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.


About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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