When was the last time you tried something new? New experiences such as tasting foreign cuisine or starting a job forced us to leave our comfort zones. We may not know what to expect and may even be curious or excited to try something new. In contrast, moving to a new country or skydiving could generate intense anxiety, pushing too far beyond a person’s comfort zone. However, to learn or improve requires that people leave their comfort zone and take on uncharted territory. As leaders in education, it is our mission to help adults and students leave their comfort zones.

If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do. But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence, which means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don’t quite know what you are doing, know that you are growing.

– David Viscott, Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times


The way people and teams learn is through trial and error. If we want to foster innovative ideas, creative solutions, and the ability to respond quickly to change on our teams, we start by building a learning culture. It’s the people who do the daily work that creates real change and shift organizational outcomes.

comfort zone to panic zoneTHE FOUNDATION OF A LEARNING CULTURE

If we want people to collaborate and learn together, it’s our duty as leaders to create the conditions necessary for learning. Adults and students need trusting relationships before they can consider leaving their comfort zones. For some trust can come almost automatically, others will take more time to develop trusting relationships. A few actions that can build trust in teams include transparent communication, genuine listening, and recognizing others’ achievements.


Learning, innovation, and creativity happen when people are open and willing to take risks and sometimes fail. To effectively function in teams, we have to help individuals overcome the fear of leaving their comfort zone and maximize their potential. This means creating a space where adults and students can share without judgment, or what is otherwise known as psychological safety. When people feel safe they are willing to open up, present ideas, take risks, and fail together. Individuals and teams thrive from sharing and accepting feedback that fosters improvement rather than criticism.

Continuous improvement is a tool and a mindset — it is how people will do the work. However, we pursue this effort to create a real, lasting impact for students and staff. When we build the conditions to bring people out of their comfort zones, we build an organization that can withstand any obstacle in its way. We build an army of improvers who will inspire the next generation of learners.



For over a decade, the School District of Menomonee Falls (SDMF) has been building a systemic backbone for continuous improvement. As schools closed, improvement teams were formed and district leaders applied seven principles to guide their decisions. People were prepared to learn deeply, design the next actions, and align the execution of their plans to keep students learning and everyone safe. The staff responded quickly as a coordinated team. Routine feedback cycles became essential as leaders worked to accelerate two-way communication.

Improvement is not new to SDMF, it’s co-owned from the classroom to the board room and embedded into their culture. As a result, shared, sound decision-making is the goal at every level of the school district. Team norms give teachers space to take risks and share ideas openly. Meetings start with the plus/delta process to seek input and share ideas on what’s working. Through these practices, teachers and district leaders identified the students demonstrating the most significant learning loss. Then, they executed a plan to assess learning progress, identify barriers, and get students back on track. Presently, Superintendent Corey Golla confidently says students are performing at the same rate as a typical year.

District leaders also recently spoke with Janet on the Accelerate Your Performance podcast about their response on episodes 158 and 160.


Located outside of South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls is a young, rapidly growing district led by Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Lowery. The district’s young age can be an advantage to their team, Dr. Lowery explains, “There is no ‘well, we have always done it this way,’ mindset. We are quick to adapt and purposeful to adopt as we build sustainable practices and manage our growth. These unique qualities supported our quick pivot into online education.”

Following SDMF’s example, Tea Area School District invests in professional development centered around improvement science to increase individual and team improvement capacity while avoiding additional practices and products. With a focus on what it does well during the pandemic, the district was able to deploy iPads to every K-2 student. In addition to the devices, the technology team worked with local internet providers to ensure connectivity for all students.

To collect feedback, Dr. Lowery committed to communicating daily with students’ families. The district also used live documents both internally and externally to send messages and receive feedback from staff and families.


Last year, at the request of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Indians, Superintendent Larry Ouimett called an emergency meeting of the school board to approve the tribal council’s request to immediately shut down the school. The Lac du Flambeau School District is a small district in northern Wisconsin with a close relationship to its community. This unique relationship embeds the culture of students and their families into the district’s decision-making and practices.

Approximately 95 percent of the prekindergarten through 8th-grade population are members of the tribe. As a result, the district places cultural sensitivity at the forefront of the classroom experience. Even the values are influenced by the tribe. Larry explains, “We take our work to the next highest level by following the Seven Grandfather Teachings: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Humility and Truth. This makes it possible for the values of the school to align with the values of the home in ways that are meaningful.

Through the district’s continuous improvement journey, they continue to close the divide of Ojibwe students as they share educational and residential space with students from surrounding communities. To accomplish this, the district has created a culturally appropriate curriculum. Lac du Flambeau partners with the tribe to include traditional seasonal activities and ceremonies and expand student support services. By respecting local culture, we can positively influence the success of students in schools.


While much of the world was focused on the COVID-19 crisis, the Estacada School District community was threatened by one of the largest wildfires in central Oregon’s history. Students and employees were displaced from their homes during an already incredibly stressful time. Superintendent Ryan Carpenter and his team knew that agility, quick decisions and a process to cascade clear communication would be critical.

By using tactics such as daily huddles and leader rounding, district leaders demonstrate that two-way communication is a top priority. These tactics propelled the district forward with positive energy rather than focusing on anxieties and uncertainties. The timing, reliability, and consistency of the communication built trust with district leaders and staff. As a result, the district scored its highest employee engagement mark on its employee survey. Leadership’s focus on employee engagement also led to the district’s recognition as a Top Workplace 2020 from the Oregonian.

Estacada School District never lost sight of its strategic priorities. Ryan explains, “By creating robust processes that placed the stress on the system, not its people, we were able to keep moving forward, achieving desired results and living out our mission.


Leadership lives within each child and each adult. How we unleash it lives within the ability of the leadership team to build the conditions for a learning culture. When we build trust and psychological safety into our organizations, people can venture out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone where we can innovate and grow.

Discover how a district brought trust back to their system and shifted the mindset of an entire organization to get impressive results by exploring, Improving Culture and Performance Through Feedback: A Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District Case Study.

Showing 4 comments
pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Start typing and press Enter to search

soldiers boots-army of improvers