Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and
systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
• Chapter 6, “Leading for Coherence” (pp. 127–138)
Coherence Assessment Tool (Figure 6.2)
Leading for Coherence
Our Coherence Framework is “simplexity.” Simplexity is not a real word, but it is a valuable
concept. Simplexity means that you take a difficult problem and identify a small number of key
factors (about four to six)—this is the simple part. And then you make these factors gel under the
reality of action with its pressures, politics, and personalities in the situation—this is the complex
part. In the case of our framework, there are only four big chunks and their interrelationships. Not
only are these components dynamic but also they get refined over time in the setting in which you
work. You have to focus on the right things, but you also must learn as you go. One of our favorite
insights came from a retired CEO from a very successful company who, when asked about the most
important thing he has learned about leadership, responded by saying, “It is more important to be
right at the end of the meeting than the beginning” (David Cote, Honeywell, nyti.ms/1chUHqp). He
was using this as a metaphor for a good change process: leaders influence the group, but they also
learn from it. In fact, joint learning is what happens in effective change processes. If you are right at
the beginning of the meeting, you are right only in your own mind. If you are right at the notional
end of the meeting, it means that you have processed the ideas with the group.
McKinsey & Company conducted a study of leaders in the social sector (education et al.)
and opened their report with these words: “chronic under- investment [in leadership development]
is placing increasing demands on social sector leaders” (Callanan, Gardner, Mendonca, & Scott,
2014). Their conclusions are right in our wheelhouse. In the survey of 200 social sec- tor leaders,
participants rated four critical attributes: balancing innovation with implementation, building
executive teams, collaborating, and managing outcomes. Survey respondents found themselves
and their peers to be deficient in all four domains. In one table, they show the priorities—ability to
innovate and implement, ability to surround selves with talented teams, collaboration, and ability to
manage to outcomes—in terms of how respondents rated themselves and rated their peers as
strong in the given domain. Both sets of scores were low—all below 40 percent. Collaboration, for
example, was rated as 24 percent (self-rating) and 24 percent (rating of their peers). So the top
capabilities are in short supply.
Leaders build coherence when they combine the four components of our Coherence
Framework to meet the varied needs of the complex organizations they lead. Coherence making is
a forever job because people come and go, and the situational dynamics are always in flux. They
actively develop lateral and vertical connections so that the collaborative culture is deepened and
drives deepened learning and reinforces the focused direction.
Achieving coherence in a system takes a long time and requires continuous attention. The
main threat to coherence is turnover at the top with new leaders who come in with their own
agenda. It is not turnover per se that is the problem, but rather discontinuity of direction.
Sometimes sys- tems performing poorly do require a shakeup, but we have also seen situations
where new leaders disrupt rather than build on the good things that are happening. And we have
seen (more rarely in our experience) districts like Garden Grove where there was a change of
superintendents based on a deliberate plan to continue and deepen the effectiveness of the
system. The idea in changeover ideally combines continuity and innovation. As we have said,
coherence making and re-making is a never-ending proposition.
The previous chapters contain many ideas about leadership, and we hope the reader has
garnered key lessons in relation to each of the four com- ponents of the framework. We won’t
repeat these ideas here. Instead, we boil down leadership to two big recommendations: master the
framework, and develop leaders at all levels.
Master the Framework
Although some degree of linearity is implied in the framework, we intend it to be employed
simultaneously. Think holistically as you drill down on each component. Focusing direction and
collaborating is a two-way street. As a leader, you should have good ideas about the moral
imperative, but these ideas will not be refined until you interact with the group. Collaborating with
purpose—the quality change process we talked about—helps to define purpose in practice and
builds capacity that results in greater clarity and efficacy. More and more we see the education
agenda being immersed with deep learning. This means innovation and continuous improvement
coexist—always a difficult proposition.
Figure 6.1 contains our full framework. Like any plan, in addition to its quality and
comprehensiveness, it is essential to build a commonly owned approach. The leaders can read our
book, and if the ideas seem to have potential, they can begin to discuss the approach with others.
They can then begin to form a plan based on the four components of the framework.
There are many different ways to proceed. Here are a few: conduct a mental inventory with
others by applying the framework to your system to examine whether you have included everything
and to determine how well you are doing on each sub-item; discuss the framework among your
leadership team, starting with the four main headings to see if the ideas resonate; start discussing
the main concepts with other leaders in the system as you begin to form plans and strategies; and
start through action forums, working on the four domains.
