Re-Imagining Educational Reform in the United States



If the United States is to live up to its promise of a better life for all its citizens, improving school performance is a necessity . Education is understood to be society’s primary means of furthering individual and collective well-being; it is the basis for wealth.   If we continue to accept declining education performance we also accept its consequences:  continued decline in economic and political power.

Previously, in the largest ever global school rankings to date Asian school systems took the top 5 places; the United States (US) was 28th.

It isn’t for want of trying.  Trombly (2014) characterizes his experiences with school improvement initiatives this way:

“Anyone who has spent any appreciable time in American schools during the last two decades, whether as a classroom teacher, a parent volunteer, a central office administrator, a paraprofessional, or – like this writer – a school counselor and a school principal, can attest to schools’ long history of changing “routinely and promiscuously,” to borrow Elmore’s (2004) colorful phrase. (p. 219).” (p.40)

As global educational systems came under pressure to produce citizens capable of participating in the new global economy, the so-called knowledge workers, traditional education was believed to be insufficient to meet students’ and society’s needs.  In sharp contrast to the US results, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada, successfully reformed their educational systems.



Noting that the performance of its students had plateaued, in 2003 Ontario initiated a system-wide reform program where it identified key nodes in the education system by soliciting feedback from all stakeholders at all levels through a variety of forums and panels.
Additional actions, taken together, created an interconnected network of educators, providing feedback loops between and across sectors and levels, hoping to address goals not by introducing a single new curriculum or program, but by aligning all levels of the system and providing what the actors had identified as lacking – professional development. Results were impressive:

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows the rapid and sustained rise in Ontario students’ reading and math scores following initiation of their reform program.

Hong Kong

One of the best examples of successful implementation of whole system reform is Hong Kong. Jensen et al. (2012) 

An intensive and extensive analysis that included government officials, academics, school teachers and administrators in a 20 month long process that involved over 10,000 people at 34 different seminars and forums learned that learning was too exam-driven and lacked room for creativity and exploration.

To be competitive in the newly ascendant knowledge-based economy requires life-long learning with strong critical thinking and communication skills.  Two key nodes in the Hong Kong education system were addressed to create these student outcomes:

1. Improve teaching
2. Reduction in high-stakes testing in favor of more formative approaches.

Overall, Jensen et al.’s (2012) study of the transformation of Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai consistently found several network-based (complex) approaches present.
The success of these five system-wide transformations suggests that the path to successful educational reform lies through complexity science; in order to be successful, reform initiatives must incorporate complexity science into the reform process.

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Asian Schools Top Global Rankings

education21The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published the largest ever global school rankings and Asian school systems make up the top 5 places:

1. Singapore
2. Hong Kong
3. Korea
4. Japan
5. Taiwan
6. Finland
7. Estonia
8. Switzerland
9. Netherlands
10. Canada

28. United States

The report notes once again the poor performance of the United States, slipping behind successful European countries and being overtaken by Vietnam. The US’s sustained decline in educational performance raises questions about its educational system compared with those of the highest performing countries.

Two US school systems, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) (FL) and St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) (MN), may illustrate why the US system is not progressing, particularly when compared with a well performing system, the Ontario (CN) School System.
Both US school districts are embroiled in controversy secondary to racial discrimination: ‘Failure Factories‘ documents the changes in 5 Pinellas County elementary schools following discontinuation of busing in 2007.
St. Paul Public Schools (MN) (SPPS) Superintendent Valeria Silva’s focus on establishing racial-equity as the primary driver for closing St. Paul schools’ ‘opportunity gap,’

“…first, a push to return students with behavioral challenges to mainstream classes and keep them there; and, second, a push to expose every adult in the system to training on white privilege and its impact on the classroom…”

…is indeed a tectonic shift in the way we think about and confront the role of race in the classroom. But the implementation of Silva’s policies seems to be rubbing some people the wrong way, causing rifts among the teachers, administration and parents, and sending out shock waves that threaten to undo what Silva has accomplished.
Ontario has become one of the world’s best school systems since inauguration of its improvement initiative in 2003.

To evaluate, compare and contrast, to judge the respective educational systems, a set of standards will be developed. That will be the subject of the next post.

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Pinellas “Failure Factories” Urged to Retool with Complexity to Boost Performance

hqdefault“How many more years of your life do you want to spend making colored water when you can have an opportunity to change the world?” – Steve Jobs to John Scully who at the time was considering joining Apple or Pepsico  (Kurtzman 1997)

This paper outlines how “Failure Factories”, and the Pinellas County School (PSC) system in general, can be successfully “retooled” using the lens of Complexity Theory to guide reform. Complexity-informed approaches to system-wide school reform have produced exciting improvements in student performance in Ontario, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Shanghai, four or the world’s top five performing school systems in terms of PISA results.
PCS’ current programs and improvement processes aren’t working because they’re designed to tackle complicated problems and are ineffective – and inappropriate – choices for working in the complex school environment. If we want to improve PCS performance, and maybe change the world, we need to select the right tool, complexity theory.



Education is society’s primary means of furthering individual and collective well-being.
The performance of the education system and by extension the economic system is seriously compromised by the acute and long term effects of endemic racial bigotry. (Guevera 2014) “Failure Factories” is the latest expose to shine a spotlight on the human consequences of ill designed and prosecuted education policies meant to address this issue.

The human consequences are not entirely confined to the black community, however. The educational performance of the black community is like the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine.’ While the symptoms of the education system’s ills are more clearly visible in the black community than the white, there are fundamental problems with the way education is delivered to all students. (Trombly 2014, p. 50)
A key reason that remedies meant to alleviate racism’s effects are instead ineffective stems from the nature of education systems themselves. How they are organized, the work in which they are engaged, and the fact that they are populated by, and exist to service, human beings, schools – like the overall system of education of which they are a part – are complex.

simple complicated and complexFigure 1. Simple, Complicated and Complex Problems

Most approaches to change, including those employed in Pinellas schools, are based on a complicated model, a rational planning approach dependent on expert driven design conceptions. The assumptions underlying the complicated model are inconsistent with the realities of complex systems. Experts devise a policy targeting a single or relatively small set of problems and launch it, believing (or at least hoping), that the solution they are advocating is whole, complete, widely replicable and easily actionable. All that is then left is to wait for the results and see if the metaphorical rocket reaches the moon. Iterative feedback is often limited in this approach, and flexibility is not often a high priority in the initiative’s design. Hence policies and strategies based on them likely are not only ineffective in achieving their goals, but can also have significant negative unintended consequences when applied in complex systems.

None of the interventions that were targeted at alleviating the effects of racism: court ordered busing, its ending in 2007 and subsequent inauguration of so-called neighborhood and magnet schools, were designed for use in a complex system; they therefore could not have been expected to be effective. Indeed, they probably have been deleterious. (Glouberman and Zimmerman, 2002 p. 1)


Modern complexity theory grew out of work on general systems theory done by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Weiner’s work on cybernetics, both occurring in the 1940s and 50s. Open systems such as living organisms or systems of actors with individual motives and behaviors, using positive and negative feedback as governing mechanisms, were able to organize themselves and allow new patterns of behavior to emerge.

