Indiana Jones and the Early Adopter’s Dilemma

Change dilemmaRisk-taking, envelope-pushing innovators get a lot of the publicity these days when it comes to the front lines of 21st-century education, and for great reason.

Innovators deal in What’s New, and What’s New pops.

What’s New flashes. What’s New gleams. What’s New splashes onto the scene. What’s New is the future. The future that once seemed so far away, and now is so close you can literally reach out and touch it. And What’s New- especially right now in K-12 education- is out-of-this-world fascinating in the opportunities it provides for student learning experiences.

In the face of this continuously evolving landscape, the innovator’s dilemma (not to be confused with Clay Christensen’s work of the same name) is clear: keep moving to What’s New, or start building on What’s Now. And since innovation by definition has to keep on moving (like a shark that needs to keep swimming in order to breathe), those drawn to innovating will tend to keep moving, too.

Upon the introduction of a disruptive innovation, Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma (summarized in this sketchnote video) reveals that those who once led the field have a decision to make as well: Adapt or die. Shift practices or fizzle out. Since those who have experienced success seek to keep being successful, they may not recognize the paradox that a change in implementation practices may be required in order to achieve the same outcomes. The tension between changing practice and maintaining success leads to paralysis, and past achievement leads to present stasis.

How do leaders help to inspire this change in practice?

From an organizational perspective, I have recently grown interested less in the concept of competing organizations as described in Christensen’s work, and more in Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (one of the referenced works in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), which deals in how communities grow and learn based on the ways that its individuals approach change. And while the Innovator’s Dilemma is certainly interesting within that context, I’m more drawn to the dilemma of the Early Adopter.

Who is this Early Adopter? The Early Adopter is often seen as a leader, though is not always first to change. They are described in a variety of sources as having a high degree of “opinion leadership” in the community, which I suppose is due to their boundary-spanning role as both “first follower” of the Innovator and “trusted translator” to the majority. This video clip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade serves as the context for what I see as the pivotal stakeholder group in the process of organizational change.

Below is a shot-by-shot walk-through of this clip to tell the story of the Early Adopter:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.19.44 PM

On his quest to find the Holy Grail (literally), the Early Adopter comes to a chasm in the path.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.18.54 PMPuzzled, he pauses to review his options, his resources, and his motivations for moving forward.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.19.20 PMArmed with a map of the Innovator’s past, he knows the chasm can been crossed successfully before. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.20.58 PMWhat motivates his quest? Not only sating his sense of adventure, but also saving someone close to him.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.22.10 PMThe Early Adopter recognizes that his first step is a leap of faith, trusting in the Innovator’s success. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.23.03 PMDrawing his breath, he extends his foot over the chasm to take that first step…
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.23.39 PM…and realizes there was a path all along, one he could not see from his previous perspective. Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.25.11 PMWalking with trepidation at first, he soon speeds up as new perspective makes the connection more clear.
Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.25.44 PMEventually, the Early Adopter becomes the newest adventurer to cross the path. At this point, he faces the Dilemma’s second stage: Continue to sprint ahead in the Innovator’s footsteps? Or find a way to help clarify the path for future travelers? http___makeagif.com__media_1-23-2014_janSc5(Not pictured in the video): In the face of both personal success and situational distress, the Early Adopter takes a moment to mark the path for whoever comes next. This decision distinguishes him from those who first ran ahead.

So then, what is the Early Adopter’s Dilemma? The Early Adopter’s two-stage dilemma starts with one key decision: in the face of the What’s New, do I choose stasis or change? Do I take a leap of faith, trusting in what I’ve seen of the Innovators’ successes and challenges? Or do I stick with what has worked for me up to (and perhaps including) now? More often than not, these individuals will see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will move forward with the innovator’s quickly scribbled map as their guide.

The second stage of the Early Adopter’s dilemma emerges once they experience What’s New. This second stage is wrapped around the exact same decision of stasis or change, though in a more others-focused context: Do I keep sprinting ahead? Or do I stop just long enough to make it easier for those who follow to know what to look for (and what to avoid)? Thankfully, the Early Adopters have a desire to stop and throw that handful of sand on the previously invisible path. Otherwise, the rest of us would be lost.

