Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for High Impact

by Joe Schroeder, Ph.D., Associate Executive Director, AWSA

AWSA Update Poll
In their recent book, Coherence (2016), Fullan and Quinn state: "Effective leaders need to build both competence and confidence. They build competence through developing knowledge and skills; they build confidence by cultivating a safe, non-threatening collaborative culture with adequate supports."
When you think about your school, what does leadership need to develop more?
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When first published in 2011, Michael Fullan’s policy paper titled “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reforms” struck a deep chord because he described so eloquently and powerfully what so many of us in the field were coming to understand:  that much/most of major US educational policy was founded on “the wrong drivers” and thus would ultimately not realize its aims.

As delineated in the paper, the four wrong drivers were external accountabilityindividualismtechnology acquisition, and ad hoc policies.  The four right drivers were capacity building with a focus on resultscollaborationpedagogy, and systemness (i.e., coordinated policies).  Although a very influential read at the time, Fullan, by his own admission, conceded that “the ‘drivers paper’ was not a plan of action.”  But now fast forward five years and note that his recently co-authored work with Joanne Quinn, Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems (2016) does build on the “drivers policy paper” -- laying out a pathway of action forward for those leaders committed to high impact on the staff and students who they lead and serve.

In their 2016 Coherence publication, Fullan and Quinn offer a four component Coherence Framework for action that aligns to the original four right drivers as follows:

Original Right Drivers (2011)

Right Drivers in Action (2016)


Focusing Direction


Cultivating Collaborative Cultures


Deepening Learning

Capacity Building for Results

Securing Accountability


Each of these right drivers are communicated both in narrative form and via an infographic, which helps promote understanding.  Earlier this month, I read this book and also attended a full-day workshop with the authors to learn more about their highly important work.  While a full summary exceeds the parameters of this article, I would highlight a few particularly resonant takeaways that I believe can be helpful for education leaders at both the school and district level:

  • Coherence is not structure, alignment, or strategy.  Rather it is “a shared depth of understanding about the purpose and nature of the work in the minds and actions individually and especially collectively.”  The only way we will get coherence (i.e., a shared sense of our work) is that we regularly talk through about what we, collectively, are trying to do.

  • System change is all about cultural change.  It’s about impacting how people feel about change. The optimal environment combines a strong climate for change with an explicitness of strategy -- or more specifically, at the “intersection of high explicitness and strong ownership” in order to challenge and engage high performance.

  • Success is not a matter of working your way through the four components of the Coherence Framework like some form of a checklist.  Rather, effective change processes shape and reshape good ideas as they build capacity and ownership among participants.

  • Think of the four parts of the Coherence Framework like the four chambers of a heart.  You might be focused on one more than others at a given point in time but you need them all.  And leadership is at the center -- “pushing” and “pulling” to make all this work.

  • Effective leaders need to build both competence and confidence. They build competence through developing knowledge and skills; they build confidence by cultivating a safe, non-threatening collaborative culture with adequate supports.

  • If you want effective accountability, you need to first develop conditions that maximize internal accountability -- conditions that increase the likelihood that people will be accountable to themselves and to the group.  Then it is appropriate to frame and reinforce internal accountability with external accountability -- standards, expectations, transparent data, and selective interventions. In other words, make collective responsibility, rather than accountability, the focus.

  • Use the framework -- but find your own pathway!

Overall, this was one of the more insightful and helpful educational leadership books I have read in some time.  And it also was very affirming and helpful for our ongoing work through our SAIL Academy (for which registration opened earlier this month) and our Learning Leader Academy (for which registration will open in the spring). If you are interested in learning more individually and/or with a team, grabbing a copy of this book and/or considering registration for next year’s SAIL or Learning Leader Academy could be a great next step.  And as always, if you have any questions in follow-up, do not hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected]

Blessings and peace to you and yours in this holiday season -- and beyond!