Complex a SystemsFigure 2. Complex Adaptive Systems

“These three concepts – self-organization, emergence and feedback – are at the heart of modern complexity theory. Their decidedly non-mechanistic approaches and resistance to reductionism make a worldview based on these principles starkly different from the traditional scientific approach taken to system management that had preceded this work. The traditional model of policy making in which design precedes and is distinct from implementation, should be replaced by one of experimentation.” (Snyder, S. 2013 p.11)
Key to all this is the fact that there is often no guiding central hand in the evolution of the system. In fact the history of complexity science may be drawn around the slow emergence of the realization that one must give up control if complexity is going to happen. What can be done is create a fertile environment to encourage emergence and work to create processes that maximize feedback.

Conditions for Emergence

“An education for the future is better understood as being oriented toward the as-yet imagined – indeed the currently unimaginable. Such a goal can only be understood in terms of exploration of the current spaces of possibility.
“Education conceived as expanding the space of the possible rather than perpetuating entrenched habits of interpretation must be principally concerned with ensuring the conditions for emergence of the as-yet unimagined. (Davis and Sumara 2006, p. 135)
“Complex emergence happens on the edge, where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo, and where even the most entrenched old guard will be overthrown.” (ibid, p. 136)

  1. Specialization – the dynamic balancing of diversity and redundancy. Where internal diversity is outward-oriented, in that it enables novel actions and possibilities in response to contextual dynamics, internal redundancy is more inward-oriented, enabling the habituated, moment-to-moment interactivity of the agents that constitute a system. In complexity terms, equity is not about sameness of opportunity, influence or expression; it is about freedom to pursue particular interests in the service of group possibility.
  2. Trans-level learning – incorporating decentralized control and neighbor interactions. In a complex social system, the ‘object’ at the center is never an individual, but an idea, a shared commitment, a common purpose, a collective orientation, an emergent possibility.
  3. Enabling constraints – balancing randomness and coherence. Complex systems are rule-bound. The common feature of these constraints is that they are not prescriptive, but proscriptive – conditions one must avoid in order to survive. As Johnson phrases it, complex emergence occurs in
    a) “rule-governed systems: their capacity for learning and growth and experimentation derives from their adherence to low level rules…Emergent behaviors, like games, are all about living within boundaries defined by the rules, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts.” (Ibid, p.148)
    b) The structures that define complex social systems maintain a delicate balance between sufficient coherence to orient agents’ actions and sufficient randomness to allow for flexible and varied response. Such situations are matters of neither “everyone does the same thing,” nor “everyone does their own thing,” but “everyone participates in a joint project.” (Ibid. p. 148-9)

Education Complexity in Ontario

Ontario’s approach beginning in 2003 to system wide education reform went about identifying key nodes by eliciting feedback from all stakeholders at all levels thru a variety of forums and panels. Ministers and deputy ministers met regularly with provincial officers, teachers and principals, and outreach programs were launched to parents and community groups to outline the key goals of the program and processes by which they would be achieved.
Quoting a source from their research for a 2010 McKinsey report, Mourshed et all. Wrote:
“Ontario did not centrally script and cascade new teaching and learning practices to all classrooms. Instead, it focused on cultivating school-led innovation and improvement. As one Ontario system leader described, “We minimized the amount of directing or mandating we did. Instead, we needed methods to get school professionals’ ideas so we could build on them. We regularly brought people together to share their practices and exchange ideas. We did almost no mandating of specific strategies – we got them to develop their own plans. We didn’t micromanage schools or districts in this process. We empowered them.” (Snyder, S. 2013 p. 19)
The actors were allowed, through intentionally created feedback mechanisms, to design their own reform process, and the results, as can be seen in Figure 1, have been impressive.ontario student performance

Figure 1 shows the rapid and sustained rise in Ontario students’ reading and math scores following initiation of their reform program.

Education Complexity in Hong Kong

“One of the best examples of the successful implementation of whole system reform can be found in Hong Kong. Jensen et al. (2012) studied the intensive analysis undertaken by the Educational Commission of Hong Kong. This involved government officials, academics, school teachers and administrators in a 20-month long process with the participation of over 10 000 people at 34 different seminars and forums.
“This tidal wave of feedback was solicited to obtain an in-depth understanding of the current challenges and the context in which they were occurring. As in Ontario, continuous and iterative feedback was viewed as a key component of the reform. Indeed, mechanisms for dialogue created during this process still continue, with weekly meetings of working groups representing stakeholders at various levels, the Education Bureau, and the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority.
“The lesson learned from this feedback was that learning was too exam-driven and lacked room for creativity and exploration. Teaching had become a one-way passive process; whereas what was wanted was a change in outcomes to life-long learners with strong critical thinking and communication skills that would allow them to be competitive in a knowledge-based economy.
“Did it work?
“In 2001, Hong Kong ranked 17th out of 35 countries in the Program of International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) test. By 2006, it had risen to 2nd place and trailed the leading country by a single point.
“Hong Kong also excels in recent PISA tests: in 2009 Hong Kong placed 3Rd in Math and Science and 4th in Reading; and in 2012 Hong Kong placed 3Rd in Math and 2nd in Science and Reading.”
(Snyder, S. 2013,p. 22-3)

Appendix A

Modeling Complexity

“The system of health care involves networks of networks or systems of systems that involve an enormous number of independent stakeholders. If education is approached by analyzing each element and designing how each one should function, rebuilding the system would be overwhelming. Therefore health care must be addressed in a different way – as a complex adaptive system (CAS).

“Here health care is the CAS, but concepts are equally applicable to education. Patients/consumers are similar to students and doctors/providers perform functions similar to teachers.
high level capacityFigure 1 provides a high level look at the complexity of the overall healthcare delivery network.

Design Principles
“First, the value provided to consumers and the payment received for this value determine the financial potential for all of the other players in the network.
“Second, the overarching strategy should focus on increasing complexity where it can be managed best (usually business-to-business) and decreasing complexity for end users. The idea of consumer directed health care, however, is going in the opposite direction in that it increases complexity for consumers, and possibly for providers. Using other markets as benchmarks, this push is expected to fail or at least to have limited success.
comparative levels of complexityFigure 2. Comparative levels of complexity for five markets.

Design implications
“ CAS cannot be designed in the same sense as a car or industrial process because CASs learn, adapt and self-organize; in effect they keep redesigning themselves. Management philosophy traditionally minimizes cost. Education must be managed to maximize value.
“Value relates to the benefits of outcomes, rather than the outcomes themselves. We should interest ourselves in productivity improvements attributable to being well educated. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, the intellectual assets embodied in people are central to achieving economic growth and personal happiness.
“Value implies relevant, usable and useful outcomes. Stakeholders must understand the management philosophy otherwise dysfunctional behaviors may result.
“Since no one is in charge of a CAS, the management approach should emphasize leadership – influence – rather than power. Command and control must be replaced with incentives and inhibitions. Instead of optimizing efficiency the learning and adaptive characteristics of a CAS should be leveraged to encourage decision-making that facilitates redeploying resources to address opportunities and problems rather than throttled by optimization focused on out-of-date requirements.
“Work is done by heterarchies, whereas permissions are granted and resources provided by hierarchies. Decision-making authority and resources should be delegated to the heterarchy with the right incentives and inhibitions.
“The organizations that succeed are those that convince and incentivize consumer behavior that co-creates high-value outcomes. Success for the education system depends on providers seeing themselves as ensuring high-value outcomes, rather than being reimbursed for the costs of their services.
“In general, incentives are essential to CAS. Payments to providers should reflect the value of the outcomes achieved regardless of the cost incurred to achieve them. Poorly informed and/or out of date practices should be disincentivized.”
Rouse, W., “Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for Design and Management”, The Bridge, 2008, Vol 38, No. 1. p. 17-25