But what does this mean for change leaders? Some teammates and I have been processing this concept together, and in our conversations have identified a variety of ways we engage those we see as Early Adopters. If you’re somehow charged with leading organizational change, here’s an idea of some ways to use this framework for leadership in a practical way:

  • Find your Innovators and watch they do. They will most certainly show you What’s New. Let them do their thing and take the risks that identify the What’s New that is of interest to you in your situation.
  • Find your Early Adopters and listen. Share a proposed change, and ask them to talk through the costs and benefits they see. They will likely see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will articulate those benefits in a way that will help to clarify the Why of the change to What’s New.
  • Share the Why that you heard from the Early Adopters. The perspective shared by this trusted group will help identify exactly what would make What’s New intriguing and accessible to the majority.

Change leaders, follow your Early Adopters. Their perspective will help guide your team across the chasm of the unknown, but only if you take a moment of pause to find them and listen.

Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Navigating the Neural Superhighway

I recently had a guest post published on Edutopia’s Brain-Based Learning blog, inspired by some reflection on practices that were impacting my own learning at the time of writing. A short excerpt:

As students learn something new, electric or chemical signals move from neuron to neuron, traversing a route between locations in the brain. Like a tourist turning on unfamiliar city streets, these signals cross synapses to form a path that eventually connects the source to its destination. While identifying a route is slow going at first, students’ brains eventually make these connections, and learning begins.

Even after establishing a route, a student’s development of an optimal pathway takes time. Aside from leading them along the same path over and over again, how can we speed up our students’ navigation of neural pathways? What follows is a proposal for three actions that I believe can have a huge effect on accelerating student learning.

What I learned most from researching while writing: what the brain is actually does while we’re sleeping. It’s fascinating.

What’s funny is, the opposite is true.

My story: I tend to write late at night, often during bouts of sleeplessness. I found that when I had something particular I was trying to understand, I would read / write / draw / think about it deeply (usually at some ungodly hour). Once things started to get ‘jumbled,’ I would go to sleep, setting an alarm to awaken me within 30-90 minutes. I noticed that when I awoke, everything was clear. Everything made sense. So I would write. And write. And write. Until I got stuck again. Once arriving to that “stuck” place, I would take another nap. And the cycle continued, until either I was finished writing or the sun came up, whichever came first. After doing a little research, I now understand is that while sleeping, my brain was clearing out / breaking down the less-used pathways, while the stronger network connecting my most recent thoughts remained strong.

This and so much more, all from trying to learn about my own learning. Hope you enjoy the rest of the post!

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

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This week, teachers and staff in my school division took a breath from the daily grind for Making Connections, the annual home-grown professional development conference where we come together to learn with and from each other. As this news story highlights, a quarter of our district’s teachers put together over 200 unique learning opportunities where our community of learners could continue to grow.

The conference itself could not come at a better time of year. While the graph below refers specifically to a beginning teacher’s well-chronicled experience during her first year on the job, in many ways it reflects each of us as educators on our yearly journey.

Phases

The end of October has signaled the end of the 1st quarter, the end of the first laps on the long race that is our school year. Like many distance swimmers, we likely put a lot of energy into those first laps. As well as things have turned out up to now, there are still three times as many laps left to go. Where will we get the energy to finish the race?

I am reminded of a quote from a colleague I overheard several years ago, and think about every year at this time:

I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always felt like I had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.

The fact is, if the graph above holds true, many educators may be drowning (figuratively speaking) as the quarter comes to a close. Times like Making Connections become an opportunity to row your folks ashore. These development opportunities and similarly large chunks of time and resources are “rescue boats” that a school district can row out into the surf, getting close enough so that those who are struggling to stay afloat can grab hold. Of course, there is only so much room around the boat’s edge for people to grasp – the only way that we can all make it to safety is to connect to each other while those closest to the boat hold tight.

I appreciated the opportunity to make connections today. I thank those who were willing to reach out with the stories of their learning, and I look forward to many more reconnections over the next laps of the race. I am especially thankful to be part of a school division who recognizes the importance of rowing out the boats, right on time.

Find Your Kobes, Call Your Kareems

A little homage to the start of the NBA season as it relates to organizational change:

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I tuned in this evening to watch one of the NBA’s opening night games, the first for the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers enter the season with two new additions to their starting lineup- 2-time MVP Steve Nash entering the twilight of his career, and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard entering the prime of his. Like every new team, these 12 new teammates have their eyes set on winning an NBA championship. I tuned in this evening because I was particularly interested in the addition of Howard as a new potential superstar in the long-time pantheon of Laker centers. How would this team come together?

