Topic 4: Transformation Zones

A Transformation Zone is a “vertical slice” of the education or service system (from the classroom to the Capitol)
  • The “slice” is small enough to be manageable
  • The “slice” is large enough to represent key aspects of the system (urban, rural, high needs, frontier, diverse communities)
  • The “slice” must be large enough to “disturb the system” so that a “ghost” system or “work arounds” won’t be feasible.
  • The intention is to develop the systems and infrastructure that will be needed for successful implementation, sustainability, and scale-up


A Transformation Zone represents a vertical slice of the system from the practice level to the policy level (e.g. from the classroom to the Capitol). The entities (e.g. districts, schools, classrooms) are representative of the larger system.  The slice is small enough to be manageable but large enough to be representative of the system as a whole (e.g. urban, suburban, rural, frontier, high needs, etc.). The vertical slice represents the system as it functions today and the implementation sites within the zone serve as the first cohort to participate in the change processes necessary to become the system of the future. All three types of improvement cycles can be useful in the Transformation Zone as you ‘change on purpose’ from the system as is to the system you need to host the new ways of work.


Pilots and initiatives come and go.  Islands of excellence rise and sink. The immediate results may be excellent but the end results are unsustainable pockets of innovation.  Efforts to ‘train everyone’ result in little lasting change.  Work in the Transformation Zone is designed to avoid or address such challenges. 

Demonstrations or ‘pilots’ are a place to start with an innovation.  These first few tests of the “good idea” are an important start to the process.  We have to be able to do it once to be able to do it many times.  However, the first test of the good idea won’t lead to more systemic change.  In most cases, successful demonstrations have not been staged with replication or sustainability in mind. Often extraordinary individuals have implemented their desired change by developing ‘work arounds’ or calling in favors to combat systemic problems.  A ‘ghost system’ develops to support these one-time heroic efforts.

The Transformation Zone work is designed not only to improve instructional and innovation practices but it is also a purposeful approach to developing a sustainable, replicable, and effective infrastructure.  By making changes in a defined Transformation Zone, leaders have the opportunity to develop the system as they want it to be; the system as it will function in the future.  The Transformation Zone provides the opportunity to align system components to support the new way and work. 

In addition, the Transformation Zone provides the opportunity to develop capacity and understand the implementation infrastructure needed to support the selection, training, coaching, and fidelity assessment of individuals who will be implementing new ways of work.  We need to understand what is required to support and sustain change over time and across staff so that the innovation can be used beyond the first cohorts in the Transformation Zone and beyond the Transformation Zone on the way to full scale-up.

In short, an effective way to move from a few successful pilots to “readiness” for scale-up is the use of a Transformation Zone.

What about Demonstrations and Pilots?

Demonstrations or “pilots” are a place to start for innovations (“it’s possible!”). Pilots don’t usually lead to sustainable practice and system change. Demonstrations and pilots can lead to:

  • Random acts of innovation
  • Efforts that are person and passion dependent
  • An initiative that can “ghost” system its way to success
  • Requiring execution by the “extraordinary” and heroic
  • Absence of replicable or sustainable implementation infrastructure


Key Functions and Processes

“Another demonstration project!  We know it’s not going to last.”

“By the time we get everyone up to speed there will be so much staff turnover we’ll have to start over.”

“We don’t have a choice; we have to roll this out statewide.” 

 “We need to hold their feet to fire, they need to meet these benchmarks.”


Transformation Zones are used to establish simultaneously new ways of work (e.g. the evidence-based innovation or instructional practice - EBP) and to develop the capacity to support the new ways of work (an implementation infrastructure to assure effective use of the EBP).

Using All Forms of PDSA

As noted previously, all the PDSA processes we’ve reviewed are likely to be used in a Transformation Zone.  There will be a need for rapid-cycle problem-solving as challenges to effective implementation emerge.  Usability testing may be needed to be sure core components of the instructional practices or innovations are well-operationalized, improved, and can be used as intended in the full range of settings in the Transformation Zone.  Practice to policy feedback loops will be needed to communicate systemic challenges that need to be addressed to better align system requirements, resources, and supports with the new ways of work.   

Transformation Zone Dimensions

It is impossible to make significant change simultaneously and successfully in all parts of a system. The Institute of Medicine examined large scale reform efforts and concluded that, “Inducing major change in large organizations is much more difficult than simple behavioral changes because organizations themselves are problematic. Additionally, most organization designs are outdated and do not reflect current environments, requiring more comprehensive organizational change” (Chao, 2007).