Appendix B

Implementation Suggestions

“A key to all of this is the fact that there is often no guiding central hand in the evolution of the system. School and community culture, economic factors, parenteral achievement, health issues, local and national politics, and any number of other diverse inputs play a role and can only be captured and made a part of the system’s development by bringing all actors into the process. In short, launching an initiative targeted at only a single, identifiable problem is akin to throwing a pebble into the ocean. Viewing problems in isolation and seeking reductionist approaches targeting specific policy areas or pedagogical changes is unlikely to yield positive, sustainable change on a large scale,
“In order to create more than a ripple the intricate web of different intersecting systems must be better understood and modeled so that pressure may be applied to the system at as many key points and by as many actors across as many levels as possible. A shift in emphasis is needed away from the analysis of individuals and outcomes to an analysis of processes and a shift in institutional culture toward greater systemic engagement among all actors and levels.
“Addressing singular issues misses larger issues that may, and often do, have significant impacts. One cardinal rule in systems reform is never, ever, endorse one factor at a time as key.
“Framing the approach to reform in this manner changes the lens to a more inclusive one that is process-driven rather than outcome driven. The reform becomes an organic changing process rather than a preordained solution formulated in the realm of the complicated and reliant upon all the actors within it to succeed. Policies must move from one-size fits all solutions to interactive processes derived from constant feedback between all stakeholders. Taking a “participatory democracy” approach, that is, incorporating parents, teachers, employers and community groups in the decision making process, seems to show a positive impact on schooling and/or greater effectiveness or efficiency in education.
“Taking a complex view of the educational system requires leaders to step back and observe all systemic effects rather than focusing purely on the initiatives in play and the hoped-for outcomes. Broader cultural shifts as well as secondary and tertiary changes may take place, and if the ground has been properly prepared and the feedback loops are in place to guide systemic evolution, beneficial secondary effects can occur. Involving virtually all stakeholders in a complex approach not only helps to isolate core nodes to address, but can also help to ensure greater trust and broader buy-in at all levels in the hopes of making the reforms sustainable over the longer term.
“This requires strong leadership at all levels and a new lens that focuses on the complex interactions of the actors within educational systems and subsystems, creating a broader view of educational systems as a holistic organisms. Rethinking education governance as the building of effective networks of strong independent schools collaborating continuously, and sharing knowledge both horizontally and vertically creates a stronger and more reactive holistic system. This makes the problem of educational governance complex rather than complicated since solutions are not necessarily replicable and transferable. Adopting a complex approach would mean moving from a conventional governance model like that pictured below in which there is little interaction horizontally and vertical channels are restricted and flow only through certain key personnel, to a more open, iterative structure akin to one pictured:”traditional model of govenanceeducation as a loosely coupled system
If our goal is “every school a great school,” then policy and practice have to focus on system improvement. This means that a school head has to be almost as concerned about the success of other schools as he or she is about his or her own school. Sustained improvement of school is not possible unless the whole system is moving forward.
• Design ways for collaboration and interaction to be continuous.
• Make reforms iterative, experimental and flexible. Do not launch a finished product, but roll out an idea for consideration.
• Adapt a “non-deficit” approach to reform. I.e. avoid the assumption that the current system is dysfunctional because of the individuals within it.
• Focus on a few key nodes and pursue them collaboratively. Do not attempt to address every systemic ill.
• Engage and energize teachers through collaborative research and longer term peer-to-peer mentoring.
“Collective capacity is when groups get better. The big collective capacity and the one that ultimately counts is when they get better conjointly – collective, collaborative capacity, if you like. Collective capacity generates the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching…Moral purpose, when it stares you in the face through students and your peers working together to make lives and society better, is palpable, indeed virtually irresistible. The collective motivational well seems bottomless. The speed of effective change increases exponentially.”


Davis and Sumara, “Complexity and Education. Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research.” Routledge, NY, 2006.
Fullan, M., “Large-scale reform comes of age,” in J Educ Change (2009) 10:101-113.
Glouberman and Zimmerman, “Complicate and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?” Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada,2002.
Guevera, P, “Toward a Common Structure in Demographic Educational Modeling and Simulation: A Complex Systems Approach,” in Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education Vol. 11 (2014) pp. 86-101.
Kurtzman, J., “An Interview with Warren Bennis,” in strategy + business, 1997, Vol. 8 pp. 1-14.
Rouse, W., “Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for Design and Management,” The Bridge, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 7-25.
Snyder, S. (2013), “The Simple, the Complicated, and the Complex: Educational Reform Through the Lens of Complexity Theory”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 96, OECD Publishing.
Trombly, C., “Schools and Complexity,” in Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education Vol. 11 (2014) pp. 40-58.

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What Can Steve Jobs Teach Us About Improving Pinellas County Schools?

steve_jobs“The [Pinellas County Schools(PCS)] District Strategic Plan 2014-2015 is composed of the vision, mission, values, strategic direction and goals of Pinellas County Schools…

“The goals and action plans of the District Strategic Plan are the focus and driving force of the District. All decision-making, planning, resource allocations, and other activities affecting the plan year and beyond shall support these plan goals and action plans.”

 Each year Pinellas County Schools, teachers and students are evaluated on their performance. Evaluation may trigger changes that affect the schools, teachers and students. Evaluations don’t, however, reflect the reality that for all concerned that the quality of the educational experience is a direct result of the quality of the District Strategic Plan (DSP). To really improve PCS’s educational performance, attention needs to be directed further upstream, at the source: the DSP and the process that produces it.

Three quotations from one of Silicon Valley’s foremost icons, Steve Jobs, provide perspective:

  1. “In your life you only get to do so many things and right now we’ve chosen to do this, so let’s make it great.”

    How poignant, considering Jobs’ life was cut short by pancreatic cancer at arguably the high point of his career.

    “Well before he became Disney’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter recalls his first meeting with Steve Jobs after Jobs bought Pixar in 1986. Lasseter was working on a short film at the time and, at the end of the meeting, Lasseter says Steve Jobs asked him to do one thing: “Make it great.” The short, Tin Toy, went on to win the first academy award ever given for computer animation and set the foundation for what later would become Toy Story. (Lasseter has told the story publicly a few times, most recently in this emotional tribute at Disney’s D23 Expo. The story begins at 8:30.) Lasseter said those three words—make it great—have applied to every frame of every Pixar movie he worked on.” 10 Powerful Quotes From The Steve Jobs Movie And What They Teach Us About Leadership, by Carmine Gallo, Forbes.

    Would you describe Pinellas County Schools as ‘great?’ Undoubtedly there are many great people at PCS. Every day they create great things. But some terribly disappointing things happen, too.

  2. “The greatest artists like Dylan, Picasso and Newton risked failure. And if we want to be great, we’ve got to risk it too,” said Jobs.
    “You’ve got to be willing to crash and burn. If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.” “…and that’s what separates the people who do things from the people who just dream about them.” Ibid.

