Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) 
RMS Titanic ( )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:

In upcoming posts I will flesh out the ideas in each of these bullets.

12 thoughts on “Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time

  1. glichtman April 6, 2012 / 1:21 pm


    I was interviewing the Superintendent of a large local unified school district and he used the “aircraft carrier” version of your ocean liner. Sticking with the metaphorical theme, he talked about getting his people to break down to “destroyer” sized structures. I thought this was a good way to get people to envision what silo-breaking might look like, and I think aligns with the several points that you so clearly articulate. Besides, destroyers fit into Learning Ponds with greater facility than do aircraft carriers and ocean liners!

    • J Ross Peters April 7, 2012 / 9:25 pm

      They move faster, too! Thanks for this, Grant.

  2. jschilz April 8, 2012 / 8:28 pm


    I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Exploring a bit: there might be some virtue to “turning slowly” when that’s synonymous with incremental change. Incremental change can be good when your system has a lot of synnergy; if the whole system looks like its failing because one subsystem is out of harmony, bringing that subsystem in line and improving performance in all subsystems would be an incremental change. Or if you’re pretty sure that what you’ve got is close to ideal, incremental change can help you dial it in.

    But if you think if you think that you’re far from an ideal solution, and the synnergy in your system isn’t too dynamic or unpredictable, jumps are great. And piloting sounds like a great way to test those jumps.

    Thanks for helping me connect that to the real world. (:


  3. J Ross Peters April 8, 2012 / 9:08 pm

    I think, depending on the situation, turning slowly can be the right approach. I think we simply need more than one gear to pace our progress. Incremental change fits well with the use of pilots as using them strategically always has the potential to lead to choosing the right next step forward. Thank you, Joe, for reading and responding!

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