On first glance, it’s obvious that this is still Kobe Bryant’s team. A 17-year veteran with 14 All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and an all-important 5 NBA championships, Kobe carries the team on and off the court. Apparently, he recognizes this role in the team, though he also plans specifically to mentor his new superstar teammate. He will spend the next few years grooming Howard to grow as a leader, so that upon stepping away from the game, “this organization can ride on as if I [Kobe] never left.”

This idea of performing such that the organization can “ride on” reminds me that every new team – a school staff, a leadership team, a grade-level PLC – has its Kobes. For better and for worse, the institutional memory within a team will tend to define the actions of the new team for years to come. How can we help to ensure that those Kobes, these de facto leaders that will grow the future’s leaders, are setting up the organization to continue in the right direction?

Like everything else, it starts by finding the right people. Last week, I heard a sports radio interview with Lee Jenkins, the author of a recent cover story for Sports Illustrated chronicling Howard’s transition. Among the many anecdotes of Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles was one about the importance of leadership development, where Jenkins describes the demonstration that Kobe was putting on for Howard in how to practice.

According to Jenkins, Kobe led by example – which was nothing surprising, as few others have a comparable work ethic to Kobe. However, he also led by expectation. Jenkins noted that if there was anyone on the court who wasn’t working as hard or as purposefully, then Kobe gave that man what he needed – a high five or a raised eyebrow, a sidewards glare or a sideline encouragement. Kobe was setting the expectation that this is how a Laker practices. I imagine that’s how Kobe treats everything. I can see him thinking, This is how a Laker does pre-game warm-ups. This is how a Laker does a post-game interview. This is how a Laker eats sushi.

And this is the lesson we can learn: in times of transition, find your Kobes. Not only the Kobes in the sense that they are the de facto leaders, but in that they embody the ethos of your organization. More than anyone else on that team, Kobe lives and breathes to improve, to practice, to win. Can you imagine the effect if someone else had been Howard’s example instead? The key is understanding what you want your organization to be. What is your mission? What are the key values you represent? Who are the individuals who embody that mission and those values? Find them, and make sure they have a voice – especially among those who are new to the team.

In many ways, Kobe is keeping up a mindset instilled in the organization by former coach Phil Jackson, who led the team to 5 championships between 1999-2011. In his book Sacred Hoops, Jackson talks about how important practices are to ensuring that the players on the team become “like five fingers on a hand” as they grow in their understanding of one another. The hope is that Kobe – and any leader – is able to be the glue in the present that connects an organization’s past to its future.

Of course, current players are not Dwight Howard’s only mentors: what about those who have since left the organization, but still have a powerful voice? The Sports Illustrated article chronicles a powerful encounter between Howard and NBA all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Following this discussion – a veritible “welcome to the club” if I’ve ever seen one – Howard was so moved by the encouragement by the Hallf of Fame center that he visibly wept. Who are those “former greats” who can bring such a powerful reaction in your newest members? Seek them out, and call them up – the team needs to remember where it has come from in order to find where it will go.

As I finish writing this post, Kobe walks briskly to the locker room ahead of the rest of his teammates following an 11-point loss. The Laker offense looked out of sorts, the defense looked a step slower than their opponents, and Howard watched the end of the game from the bench after fouling out. In short, the Lakers looked like a new collection of players still learning how to play together. I look forward to seeing what they look like in March, after a season’s worth of figuring out how Lakers play together.

Always Put the Cart Before the Horse

Last week, I posted about the search for the silver bullet, summarizing the idea that people and organzations often spend time seeking the magic solution instead of facing their fear of the metaphorical werewolf and spending time understanding the problem.

What if you don’t try to find the silver bullet, but the silver bullet finds you? What if a Eureka moment strikes you while in a conversation, at a conference, in a tweetchat – how do you know if it’s the right solution for the issues at hand?

When it comes to making a decision about the solution, my advice would be: always put the cart before the horse.

Some may read this advice and think, “Tony…are you sure you know how the saying goes?”

Cart-before-horse-slice

The old saying actually goes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” I get the intended meaning, to conjure the image above of a cart being placed in front of a horse in space. Putting a cart before a horse in space obviously doesn’t make much sense, since the horse is meant to pull the cart along a path.

What I am suggesting, however, is that we always put the cart before the horse in time.