    Great organizations support risk taking; failure is accepted, even encouraged. A great example is Silicon Valley. In Decoding The Contradictory Culture of Silicon Valley, Jeanne G. Harris and Iris Junglas explain:

    “People in Silicon Valley are very pragmatic: they understand that successes are typically built on many failures. And they realize that failures, even repeated failures, are part of the process and should be viewed as opportunities to learn, grow and improve.”

    How would you describe the culture at PCS?

  3. “If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you,…you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.  The best ideas have to win, otherwise the best people won’t stay.” Golden Rules By Steve Jobs (Video)

    If PCS is going to be great, “…The best ideas have to win…”

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Pinellas County Schools Can Learn A Lot From Starbucks

coffee wall plaqueI love coffee. I drink it all day long. From the time I get up in the morning almost until I go to bed at night, I’ve got my coffee.

Almost all the people I know drink coffee, too. Maybe not as much or as often as I do, but they enjoy their coffee. Each one of them seems to have their own favorite way of drinking it, too. There must be almost as many different ways to drink coffee as there are people.

Just hang out at your local Starbucks sometime and note what people order. See how many ways people want to have their coffee. Nowadays people expect to be able to customize almost any product or service they buy or use so that it fits their individual needs, and rightly so.

Then imagine yourself at Starbucks and this happens when you order: “I’d like my usual special deluxe soy/skim mixture latte’ macchiato with lite whipped cream and no-sugar-caramel topping in the thermos cup so I can sip on it while I drive to work,” and the barista says something like, “Sorry, this week everyone receives our most popular coffee, café Americano. Would you like cream and/or sugar?” You say, “What is going on here? I’d like my usual please.” (S)he says, “This is the 3rd week in September and Starbucks has scheduled everyone to have café Americano all week.” “Next week you get Brazilian.” “Cream and/or sugar?”

“This is absurd,” you say as you leave holding a large paper cup of café Americano with 2 sugars and 2 creams. “This isn’t the coffee I wanted.”

If it sounds absurd, it should. Maybe fifty or sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, when top-down hierarchies and bureaucracy were the norm, it was common to have to take what you were given without asking questions. But that was then. Nowadays we expect to get a say in things that affect us, right?


Then why do we allow public schools to patronize us in the same way today that they did in the 50’s? Why do we accept the way public schools teach our children: according to a centrally planned, predetermined schedule in a predetermined way, without allowing children or parents or even, for the most part, teachers to participate in creating the learning experience?

Back in the 50’s learning and coffee were pretty much the same: percolated; continually cycling the brew through the grounds until it’s ‘done;’ standardized; bland; unimaginative.

Thankfully, since then coffee has evolved. Public schools haven’t. They still teach pretty much the same way that they did back in the 50’s.

We need for schools to change. Schools need for students, parents and teachers to participate in creating the educational experience. It’s called co-production. Another name for it is democracy.



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How Principles of Competition and Strategy Can Improve Pinellas Schools


“You can call any plan or program a strategy, and that’s how most people use the word. But a good strategy, one that will result in superior economic performance, is something else. More simply put, you have found a way to perform better by being different.”–Joan Magretta


How Silicon Valley Can Help Pinellas Schools introduced Pinellas County School’s (PSC) fundamental inability to negotiate the accelerating social changes driven by technology.

One of the reasons – for PSC and for Florida and the US as well – is a misunderstanding of the concepts ‘competition’ and ‘strategy.’

The misunderstanding is readily apparent by evaluating Superintendent Michael Grego’s initiative to advance the district’s vision of “100% Student Success,” and PSC’s new Strategic Plan.

‘Competition’ according to Michael Porter is a race to be unique, not a race to be “the best.”  As Joan Margretta explaines in Understanding Michael Porter,  (A summary can be found here.) only by competing to be unique can an organization achieve sustained performance.

  • Competition is always a struggle for the biggest share of the value an industry creates. It’s not about who is biggest, but who is most profitable.
  • Competitive advantage is not about what you’re good at. Rather, competitive advantage is derived from having a better value chain and a superior P&L (profit and loss) than others.
  • Focusing on being unique is a healthy way to think about competition because it means competition is going to be multidimensional and more complex than doing just one thing well.
  • The best way to achieve and maintain a competitive advantage is to work towards being different from your rivals. Build your value chain around a unique configuration of activities and then work toward capturing the maximum amount of created value that you can.

‘Strategy’ in practical terms is the antidote to competition. Great strategies are defined by their ability to pass five tests:

  1. Do you offer customers unique value?
  2. Do you perform activities differently?
  3. Have you made smart tradeoffs?
  4. Is what you do a good fit with your organization?
  5. Is there continuity and consistency in what you do?

The 10 practical implications which come from revisiting Michael Porter’s works are:

1. Vying to be the best in your industry is an intuitive approach to competition but it always ends up being self-destructive over the long haul.

2. Size or growth in and of themselves are meaningless because they are profitless. The whole aim of competing is to be profitable, not to maximize your market share.

3. Gaining competitive advantage is not really about beating your rivals. Rather, it’s about how you create and deliver unique value to your customers. If you have a competitive advantage, it will show up in your P&L.

4. A distinctive value proposition is essential for strategy, but strategy is more than just marketing. If your value proposition doesn’t require a specialized value chain to deliver it, it will have no real strategic relevance.

5. It isn’t necessary or even feasible that you “delight” every potential customer that exists. In practice the sign of a good strategy is that you deliberately make some customers unhappy.

6. No strategy means much until you make clear what your organization will not do. Making these trade-offs is the linchpin that makes competitive advantage feasible and also sustainable.

7. Never underestimate nor overestimate the importance of good execution. Executing well is unlikely to be the source of a sustainable advantage but without it, even the most brilliant strategy imaginable will fail to produce superior performance.

8. Good strategies always depend on many choices rather than just one, and on the connections among them. A core competence in and of itself will rarely generate a sustainable competitive advantage.

9. While flexibility in the face of uncertainty sounds good, the reality is an organization which stands for nothing will never excel at anything. Too much change can be just as dangerous for strategy as too little.

10. Committing to a strategy does not require that you make heroic predictions about the future. Instead, making a commitment improves your ability to innovate and ultimately your capacity to adapt to turbulence.


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How Silicon Valley Can Help Pinellas Schools



The contest for Pinellas County School Board Member in District 6, incumbent Linda Lerner, 71, against challenger Maureen Ahern, 54, focuses on their differing viewpoints on various education related issues.  (The issues are highlighted in two articles, one in The Tampa Bay Times by Lisa Gartner and the other by Anastasia Dawson in The St. Petersburg Tribune.)  There are, however, more fundamental issues that deserve our, and the School Board’s, attention, where Silicon Valley can help.

Lerner is the longest-serving School Board member in Pinellas County history, first elected to the board in 1990. She is seeking her seventh term and a 28-year tenure.  She says most Pinellas schools are doing well and that the district is moving in the right direction. The successful reforms she has championed while on the board as well as her goals for the school system reflect my own education-related beliefs.

But I also sympathize with Lerner’s challenger, Maureen Ahern, a former newspaper journalist who believes that “Our children don’t have more time; they only get one childhood education.”  The school district has spent years battling a large achievement gap between black and white students, and she feels it’s time to “figure out what to do and just do it, not keep talking about it.”

Technology is driving social change at an ever  increasing pace.   Organizations of all types and functions, especially schools, must respond or become irrelevant.  To help appreciate the magnitude and speed of social change watch the PBS TV program “The American Experience: Silicon Valley”  (Transcript), then read Decoding the Contradictory Culture of Silicon Valley, by Jeanne G. Harris and Iris Junglas.