However you go about it, take the advice we gave in Chapter 2: participate as a learner
working alongside others to move the organization forward. The framework is not a blueprint but a
prompt to assess whether you are actually addressing the four components and the 13
subcomponents. Use the framework to get a 360-degree snapshot of how the coherence is
perceived at all levels. To get you started, we provide a Coherence Assessment Tool in Figure 6.2.
The tool includes the four components and prompts for starting discussions about the
subcomponents. We encourage you to focus on identifying the evidence of each element in your
organization. You may want to have individuals in different roles in the organization reflect and
then com- bine those reflections to get a full picture. Consider areas where perceptions are similar
and use areas that are different as starting points for deeper conversations—Is your approach
comprehensive enough? Are you addressing all four components? Consider your strengths but also
the areas of greatest need as you review the four parts of the framework, and identify ways you can
leverage the former and develop the latter. There is no one right formula—but what’s important is to
use the exercise to move to action.
Once again, the strongest change process shapes and reshapes quality ideas as it builds
capacity and ownership among participants. As you become stronger and stronger in practicing the
Coherence Framework, you will get greater enthusiasm and greater results that will spur people on
to accomplish more. “Talking the walk,” as we have said, is both a great indicator and a great
strategy for the group to become clearer and more committed individually and collectively. Can
leaders at all levels clearly describe the framework as it is being used in the system?
Figure 6.2 Coherence Assessment Tool
As you use the Coherence Framework to reflect on organizational coherence, you can also
think of progress in terms of developing specific leadership competencies. Kirtman and Fullan
(2015) show how the seven competencies of highly effective leaders mesh with “whole system
improvement.” The seven skills are listed in Figure 6.3.
Figure 6.3 Leadership Competencies for Whole System improvement
1. Challenges the status quo
2. Builds trust through clear communications and expectations
3. Creates a commonly owned plan for success
4. Focuses on team over self
5. Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results
6. Commits to continuous improvement
7. Builds external networks/partnerships
These competencies map on our Coherence Framework. Challenging the status quo is part
and parcel of focusing new directions. Building trust and creating a commonly owned plan are very
much part of collaborating with purpose. Focusing on the team is about leadership development in
others. The next two—sense of urgency in relation to results and continuous improvement—relate
directly to internal and external accountability. External networks and partnerships is a wraparound
set of collaborative activities that enable leaders to both use and contribute to the external
Most leaders, as the McKinsey & Company’s study revealed, are not good at leading the
change process. Mastering our framework will address that deficit and enable you and your system
to become much more effective and much more likely to become more sustainable.
And you don’t have to do it alone; indeed, it cannot be done alone. It takes the group to
change the group, and it takes many leaders to change the group. This is why developing leaders at
all levels is essential.
Develop Leaders at All Levels
One of the strongest factors that contributed to the success of Ontario’s systemwide
growth involved the development of leaders at all levels—school, district, and government. One of
the marks of an effective leader is not only the impact that they have on the bottom line of student
achievement but also equally how many good leaders they leave behind. Thus, effective leaders
choose, mentor, and otherwise develop other leaders. This has two payoffs. In the short run, there
is more impact because of a critical mass of leaders who are working in a focused way on the same
agenda. In the long term, the impact is even more powerful because these leaders form a critical
mass of leaders for the next phase. To put it one way, junior members of a learning organization
are being groomed for the future, as they get better in the present. One way of putting it oddly is to
say that effective leaders develop teams of leaders and, consequently, if they are successful,
become more dispensable to their organizations because they have developed a cadre of other
leaders who can carry on and go deeper. Whereas if the individual leader is dominant, they leave a
vacuum when they depart. Even if they are successful, their impact is superficial because too much
depends on them as individuals. The goal is to make yourself dispensable as a leader so you and
your organization can go on to further progress.
You should invest in leadership development in others in informal and formal ways. First,
collaborative cultures develop leadership naturally within the ongoing culture. Such cultures are
learning cultures and, consequentially, are always working on the development of leaders, dayafter- day built into the culture itself. In addition to the informal culture, it is necessary to invest in
more organized or formal leadership development. The McKinsey & Company report says that
“effective CEOs surround themselves with people possessing the diverse skills that a successful
organization needs. Social sector leaders seem to recognize this and prioritize it, but their
responses suggest that they have not been successful” (p. 3). So, the first order of business is for
education leaders to recognize that one of their key roles is to develop the leadership of others—to
develop the active bench strength of existing leaders in the organization.
