Focusing on Problem

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Networked Improvement Communities focus on problems that are important and actionable, such as failure rates in developmental math in a community college or teachers’ abilities to implement a specific pedagogical practice. Identifying important problems can enable initial and sustained institutional support, buy-in and ownership of participants, and diffusion of practices and processes that are produced through the networked improvement community’s work. However, problems, Which highlights this article, also need to be within the participants’ control if they are to enact changes in practice through rapid plan-do- study-act cycles and learn from those changes.


In initiating the Michigan and Minnesota networked improvement communities the REL Midwest project team worked with participants to identify problems that were both important and actionable. In both states, the focus of the networked improvement community is the implementation of the statewide system of support. However, to make progress on improving supports to schools served by the statewide system of support, it was necessary for each networked improvement community to engage in an iterative process to further narrow the problem on which it would focus. This process involved multiple conversations with key stakeholders. 

One strategy for narrowing the scope of work to a specific problem is to conduct a root- cause analysis. The project team adopted this suggestion from the literature by developing two activities. An activity of creating a focused problem statement enabled participants to move from specific problems encountered in their daily practice during the previous day, week, month, and year to a focused problem statement that would guide the networked improvement community’s work. Using participants’ daily experiences rooted the problem in practice and helped narrow the scope to a problem that was specific and actionable. This also helped participants connect the net- worked improvement community’s work to their current responsibilities, increasing buy-in.

The project team then led participants through an exercise using a fishbone diagram to identify the root causes of the problem statement. During the course of three months, using this set of structured activities, Michigan Focus Networked Improvement Community participants narrowed their focus to the specific problem of the lack of time for students to practice their math fluency skills on a daily basis.


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