Keeping Silicone Valley’s culture in mind, review SPCs recently approved comprehensive strategic plan, the district’s vision of “100% Student Success,” and Pinellas Innovates.

How can SPC evolve new thinking and practices?  Several observations present themselves:

  1. While the district may be, in Lerner’s words, ‘moving in the right direction,’ that gives us neither an idea of what the goals are nor sense of what it will take to reach them, not to mention to answer the question  of ‘whose goals are they anyway?’   The district needs to articulate a coherent, meaningful vision of its goals from a student perspective, a so-called “value proposition.”   Developing its value proposition is one of the first steps in the process of re-imagining PSC’s strategic plan using  Michael Porter’s concept of competitive advantage,   A summary can be found here.
  2. Superintendent Michael Grego’s initiative to advance the district’s vision of “100% Student Success,”   however admirable it may be, is misdirected.  Vying to be the best is an intuitive approach to competition, but always ends up being self-destructive over the long haul.  Competition should be thought of as a race to be unique.   Trying to be “the best” is competition in the most destructive sense. Only by competing to be unique can an organization achieve sustained innovation/performance. 
  3. Silicon Valley’s successful companies, Intel, for example, feature ‘flat’ rather than hierarchical, top-down management structures.   Collaboration is expected.  The Pinellas School System (as well as state and national education departments),  is a top down, bureaucratic, hierarchical  organization that allows little or no input from citizens on policies that affect themselves and their children.  A remedy for this condition is to establish schools where parents, teachers, superintendents and other stakeholders participate meaningfully in the decision making process.
  4. The school system continually imagines itself as a factory producing watches.   It employs rigorous micromanagement to make sure the watches ‘work’ as expected.   Educating children is not like assembling watches; it is neither simple like a thermostat nor complicated like an airplane. It is complex like the weather, i.e. continuously changing in response to inputs from the environment.  We need to be growing children into mature adults rather than manufacturing machines.

We will examine other ways to address these observations in future posts.

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New St. Petersburg Business Incubators Not Enough


When up and running in a year or so, St. Petersburg’s leaders expect two new business incubators,  one slated to be located just south of downtown near the USF-St. Petersburg campus, in walking distance of All Children’s and Bay Front Hospitals, and a smaller incubator already planned for downtown St. Pete by St. Petersburg College, to jump start the evolution of a national and international health and wellness technology cluster in the Tampa Bay area.

It will take more than two  new business incubators to transform St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area, however.

Clusters are geographic concentrations of companies, suppliers, related industries, and specialized institutions such as academic programs –think Silicon Valley (technology), or Hollywood (entertainment). Clusters are prominent features of all successful and growing economies, and a crucial driver of entrepreneurship, technology, competitiveness and new business growth.

Clusters and the higher productivity that fosters them result not from the inputs an area has per se, but from how well a location uses local assets and institutions to produce valuable goods and services.

Policy makers and executives through their choices create a business environment that affects how areas evolve economically.

In fact there are many examples of societies that were technologically superior but not able to advance economically: China in 1400, the Arab World at about the same time, or in the case of firms, General Motors in the 1970s.

According to Michael Porter, a globally recognized expert on business competition and competitiveness, entrepreneurship is just one of a variety of inputs that are necessary for developing higher productivity.

Also needed is a social/political/cultural/legal environment that fosters its application.  The environment consists of, for instance, good public education, health care, and physical infrastructure, clean water, fair competition laws, management and organization of people, transparency, research and development, as well as many others.

There are many motivations for starting a company, but one of the most common threads is that company founders believe they can do better than the status quo. A good part of that is probably curiosity and ego – but a bigger part of that is an honest, analytical look at what’s going on and not being satisfied with it.

Local leaders have made significant strides in bringing about St. Petersburg’s transformation.  Without realizing that the environment is all important in developing a city (or county, or state) St. Petersburg may change, but will likely emulate those societies that had the means but not the ability to advance.

To get an idea of the job ahead and the time frame view the American Experience episode   “Silicon Valley”.  (Transcript)

Fast forward fifty-some years and consider how our Public Education System has adapted; our Healthcare System; our Public Safety System; our Political System; and our Economic System.    The questions remain; where do we want to go as a city (or county, or state) and how do we get there?

Here are some references to start the dialogue:

Decoding the Contradictory Culture of Silicon Valley,By Jeanne G. Harris and Iris Junglas;

Silicon Valley Tech Innovation Ecosystem–Silicon Valley’s greatest innovation – how companies evolve from ideas to successful enterprises;

Inside Silicon Valley – Podcast

The Lean Start-Up – Eric Ries

Why Eric Ries Likes Management

California Dreaming

Insight Silicon Valley

Lessons From Silicon Valley

For Honda, Waigaya Is The Way




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Using Complexity to Design Intelligent Social Systems



“Complexity thinkers define ‘intelligence’ in terms of exploring a range of possible actions and selecting ones that are well-suited to the immediate outcome…” – Davis and Sumara

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” – American aphorism.


‘Intelligence’ is not necessarily about a rational or comprehensive consideration of immediate circumstances. Instead, in complexity terms, the intelligent unity is the one that generates a diversity of possibilities and that has a mechanism for critically debating the merits of those possibilities. So understood, intelligence is a sort of ‘scouting’ of possible responses.

This paper, then, is a ‘scouting report;’ a guide for evaluating possible choices for managers and policy-makers in choosing when, where and how to engage the complex social challenges that we face today, not only in the proposed South Side St. Petersburg CRA, but in greater St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and Florida as well. This report can be a useful resource in developing revitalization initiatives for growing people, businesses and institutions in a society capable of engaging the serious social challenges that we face today.


It has become abundantly clear that the current ideas and initiatives that have been advanced as solutions for the social problems we are facing today in the South Side St. Petersburg CRA, (e.g. substandard living conditions, poor health and education systems, diminished or absent political voice; lack of physical security and environmental degradation), have been ineffective. Moreover, there is a growing understanding that the causes of the problematic social conditions do not reside within one physical area, one segment of society, one institution or even within one ideology. The origins of the social problems are complex and interventions must deal with interdependent causes and navigate nonlinear and often unpredictable change processes involving a diverse range of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, when tackling complex social problems, people’s tendency is always to employ convenient ways of intervening; to break problems into discrete, understandable, component effects and causes, while at the same time realizing it is necessary to find ways to motivate society as a whole – but not understanding how to make that happen.

In the light of the challenges complex problems pose, people could be forgiven for becoming cynical about chances of being able to tackle issues or achieve economic or social goals. Many policies fail to address the problems they are designed to combat. In particular, it might seem that “knowledge” is less useful to the policy process than was initially supposed, as the “rational” model of policy-making, which is centered around intentionally guiding institutions towards achieving common goals, begins to look like not just an unrealistic description of the policy process but also in fact an irrelevant ideal.

Fortunately, in recent years the complexity sciences have improved our understanding of complex problems, and have provided concepts and ideas which incorporate both old and new insights to present alternative theories for change, greater understandings of underlying processes and crucially, better approaches for tackling them in a strategic and direct manner.

