July 17, 2017 by

Michael Fullan on Initiative Fatigue: Grasping at No Handles

As I discuss in my Q&A with EL editor, Naomi Thiers, in the current all-digital issue, if we want to bring systemwide school change, we must set conditions that motivate teachers. And to achieve intrinsic motivation—the only kind that works—we have to move away from getting teachers to comply with mandates. Compliance never motivates, and especially not when too many unrelated changes are pressed on teachers; that’s when we hit initiative fatigue.

One cause of initiative fatigue is that schools and districts try to implement too many changes at once. The change ideas might have promise, but there are way too many of them. Another feature of the problem is that the initiatives aren’t connected. They’re fragmented. This is why, in our book Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action (Corwin, 2015), the first thing Joanne Quinn and I emphasize is “focusing direction,” the importance of having a clear focus. If you don’t focus your direction, and you try to do a whole bunch of innovative things, people get burned out because there are too many things, and you’re not good at them, and they’re too confusing.

Another problem is that even when people are focusing, they end up grasping at a good idea that has no handles, because it’s an abstract concept. For example, a lot of my work with Motion Leadership focuses on capacity building. A lot of jurisdictions have said, yeah, we like capacity building; we like moving away from compliance towards capacity building. But what we’ve found is that people don’t have a very precise definition of capacity building or take the time to figure out what it means in practical terms. So it becomes a phantom. There’s no point championing a good idea if you are vague about what it means in practice.

So two solutions to the problem of initiative fatigue and resulting burnout are (1) focus more, so you’re doing fewer innovations that are disconnected, and (2) make sure that–with any innovation you’re doing–you get a degree of clarity and specificity about what the main concepts behind that initiative actually mean.


Michael Fullan is a recognized authority on educational change and author of many books and other resources on effective change strategies for leaders. He was a long-time dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, worked with Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s to help reform Great Britain’s education system, and spearheaded significant reforms as special policy advisor in education to the Premier of Ontario from 2004 to the present. For an in-depth interview with Fullan, see the summer 2017 issue of Educational Leadership.