not supportive of long-held beliefs about combat.  The leaders would not and in some cases could not react to the new reality of warfare despite sufficient data suggesting new approaches were needed.

Blockbuster video

The rise and fall of Blockbuster video is another more recent example of an organization failing to properly embrace disruption.  The company began in 1985 in Dallas, Texas and eventually became a Five Billion dollar company before declaring bankruptcy and shuttering operations in the United States in 2013. There are other reasons for Blockbuster’s failure, but certainly the too long commitment to the business model of the neighborhood brick and mortar video store contributed to its demise.  Online video, on-demand movies, and DVD subscription based services that eliminated onerous late fees had completely changed the industry.  Simply put, Blockbuster’s customers no longer wanted to rent and buy videos in the way Blockbuster wanted to offer them.

Most of us are not just slow to adapt to a new disruption but actively resistant.  We are good at teaching others old things that we already know but often fail to absorb lessons from new learning ourselves. We refuse to recognize that rules have changed.

What rules have changed in education?  What are you resisting learning because it is not aligned with your past experience? What new disruptions (or micro-disruptions) are you refusing to embrace?



Catastrophic implementation failure guaranteed in three easy steps.

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First, do not involve anyone who will actually be implementing your new idea in its development.  They probably have little to add and what they do offer you will have already considered and dismissed.  Involving people slows things down, blurs your laser focus, and may empower them into thinking their opinions matter on other issues.  Work out your idea with a small group of other high level leaders who will not be affected by any part of the new initiative.

Second, forego any staff training for your new idea.  Your staff is too busy to learn a new process that you will eventually abandon and replace next year.  Training costs money and time which should be hoarded for the inevitable damage control and backtracking that typically follows your program roll-outs.  If you feel you must train your staff then do it all by email.

Third, implement your program systemwide rather than through a smaller scale piloting program.  The best way to find flaws in your idea is having everyone implement it at once.

What are some other ways you can ensure that your new idea is DOR (Dead on Roll-out)?  Share with me via Twitter

If you think their is a better way to develop and implement solutions…


Catalytic meetings are those meetings that result in solutions identification, development or implementation victories for the organization.  Catalytic meetings, unlike some other meetings, are not a wasteful use of organizational resources.


Want to have catalytic meetings?  The following ingredients create the best opportunity for a catalytic meeting:

  • Participants  know beforehand what items they will be expected to discuss
  • Participants know their roles on each agenda item as either an Influencer or the Decision Maker.
  • Participants know that they are expected to contribute
  • Participants are given an opportunity to contribute
  • Participants do not leave the meeting without establishing “who does what for whom by when”

What other ingredients do you think create the best opportunity for a Catalytic meeting?  Share your ideas with me on Twitter

What is 3IA?

If we are honest with ourselves we have all been involved with ideas and initiatives that have failed because of a poor development or implementation (“roll-out”) strategy.  3IA offers is a pathway of thinking about your strategy for new ideas and initiatives. Involve Affected People, Impact Assessment, and Information Acquisition are the building blocks of a successful 3IA strategy.


Connect with me on Twitter to share your ideas and experiences with failed or successful development and implementation strategies.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  Empathy is also a necessary survival skill for leaders.

(Photo by Bryan Bope)

My mentor Danny Twardowski, currently the Superintendent of Waller Independent School District in Texas, would often tell me the following whenever I was wrestling over a complex decision or how to respond to a difficult issue:

As a principal, remember you have the power to help people or to hurt people.

Leaders have the authority to help people or hurt people.  Every day a leader can either remove obstacles or create them for their employees.  No well-meaning leader intentionally piles up obstacles but what about unintentionally?  How does a leader understand the impact of the decisions they make on their staff?  How do they understand the challenges and aspirations of those they lead? This deep level of understanding is impossible without empathy.


Visibility is about more than the principal’s location in the building.  Instead principals must move beyond passive visibility and actively engage their students and staff to build necessary relationships.

 (picture credit: Michael Brooking via Flickr)

In a recent article for Education Week, Peter DeWitt reminds principals that the idea that principals simply be visible in their schools is not enough:

They need to create authentic relationships with students. What Quaglia and Corso write about are not unreachable. Serving food to different grade levels, welcoming students off the bus, having dialogue with them in the hallway instead of asking them “Where are you supposed to be” in an authoritarian way can be easily done.

Principals have a real opportunity every single day to create the same kind of relationships with students that teachers do. The fortunate thing about being a principal is that they can foster those relationships over a number of years as students grow up through grade to grade. Through those moments students will learn that they truly do have a voice

Principals must move beyond “patrolling the building”  even beyond “checking up on classrooms” and instead actively engage the students and staff throughout the campus.  Intentionally starting conversations with reluctant students or providing a listening ear to staff will have a cumulative positive effect on campus culture.

What is RAVE?

RAVE is a pathway of thinking about your role as a leader. The four components of Rave are Responsiveness, Accessibility, Visibility, and Empathy. Leaders who utilize RAVE will be more effective at building professional relationships and developing belief and buy-in for their ideas and initiatives.

(To learn more about RAVE)