The central contention of this paper is that the main problem is not intractable problems, or poor application of the right tools, but rather use of the wrong tool for the job. The complexity sciences are beginning to give us alternative theories for change, greater understandings of underlying processes and, crucially, better approaches for tackling them.

It is vital that actors charged with implementing policies and programs in the face of complexity take responsibility for choosing an appropriate approach.


Complex Problems and the Challenges They Pose

Why do complex problems present big challenges for traditional approaches to implementation?

  1. The capacities to tackle complex problems are often distributed among actors. Problems manifest themselves in different ways and at different levels, and rather than one organization or hierarchy being fully in control of meeting a particular objective, action may rely on differing degrees of collaboration from a variety of actors.
  2. Complex problems are difficult to predict. Many social, political and economic problems are not amenable to detailed forecasting. Where causality is not well understood success may rely on adaptation and flexibility to emerging insights, rather than trying to completely fix the shape of policy responses in advance.
  3. Complex problems often involve conflicting goals. There may be many divergent but equally plausible interpretations of a policy issue, with different groups approaching it from different starting points or assumptions. Implementation cannot be technocratic, but requires a negotiated understanding and synthesis through communicative processes.

Consequently, the ways in which policy draws on available knowledge becomes one of the central determinants of its success. The difference is that, rather than working in a linear fashion, policymakers must be mindful of constraints and opportunities as to where, when and how knowledge and decision-making can best be linked.


Implementing agencies need to work in a collaborative mold, facilitating decentralized action and self-organization:

  • Decentralization and autonomy: One key priority is decentralizing policy-making and implementation, distributing power in decision-making and allowing increased autonomy for units lower down the hierarchy.
  • Engaging local institutions and anchoring interventions: Implementing agencies may need to work with and through local organizations addressing an issue at different scales; this may be best done through co-management and power sharing.
  • Convening and boundary management: Agencies may be able to play a unique role in facilitating processes that build trust and collaboration between key stakeholders. They must act as trustworthy stewards of these processes, including the provision of transparent mechanisms for conflict resolution.
  • Building adaptive capacity: Capacity building is likely to be central to efforts to enable actors to capitalize on any autonomy for addressing problems. Supporting adaptive capacity networks is shown to be a central priority for stimulating emergent responses.
  • Remove the barriers to self-organization: There may be different types of barriers and systemic issues which are preventing actors from adapting to emerging problems: these could be related to national legislation or political systems, or issues of power, discourse and social capital.
  • Supporting networked governance: Agencies must approach the delivery of their mandate with a networked approach to policy and governance. Accountability structures can usefully focus on holding units accountable for their mission or role description. Relationship management concern and participatory processes should be central focuses.
  • Leadership and facilitation: Even where the capacity to act is distributed, leadership emerges as a critical variable in the success of collaborative responses. However, in the face of complex problems this leadership must be facilitative and enabling, working through attraction rather than coercion.
  • Incremental intervention: Where a central agency does need to intervene, it should be approached in an incremental manner, starting from existing networks and taking an evolutionary approach to support, looking to ‘seed’ decentralized action and support emerging responses rather than implementing idealistic blueprints.


Implementing agencies need to deliver adaptive responses to problems, building space for interventions to be flexible to emerging lessons. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Appropriate planning: Systems around ex ante analysis should be light and flexible, and focus on providing utility, for example by enhancing awareness of the key risks or lessons. Accountability can be tied to clear principles for action rather than to unpredictable results or inflexible activity plans, and rules for the adjustment of plans can be established in advance.
  • Iterative impact-oriented monitoring: Continual monitoring of the effects an intervention is having will be critical to its success – and this should be done in order to check and revise understandings of how change can be achieved, rather than simply recording progress. It is therefore imperative to make any evaluation as utilization-focused as possible, to ensure the requisite feedback is received to allow for timely adaptation.
  • Stimulating autonomous learning: In the face of complex problems, evidence shows that actors are more likely to be responsive to emerging evidence where it emerges in the context of trust and ownership. Monitoring and evaluation functions must be embedded throughout implementation chains, and the autonomy to shape M&E frameworks should be devolved.
  • Implementation as an evolutionary learning process: Experimentation through intervention may need to become the central driver of learning. This could be put center-stage in an evolutionary implementation process, revolving around variation, where a number of different options are pursued, and also through selection, where based on feedback from the environment, some are deemed a greater success and replicated.
  • Creating short, cost-effective feedback loops: Judicious use of participatory M&E and transparency may be important because who carries out the monitoring has proven a crucial determinant of effective adaptation. There are a number of local-level methods for citizen involvement in the governance of implementation available, including emerging innovation in systems for beneficiary feedback, and transparency and accountability initiatives.
  • Accountability for learning: Measures may need to be taken to ensure policies place explicit value on learning as well as delivery: intervention must be seen as an expression of hypotheses and complex tasks may require learning objectives rather than performance goals. Promoting innovation in service delivery may require valuing redundancy and variety.


Implementation systems and processes must draw on an eclectic mix of sources of knowledge at many different levels and junctures. Of particular importance are tools, which allow for the negotiation between and synthesis of multiple perspectives, for example:


  • Decisions from deliberation: Carefully managed and structured processes of deliberation have proven to have wide benefits on both decisions made and their subsequent implementation. These must be embedded in inclusive, face-to-face fora, focusing on eliciting reasoned and legitimate inputs to action.
  • Focusing on how change happens: Implementation processes must tie together analytical and management efforts with explicit questions as to how change happens in their context. Ideas and assumptions underlying implementation must be made explicit in order to allow them to be purposefully tested; planning tools such as ‘theory of change’ and theory-based evaluation may assist.
  • Realistic foresight: Foresight and futures techniques can be used to provide broad and realistic forward-looking analysis and fix shared structures for ongoing implementation. Tools such as scenario planning have proven invaluable in enabling organizations to be both resilient and nimble, so long as a broad range of perspectives are taken into account.
  • Peer-to-peer learning: Rather than focusing on technocratic knowledge-transfer processes, adaptation and learning may often work more effectively through peer networks, such as through study tours or ‘peer review’. Research on communities of practice has shown how the informal dynamics of linkages can be the driver of creativity and reflection.
  • Broadening dialogues: Processes of contestation and argument may be important for informing and improving the foundations of policy and action, and implementation should look to build and work with critical voices, rather than avoiding them. Promoting reflexive research is important as is building the capacity of disadvantaged stakeholders to fully articulate their position.
  • Sense making for common ground: A shared vision of the problem at hand is often a prerequisite for progress on complex issues. Key stakeholders must jointly negotiate concepts and models, and boundary objects such as shared models or standards can play a key role in anchoring collective action.
  • Facilitation and mediation: Efforts to combine different sources of knowledge must tread carefully, and policy-makers must become adept in managing power in the knowledge-policy interface. Power should be shared in both analytical and decision-making processes, with space made for critical reflection and the consensual resolution of impasses and conflicts.


So where are the approaches most relevant? In some sectors, ‘complex’ models of implementation are well-established and proven effective; in other areas, persistent and well-recognized issues with implementation seem to bear the hallmarks of the negative side-effects of traditional tools applied to complex problems. This research has not attempted to specify what problems should be considered ‘complex’, but to give readers the tools to decide for themselves whether an issue faced is complex, and to provide guidance on what to do if it is. The extent to which any one challenge exhibits the characteristics of these three dimensions is likely to be a matter of degrees, and the relevance of the principles and priorities set out above will vary accordingly. Implementation will likely require a mixture of these principles with more traditional approaches and similarly the tools presented above have a domain of appropriate application, and need to be applied well and with sensitivity to context.

