It’s now April—over three months into 2023. How are your New Year’s resolutions going? If you’ve struggled to keep up with your goals, you’re not alone. You may be wishing you just had more motivation or more willpower. But the culprit dashing your good intentions might not be what you think. 

In a recent blog post for Character Lab, Daniel Willingham, one of the foremost educational psychologists, shared a key secret for getting your behavior to align with what you value. When Willingham was in graduate school, he felt too busy to exercise but told himself he would start once he finished his graduate program. Although he knew his time would still be scarce as an assistant professor, he thought his willpower would carry him through. As it turns out, he did exercise more after becoming an assistant professor. But it wasn’t his willpower alone that made the difference. 

In the city where he took his first job, there was a thriving community of people who jogged for exercise, and that community—that environment—was the key to helping him align action with aspiration. “I kept meeting people who were enthusiastic joggers, and they were quick to offer social support when I started. With so many runners in town, it was easy to find trails, including those appropriate for beginners. It was easy to find buddies to jog with.” 

What’s the takeaway? According to Willingham, “Research shows that our choices are influenced by whether our environment makes something easy or difficult—far more than we think. … The right surroundings are more powerful than willpower alone.”

A lesson for schools 

While reading Willingham’s post, I couldn’t help but see parallels in the behavior of organizations. All organizations, schools included, exist in a broader environment that shapes their priorities. For example, a school’s ability to keep its doors open and do its work is interlinked with environmental factors such as state and federal funding and regulations, contracts with staff unions, student and family demands and expectations, and its ability to procure key resources from vendors and teacher preparation pipelines. This environment is what our research frameworks call an organization’s value network. An organization’s priorities derive from what it takes to survive and thrive within its value network.

Sometimes a group of stakeholders will want to see their organization’s priorities and behaviors change—just like how Willingham wanted to get more exercise. For example, some people might want companies to eliminate their carbon footprints; or some families might want schools to better help students pursue their interests and develop practical skills. But conventional wisdom often misses the mark in its prescriptions for organizational change. Just as the younger Willingham naively thought that willpower was the key to getting more exercise, people often think that if they can just install an effective leader who cares about their priorities, then the desired changes will follow.

Consider a real-world example: In the 1970s, leaders at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), one of the leading manufacturers of minicomputers, saw early signs of the burgeoning desktop computer trend and thought they could seize the opportunity to be leaders in a new market. They took action and developed some of the earliest desktop prototypes. But before long, DECs leaders had dismissed the future of desktop computers. In reality, DEC’s leaders couldn’t prioritize personal computers in the face of the pressures from DEC’s value network. DEC’s best customers—large corporations, government agencies, and research institutions—wanted more computing power, not affordable compact devices with limited capabilities. Likewise, its investors, looking at historical sales data, saw clear growth trends in the minicomputer business while the early desktop market was clouded with uncertainty. In the end, the value network within which DEC had built its successful minicomputer business systematically steered its leaders away from desktop computers. Desktop computers proved to be the wave of the future, but DEC was ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history.

When does leadership work?

This isn’t to suggest that leadership doesn’t make a difference. Leaders matter for discerning the priorities coming from their value networks and then implementing strategies and tactics for delivering what the value network expects. 

For DEC, leadership was key in figuring out how to develop and sell the minicomputers that its best customers wanted. In a school system, leadership is key for adopting and implementing quality curriculum, hiring and developing effective teachers, and building trust with students and families so they will work together in support of the school. If the problem at hand is one of upgrading resources or improving practices in service of the existing priorities of an established value network, then the good leadership playbook is the place to turn.

When is leadership insufficient?

Unfortunately, when change isn’t just a matter of vision, strategy, and execution, but of getting an organization to prioritize something that runs counter to the dominant influences in its value network, most of the strategies in the typical leadership playbook fall short. In these circumstances, building the organizational capabilities to deliver on different priorities requires developing those capabilities within a value network aligned to those new priorities.

Apple and IBM didn’t succeed in the early personal computer market by trying to satisfy the same customers DEC had built its minicomputer business around. Instead, they created new independent business units focused on a completely different set of customers who had different priorities. These customers weren’t large companies that wanted faster computers no matter the cost. They were individuals who were eager to have a computer, couldn’t afford a $200,000 minicomputer, but were willing to settle for a machine with limited functionality if it came at an affordable price.

What to do when schools’ value networks don’t reflect priorities

Some of the things people want from K–12 schools today just don’t align with what the value networks of most schools push them to prioritize. State and federal policy and funding—some of the strongest influences in the value networks of public schools—place primacy on priorities like covering academic standards, ensuring academic proficiency as measured by standardized tests, providing access to quality materials, and delivering instructional minutes. Meanwhile, recent survey research by Populace found that the general public’s top priorities for K–12 schools are: #1 practical skills (e.g., managing personal finances, preparing a meal, making an appointment), #2 thinking critically to problem solve and make decisions, and #3 demonstrating character (e.g., honesty, kindness, integrity, and ethics). 

This is not to say that the priorities represented in current policy are unimportant. Academic proficiency came in as the general public’s #4 priority on Populace’s survey. Nonetheless, schools would likely look and feel very different if the public’s other priorities were given top billing over academics.

One way to shift a school system’s priorities is through the democratic channels for swaying its value network. Those who want to change the priorities of schools can show up to school board meetings, lobby their state legislatures, and leverage the tools of activism to sway governing bodies and change policies. Yet unfortunately, even when activists chalk up a policy win, their priorities easily get diluted among all the other myriad priorities put on schools by all the other constituencies in their value networks. For example, “practical skills,” “critical thinking,” and “character” become new offerings in a school’s course catalog, rather than guiding principles for rethinking the school experience.

What’s the alternative? Look for spaces to build new educational experiences within different value networks. For example, if some families value flexible schooling options to accommodate students with severe health challenges or interests in intensive hobbies outside of school, the district might launch a Flex Blended Learning school like Academy School District’s Village High School. Unlike an established school that already has its established value network, a new program like this can form a new value network—operating under a different policy designation (e.g., virtual school) and serving students and families who have different expectations for schooling. 

Alternatively, families or educators might decide to step out of the district value network altogether and build a micro-school or a hybrid homeschool aligned to their priorities. Non-school learning experiences, such as afterschool programs, summer camps, and work experience, also have their own value networks that align with priorities different from those of public schools. 

What’s the takeaway? If a school’s value network doesn’t prioritize the desired learning experiences, the value network must change. One way to do this is by trying to shift the current value network through activism. But another option, which admittedly will take time, patience, and potentially some financial investment, is to find or create a new program with a value network aligned to the learning experiences you desire.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.