Primarily, this is a normative job. By that, we mean that the leader should establish a
learning culture in which many people are expected to develop their leadership skills and help
others do the same. Leaders developing other leaders becomes the natural order of the day. In
addition, the organization should develop and use other tools to systematically foster leadership in
the system. This would include mentoring, coaching, giving feedback, interning, and training in key
skills such as communication and media skills. In our model, the difference is that these more
formal strategies do not serve as drivers but as reinforcers of the direction of the organization
generated by our four-part Coherence Framework.
Again, Ontario did this well. Regular business concentrated on focused direction,
collaboration, increasingly deeper learning, and internal accountability—all to serve the three core
goals: increase student achievement, reduce the gap, and increase the public confidence in the
public school system (latterly, Ontario has added a fourth goal: the well- being of students). To
back this up, the leadership unit within the ministry developed (in partnership with districts) tools—
leadership frameworks and strategies—to cultivate leadership within districts and schools (www
.education-leadership-ontario.ca). There are two crucial elements of this strategy. One is that
formal leadership development was expressly in the service of implementing the main agenda of
the three core goals. They reinforced and were in the same direction as the core agenda. The
leadership strategy was a supporter and reinforcer, not a driver. Second—and this is remarkable—
the leadership framework tool was never compulsory, but everyone uses it. It became commonly
owned because the process drew people to the best solution that has now become a requirement
(every district must develop a leadership succession plan). The end result is that the day-to-day
evolution of activities akin to the Coherence Framework is reinforced by actions that foster ongoing
leadership development tools.
Review Infographic 6, on page 138, to clarify how you will use leadership to integrate the
four components of the Coherence Framework.
There has never been a more important time to be your own leader. In terms of the right
drivers in action, we are seeing small signs that some policy makers are realizing that using the
wrong drivers of punitive accountability, focusing on individuals, purchasing technology, and
jumping from one ad hoc policy to another is no way to achieve coherence. Right now, there is a
vacuum of direction. Vacuums can be filled with fruitless and wrong ideas. Or they can be filled
with focused direction, purposeful collaboration, deep learning, and self and other accountability.
Leaders in the social sector have a special responsibility to pursue through education the moral
imperative of societal development: balance innovation and continuous improvement, build teams
with focus and efficacy, and manage toward deep outcomes.
The Coherence Framework, and especially its focus on deepening learning outcomes, is
crucial at this particular juncture in history. By and large, society and prospects for students in the
present and projected future have been declining since the 1970s. This decline—fewer and fewer
jobs, the dramatically growing financial gap between the narrowing top and the expanding
bottom—is accelerating with no relief and no solutions evident. Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The
Second Machine Age (2014) and Ford’s Rise of Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless
Future (2015) document with strong evidence and paint these threatening scenarios in vivid terms
(still, not a simple matter; see McKinsey & Company’s A Labor Market That Works: Connecting
Talent With Opportunity in the Digital Age ). In any case, the education system, and society at
large, have been sluggish to respond and are now faced with a race for survival, the likes of which
we have never experienced. Put another way, we are not talking about mere coherence of existing
elements, but a radical transformation into deep learning with all of its associated parts. This is the
Here is a reminder that the audience for this book—those who have to take action—are
leaders at all levels of the education system. Local school and district leaders (including parent and
community leaders) must set their sights on mobilizing for coherence. In addition to internal
development of their schools, they must also link to the wider political and policy arena by
proactively engaging in state priorities and policies, sometimes blunting directives that are
distracting but mostly by figuring out how to use external requirements to improve local
performance. Politicians and other policy makers must make a decided shift away from relying on
wrong drivers toward making the right drivers the center of gravity for action and assessment. Each
group must do its own part with an eye to partnerships and coalescing of energies. The result will
be greater and sustainable whole system performance.
It is time to take action in order to find and link to the kindred spirits that are willing to join
you on this critical journey. Take the actions we have outlined, and be the catalyst that makes it
easy for you to find and for you to be found by the critical mass that could make a lasting
difference. Others are waiting to join. Be the connector who activates them. Connect locally,
regionally, and beyond. Make a difference by being a coherence maker in chaotic times!
infographic 6 Leading for Coherence
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