What is clear, however, is that complexity can no longer be swept under the carpet. While there is not yet one comprehensive framework, there is a growing collection of models, tools, and approaches to effectively develop interventions in the face of these multifaceted problems. These will allow those charged with implementing policies and programs to be able to more explicitly, systematically and rationally deal with the challenges that are presented. However, taking responsibility for complexity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are a new set of tools to use, and/or more legitimacy given to approaches not previously seen as ‘scientific’ or ‘rigorous’. But on the other hand, this will make areas of practice previously hidden from sight more visible, and actors will find themselves held accountable for aspects of their work which may have previously slipped under the radar. This shift may therefore represent an uncomfortable or unattractive transition. However, what is clear is that it is an essential transition in order to achieve results in the face of complexity.





Appendix I

Key concepts of complexity theory

These first three concepts relate to the features of systems that can be described as complex:

1. Systems characterized by interconnected and interdependent elements and dimensions are a key starting point for understanding complexity science.

2. Feedback processes crucially shape how change happens within a complex system.

3. Emergence describes how the behavior of systems emerges – often unpredictably – from the interaction of the parts, such that the whole is different to the sum of the parts.

Complexity and change

The next four concepts relate to phenomena through which complexity manifests itself:

4. Within complex systems, relationships between dimensions are frequently nonlinear, i.e., when change happens, it is frequently disproportionate and unpredictable.

5. Sensitivity to initial conditions highlights how small differences in the initial state of a system can lead to massive differences later; butterfly effects and bifurcations are two ways in which complex systems can change drastically over time.

6. Phase space helps to build a picture of the dimensions of a system, and how they change over time. This enables understanding of how systems move and evolve over time.

7. Chaos and edge of chaos describe the order underlying the seemingly random behaviors exhibited by certain complex systems.

Complexity and agency

The final three concepts relate to the notion of adaptive agents, and how their behaviors are manifested in complex systems:

8. Adaptive agents react to the system and to each other, leading to a number of phenomena.

9. Self-organization characterizes a particular form of emergent property that can occur in systems of adaptive agents.

10. Co-evolution describes how, within a system of adaptive agents, co-evolution occurs, such that the overall system and the agents within it evolve together, or co-evolve, over time.

Source: Ramalingam and Jones (2008).


Complex systems have features that are also complicated and may act in patterned ways, but whose interactions are constantly changing. An air traffic control system is complex because its functioning depends on many variables that keep varying, such as weather, aircraft downtime, peak loading, etc.

With complicated systems, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the design (or having a detailed engineering manual at hand). In contrast, depending on the interplay of the elements in the system, complex systems may produce highly divergent outcomes.

It is impossible to predict the way a complex system will respond with sufficient accuracy. One is limited to establishing the conditions characteristic of a complex system that lead to emergence, then working creatively at leverage points to change the configuration of the system until the desired ends are produced.


Appendix II

Technical vs Adaptive or ‘Wicked’ Social Problems

Examples of adaptive or ‘wicked’ problems include reforming public education, restoring wet land environments, and improving community health. In these cases, reaching an effective solution requires learning by the stakeholders involved in the problem, who must then change their own behavior in order to create a solution.

Technical vs Adaptive problems:

  • The problem is well defined vs complex;
  • The answer is known in advance vs the answer is not known;
  • One or a few organizations have the ability to implement the solutions vs no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change.

Characteristics of wicked problems:

  • There is no definitive formulation of an wicked problem that provides the problem solver with all the information needed to formulate the problem, break it into manageable chunks and solve it;
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can’t say you have solved an adaptive problem;
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad;
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to an wicked problem;
  • Every solution to an wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’ because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error. The consequences of intervention cannot be undone. History matters and provides the context for the next intervention;
  • Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-documented set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan;
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique; solutions are not transferable;
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem;
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing an wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways; each stakeholder will have their own perspective on the nature of the problem and the solution;
  • No single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change.




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Facilitating Socio-Economic Development – Institutions

Related ecosystems (ECO)

“Jobs liked to tell the story- and he did so to his team that day- about how everything that he had done correctly had required a moment when he hit the rewind button. In each case he had to rework something that he discovered was not perfect. He talked about doing it on Toy Story, when the character of Woody had evolved into being a jerk, and on a couple of occasions with the original Macintosh. “If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” he said. “That’s what other companies do.”
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs


Developing St. Petersburg, the previous post, outlined the history of the Southside St. Petersburg CRA and posed the question about the effectiveness of the underlying economic development policies and practices employed, as well as the goals, theories and assumptions on which they are based.

One of the most important considerations is an appreciation of the roles of institutions in the development and maintenance of economic progress.   The Workshop Toolkit, including the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework, developed by the Ostroms and others, enables development aid providers to elucidate how the less-than-satisfactory local social and economic outcomes arise from the perverse incentives that are the result of the way the social and economic institutions,  including the aid system itself, ‘The System,’ are organized.

In addition, employing the IAD framework suggests possible methods to further guide the design and implementation of urban redevelopment policies and projects by applying the knowledge gained from empiric research of the design and management of common-pool resources and community-based resource management.

The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework lays the theoretical groundwork that can be used to design a successful redevelopment initiative. This post explains key terms of the IAD Framework and relates them to overall goals of sustainability and ownership, setting the stage to make recommendations on priorities, principles and tools for shaping policy and program implementation.

Five Key Terms of The IAD Framework


Institutions are the rules used by individuals in a wide diversity of repeated situations that they confront in life; they help or hinder the efforts of individuals to be optimally productive in the activities they undertake with others. Institutions key aspect is their shared rules regarding what actions individuals must take, must not take, or are permitted to take in particular situations. By constraining behavior, institutions increase order and predictability.

E.g.: baseball; the interstate highway system; commercial airplane operation; Starbucks and innovation.

It is now widely accepted that the main development problem is “missing institutions” or “perverse institutions” instead of “missing money.” No matter how well-intentioned those providing assistance are, or how many resources are transferred, development will occur only if political and economic institutions generate incentives that facilitate individuals’ achievement of development goals.


In the IAF, the term incentive means the rewards and punishments that individuals believe to be related to their actions and those of others. Perceived rewards and punishments can motivate individuals to take actions that are productive for all involved. Perverse incentives, on the other hand, lead individuals to avoid engaging in mutually productive outcomes or to take actions that are generally harmful for others.

Citizens often face incentives that make it difficult to invest in economic activities, to provide public goods, to manage common pool resources and generally to arrive at mutually beneficial day-to-day arrangements. Thus, a core problem of development assistance is to understand the structure of the incentives generated within these situations.

Where people themselves cannot change incentives, government policies potentially can. However, incentives at the policy level may obstruct institutional reforms needed to improve economic, social, and political conditions.


Meaningful progress or development implies not only the progressive meeting of basic material requirements of all, but also the conditions and institutions consistent with respect for basic human rights.

According to Sida, development can be defined as those actions taken by donors and recipients intended to further two distinct outcomes:

  • Poverty reduction, and
  • Freedom.