Implementation Teams begin their work in a Transformation Zone to have a realistic shot at making a difference.  The size and location of the Transformation Zone is determined by considering the following factors:

  • How deep and significantly does this change the status quo?
    • How different is the new way of work?
    • How much change will be required at each level of the system?
    • How much competence and confidence building will be needed at every level?
  • Do we have the necessary knowledge and expertise related to the innovation itself?
    • Are there many people available who are “experts” in the new way of work?  Or are we relying on a few?
    • Is the new way of work well operationalized or is that part of the work in the first Transformation Zone experience?
    • Is formal technical assistance and support available to us or are we ‘building and flying the plane’?
  • How experienced and accessible are our Implementation Teams?
    • Is this their first experience or are we able to “seed” new teams with experienced people who can guide and support the new teams?
    • Can we manage the geographic spread of the sites we have are considering?  Can we get to them frequently enough to do the work required?
  • How well resourced is the implementation effort?
    • Are we layering this onto the work of already too-busy people?
    • Are other initiatives actively competing for attention?
    • Do we have the ability to for the Implementation Team or Teams to meet frequently, communicate regularly and use PDSA processes?

The change agents, often the first Implementation Team(s), need to consider what it will take to be successful and simultaneously expose the effort to the challenges of real-world implementation, sustainability, and system change.  Overall, the Transformation Zone size and characteristics need to be sufficiently diverse in terms of representing the overall system and scoped to be successful. 

As challenges to uses of the innovation arise, these issues are brought to the attention of district leaders, regional support systems, or if needed to the State Management Team through the use of Policy – Practice Feedback Loops.  Monthly meetings with these Leadership Teams are essential to making the organization and system changes needed to support and sustain effective Implementation Teams and effective education practices for all students. They are the vehicle for removing barriers and institutionalizing facilitators to support improved educational practices and improved student outcomes.

This process is very different from typical pilot tests, demonstrations, or broad brush exhortations to use innovations or make significant systemic change.  PDSA improvement cycles help teams attend to what is working and what is not working and focus on developing supports and infrastructure needed to assure intended outcomes. The whole process is done with an eye on defragmenting the system, removing barriers to effective outcomes, and creating the future capacity to make use of a variety of evidence-based approaches and other innovations statewide.


The first adaptive challenges are dealt with in a constructive way as a result of activities in the Transformation Zone. As the Transformation Zone expands to include more districts and their schools, new challenges will arise resulting in more changes to the current systems.  As this process continues, the system itself is reinvented to more precisely and functionally support evidence-based innovations and implementation infrastructure within districts and the entire State education system. This is in contrast to effective innovations changing to survive in the current system and as a result, ‘adapting out’ the very components that make them effective.  As implementation capacity expands and adaptive issues are resolved, the Transformation Zone encompasses all districts in the State and the ‘ghost’ system has become a ‘host’ system for continual improvement of education outcomes for generations to come.

Real World Requirements

But what about Federal, state, or grant requirements that require large-scale roll-outs?  It is a fact of life that mandates, state statutes, contracts, and grant requirements are not necessarily informed by implementation best practices!  What to do?

Even when large-scale roll outs are required it is often possible to use Transformation Zone concepts.  You might think of it as selecting a ‘virtual transformation zone’.  You can recruit and select a cohort of districts, agencies, or entities in the larger system that want to work with you more deeply.  You can then provide them with the kind of training, coaching, feedback, support, and problem-solving that would have gone into a more explicit use of a Transformation Zone.  By paying attention, through interactions with Implementation Teams and by more carefully monitoring challenges and process data, you can learn what it will take to improve processes and outcomes over time in the rest of the state.

Think of the less intensive work and lower levels of attention for the broader system as exploration stage work to create readiness and improve knowledge.  The provision of information, access to assessments and materials, and web-based tool kits can all contribute to broader system buy-in and preparation.  And we know from the literature that 5% to 15% of the entities not receiving formal implementation support will find a way to be somewhat successful.


Student outcomes can be improved with greater effectiveness and increased efficiency. An infrastructure for implementation can be established to support the successful uses of multiple evidence-based programs or other innovations statewide. This infrastructure can be tested, improved, and organized on a limited scale in a Transformation Zone.  The ‘bugs’ in the process can be safely and more quickly detected and resolved by using all the forms of Improvement Cycles; rapid-cycle problem-solving, usability testing, and policy – practice feedback loops.  The Transformation Zone itself is a large-scale Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle with the next “act” including the next cohort of implementation settings and sites (e.g. regions, districts, schools).