Why “Off-the-shelf” solutions fail.

Title Text: Why off the shelf solutions fail. Background, blurred image of items on a store shelf.

“Off-the-shelf” solutions are often why schools end up working with me. An “off-the-shelf” solution claims to be aligned with a problem schools are trying to solve. For example, hundreds of boxed Social and Emotional Learning curriculums exist, and you can buy most of them on Amazon. If your school is interested in Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), just go online and find a digital points program with its own digital store and be done with PBIS in a day. School leaders can even outsource their curriculum and data analysis. “Off-the-shelf” solutions exist for almost every problem my clients face, and typically, clients call me when they’ve purchased several, and none of them worked.

Off-the-shelf solutions fail because they:

  1. Lack local context.
  2. Misrepresent/underestimate how much time is required.
  3. Solve the wrong problem.

Lack local context.

Off-the-shelf solutions often fail because they lack local context. Digital platforms for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, for example, do their best to make common PBIS systems function well. However, when I work with schools to uncover what matters most to their school communities, they often discover that monetizing kind words with points will not help them achieve their goals. Another example is vendors selling Professional Learning Community kits to schools that lack personnel to create common planning time. 

(Hint: Before I send you a quote, I’ll ensure I understand how your school/district works and what you aspire to lead. You’ll often get enough information from my quote to solve your problem independently.)

Misrepresent/underestimate how much time is required.

Most schools that I work with have 60-90 a week to accomplish all necessary school business and learning. No educator believes that they can thoroughly train staff to use a new tool, platform, or strategy in 60-90 minutes. Furthermore, most off-the-rack solutions require teachers and school leaders to generate work that staff frequently need to revisit. Professional Learning Community (PLC) training is an excellent example of a solution that claims to transform schools…..if you’re willing to sacrifice every last minute of teacher time, reinvent master schedules to create more PLC time, and create external structures for formative assessment and data analysis. 

(Hint: I work with teachers to sort index cards into piles and create their own in-class interventions instead).

Solve the wrong problem.

The main reason “off-the-shelf’ solutions fail is that they solve the wrong problem. Often, a grant appears for something. Someone like Solution Tree, Character Strong, or Sanford Harmony develops an offering that matches the grant. Then, a school or district leader sees the grant, finds a vendor’s google ad, purchases something that seems like an overall harmless resource, and schedules a whole-school or whole-district PD on whatever the grant just bought.

For example, character education programs are about developing a vocabulary for character traits, teaching students what those traits are, and helping students live those traits out loud. This is important, and I recommend that schools prioritize character education. However, character education programs generally don’t examine equity in discipline data or create systems to solve school-wide behavior issues in real-time. You need at least an entry-level framework for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support to do this.

To be clear, Solution Tree, Character Strong, and Sanford Harmony are great vendors, and I’ve previously recommended their products to schools. However, too often, schools purchase solutions to the wrong problem.

(Hint: Before building anything, when I work with teams, we spend our first few sessions identifying problems with precision.)

Shelve “off-the-shelf.” Embrace DIY/DIT.

“Off-the-shelf” solutions are someone else’s idea to your problem. I recommend “Do-it-yourself / Do-it-together” instead. 

“Do it yourself” is the best idea when you and your team know what to do. Spend some time framing the problem, brainstorming solutions, and then picking the easiest and most effective solution to try first. Notice what happens, and if it works, keep it up.

“Do-it-together” is how I work with schools/organizations. “Do-it-together” means that I bring tools and protocols that help teams get unstuck. Sometimes, we build new systems, but more often, we adjust already existing good practices in ways that lead to better results. A good example was an attendance intervention at Compass High School. Instead of creating an attendance committee, they just called absent students and let them know they missed them. It worked superbly.

If you are considering an “off-the-shelf” solution, unpack whatever you picked up off the shelf. Look at everything inside the box, click every link on the website, and get a clear sense of what the product does and does not do. Make sure you’ve taken ample time to frame the problem clearly so that you can assess what pieces of the product you need. 

Once you’ve evaluated the “off-the-shelf” option, consider whether a DIY/DIT option might be the most cost-effective, long-term solution. Solving a problem once and for all is better than continuing to apply to wrong solutions year after year (and paying for them too).

Click the button below to schedule a free one-hour ‘figure-it-out’ time consultation, and find out why DIY/DIT usually works best.

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