There are six political priorities:

  1. Democracy;
  2. Human rights;
  3. Gender equality and
  4. Women’s role in development;
  5. Environmental sustainability;
  6. Climate change. (Sida Development Assistance – A Presentation)


The process of development is one in which individuals increase their well-being by solving more collective-action problems more effectively through the design and use of institutions
at many scales.

A key message of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress is that we should shift our emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being. Well-being is multi-dimensional. The key dimensions that should be taken into account simultaneously are:

  1. Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth);
  2. Health;
  3. Education;
  4. Personal activities including work;
  5. Political voice and governance;
  6. Social connections and relationships;
  7. Environment (present and future conditions);
  8. Security, of an economic as well as physical nature.

Information relevant to valuing quality of life includes measures of people’s “functionings” and freedoms. In effect, what really matters are the capabilities of people, that is, the extent of their opportunity set and of their freedom to choose among this set, the life they value. There is a consensus that quality of life depends on people’s health and education, their everyday activities (that include the right to a decent job and housing), their participation in the political process, the social and natural environment in which they live, and the factors shaping their personal and economic security.

Collective-action situations

Collective-action situations lie at the center of development. A collective-action situation a desired joint outcome requires the input of several individuals. Almost all productive relationships involve some form of collective action. For example, while one person can produce agricultural products from a single, small agricultural plot, the amount of agricultural product per amount of input is greatly enhanced by creating diverse forms of teamwork through family, community, or corporate arrangements to increase the size of the enterprise. Similar benefits of increasing the number of participants who bring different skills and resources occur in almost all manufacturing or service activities. Collective-action situations become collective-action problems whenever a lack of motivation and/or missing or asymmetric information generates incentives that prevents individuals from resolving a collective action situation. In other words, in order to achieve a benefit that helps the members of the group, some portion of these people must accept a risk of paying extra for a benefit shared by all. Simply creating a public bureaucracy to provide public goods or protect natural resources doesn’t automatically solve the collective-action problem.

Rather than think about linkages among action situations involved in development assistance as a “chain of aid delivery,” we believe it is more advantageous to think about a set of nested situations that may take on any of a variety of productive or unproductive relationships. The chain-like fashion of aid delivery does not fully reveal the varied institutional contexts within which the actors in their situations are connected.


The concept of “development” as a goal has become “sustainable development.” Sustainable development focuses on the two concepts of sustainability AND ownership.

Sustainability refers to the longevity of development aid’s effects, rather than the existence of particular projects or activities.

Ownership requires greater participation and responsibility on the part of aid recipients and a decrease in a donor’s authority over their own aid packages.

To be effective and sustainable, an intervention should incorporate the local knowledge about the needs, preferences, and problems of target beneficiaries that only they themselves possess. Access to this localized knowledge requires active beneficiary ownership – meaning a role in all four aspects of ownership – rather than just the consumption of whatever is produced. By making investment in these processes, beneficiaries are not simply consumers of someone else’s largesse. They have had to articulate their own preferences and allocate their own resources.

Four dimensions of ownership have been identified:

  1. Enunciating demand: Participation in provision by articulating what asset, project, or program is needed and deciding how resources should be mobilized.
  2. Making a tangible contribution: Participation in production by making tangible contributions. Time, effort, and other resources contributed to production are a costly signal that beneficiaries expect to derive benefits from a project.
  3. Obtaining benefits: Participation in consumption of the benefits if the project is successful and in a share of responsibility if the project fails.
  4. Sharing responsibility for long-term continuation or non-continuation of a project: Participation in decisions related to the alienation of the rights to a project (the decision to continue or not continue a project once it has been initiated).


Institutional Analysis

Many institutions foster incentives that undermine their goal of sustainable development. Some options that may help development agencies ameliorate some of the perverse incentives are:

  1. Awareness of the role of incentives in underpinning aid effectiveness and sustainability.
    1. Most individuals with experience in development cooperation realize that incentives underpin aid effectiveness and sustainability.
    2. A more explicit and systematic understanding of institutions and the incentives that emerge within particular organizational structures, as well as mechanisms for transmitting that knowledge, are crucial to improve an aid agency’s effectiveness.
    3. The only way that an understanding of incentives will lead to better development assistance is through the determination of an agency’s own staff to create rules that promote “good” incentives.
  2. The Nature of the Good
    1. A development agency should understand the wider incentives involved in the underlying core good as well as the more narrowly focused incentives related to its activities.
    2. Such an understanding, coupled with a desire for sustainable results, would most likely exclude most projects that primarily involve infrastructure provision and move the agency toward institution building.
  3. Ownership and Sustainability
    1. Many agencies now voice a strong concern for the sustainability of development cooperation. A long-term positive change is a better investment of resources than more temporary results.
    2. Such agencies seek to improve the outcomes related to its efforts in development cooperation by giving ownership of aid to recipients. Including recipients and beneficiaries in true ownership can help solve some of the severe information and motivational problems in development.
    3. But this is not a sufficient condition to ensure sustainability. Motivational and information problems in aid are very deeply embedded and no type of development cooperation is free from powerful perverse incentives.
    4. Given aid’s complexity regarding relationships and incentives, it is important that an essential first step is that all participants involved in an aid project to understand what the terms ownership and sustainability mean in practice. Aid agencies need to allow sufficient opportunities for the owner(s) to contribute to the design, implementation and mid-course corrections of the project/program.
    5. A final step is to allow the owner full participation in the final evaluation of a project/program. Beneficiary owners need to (1) enunciate a demand for an aid, (2) allocate at least some of their own and other actor’s assets to the project or program so that they have a real stake in the way their own and other actor’s assets are used, (3) obtain real net benefits, and (4) have clear-cut responsibilities and be able to participate in decisions regarding continuance or ending of a project.
    6. We recommend that aid agencies focus on the concepts of responsibility and accountability as they relate to ownership. An agency should make clear what is intended to be sustainable, how development assistance helps produce sustainability, what time frame is being used, and how sustainability will be measured. Project planning documents should clearly identify the intended owners and include an analysis of the anticipated impact that this designation of ownership will have on sustainability.
  4. Encouraging Learning at the Individual and Organizational Levels
    1. Most development agency employees generally accountable for producing sustainable results.
    2. Evaluators should be instructed to examine the level of ownership in a project or program and the impact of ownership on sustainability should be seriously discussed.
  5. Putting Beneficiaries First
    1. Effective and sustainable development assistance must center on beneficiaries and the problems they face.
    2. Beneficiaries should take ownership of the developmental projects in all four senses of that term.
    3. To be sustainable, aid should address how beneficiaries relate to each other in dealing with diverse collective action situations.
    4. Without this deeper analysis and programs focused on institutional change to facilitate the long-term improvement in the lives of beneficiaries, aid is likely to provide only short-term benefits.

We are now in a position to begin making recommendations on priorities, principles and tools for shaping development policy and program implementation, the subject of the following post.


  1. Ostrom, E., 1990; Governing the Commons – The evolution of Institutions for Collective Action; Cambridge University Press.
  2. Ostrom, E. 2005; Understanding Institutional Diversity; Princeton University Press.
  3. Gibson, C., Andersson, K., et. al., 2005; The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid; Oxford University Press.
  4.; Institutional Analysis:
    Organizing Systems to Support Improved Outcomes for Children and Families – Lessons Learned from the Institutional Analysis
  5. Child Welfare Practice – Creating a Successful Climate for Change; Findings and conclusions from an institutional analysis.
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