When it comes to decision-making, always make sure you first understand what you’re trying to pull before you decide how you’re going to pull it. Run across an idea for a new technology? Consider the size and scope of the change you are hoping to make, and ask yourself if this technology is up to the task. Does it fit your needs? Is it the right-sized horse for the cart? Is it aligned to the mission of the organization looking to move the cart forward?

Once you’re ready to start pulling, then put the horse up front and center. Just recognized that the goal is not to have the best, strongest, fastest horses – it’s to have the right horses to move the carts that carry the organization. You’ll only know you have the right horse if you understand the size and shape of the cart (and the cargo inside of it).

A friend of mine hates idioms. She said once that she never uses them, because she doesn’t know their etymology and what they actually mean. I happen to love idioms, for the exact same reason. Often born from a bygone era, these idioms can give us a window into understanding ourselves, if we take the time to wrestle with them.

Through shared stories, we learn about how to approach similar issues in the future. Share your stories: when have you experienced considering the cart (and the cargo inside) before choosing the horse? What were the results?

The Search for a Silver Bullet

Imagine a problem that faces you. Perhaps a cohort of your students don’t seem to be learning. Maybe averaged grades just don’t “add up” in your head. Maybe you get high scores at golf (which is not a good thing, by the way). Whatever the problem may be, we often approach the solution in the same way: we search for a silver bullet.

Off we go, on the search for that perfect fix. Maybe it’s a shiny program, the latest fad of an instructional strategy, a newly minted technology. We scour the web, we call on colleagues, we look everywhere for that singular solution that will make our problem disappear.

Pretty soon, we find something that we are sure will do the trick. “This is it,” we think as we unwrap the proverbial box. “This is what we have been looking for all this time.” And we try it. We start the new program, we unveil the new technology. We get it in everyone’s hands. We go all in. And we watch. And we wait.

And it doesn’t work. Even with the program in place, the problem is still there, staring us in the face.

Why doesn’t the silver bullet work? The whole premise of silver bullets goes back to stories of heroes defending themselves against scary monsters like werewolves and witches. The silver bullet is the werewolf’s solitary weakness, the one weapon that can vanquish it from existence. Everything and everyone has a weakness – I guess the thinking is that we can find the right tool, if we look hard enough for it. Right?

In the world of computing, folks like Fred Brooks argue that there are no silver bullets. They argue that that there is an essential level of complexity of some issues that cannot be tackled with simple solutions. Doing a Google search for “no silver bullet” reveals 600,000 stories that mirror the idea, from America’s tax reform to Bermuda’s energy supply to Australia’s aging workforce.

While I understand the argument being made, I don’t agree with the idiom being used to explain it, as it hasn’t helped to change behavior. The thing is, there are silver bullets. They exist. You can buy them from an ammunition shop if you were so inclined. The issue is that complex issues cannot be eliminated with silver bullets.

Why? Because complex issues are not werewolves. Because werewolves do not exist.

Werewolf

Werewolves – those creatures of lore, born from the full moon, roaming the day as men and the night as monsters – are but one in a legion of ghouls that have grown from our fear. A camper in the woods hears a loud nearby howl under a full moon? Must be a werewolf. A child laying in bed sees movement in the dark corner of the room? Has to be the Bogeyman. A night driver has a large, furry-looking “something-I’ve-never-seen-before” run in front of her car? Bigfoot, obviously.

They make for incredibly entertaining and suspenseful stories. Fortunately for us, they are stories of fiction. The myths of monsters can be traced back to an active imagination in those times where someone is confronted with something they were either too inexperienced, too afraid, or too intimidated to explore. Movement in the corner of the room? Likely a shadow. The big furry thing? Could have been anything – lots of variables at play when driving at night. That howl in the woods? Probably a regular old wolf.

And silver bullets are simply not the cure for these issues. Imagine taking a silver bullet to what you thought was a werewolf, but was actually a shadow. Shooting at a shadow makes holes in your walls, your windows, and potentially your neighbors! Silver bullets do not fix problems: they make problems. Instead of spending our time searching for silver bullets, we need to spend our time understanding the werewolf.

Silver bullets don’t work because they are misaligned to the issue at hand. We don’t need quick fix-it answers. What we need is to understand the problem, to explore the unknown and describe the issues we find as specifically as possible. See a movement in a dark corner? Don’t pull out a gun – pull out a flashlight. Look. Listen. Explore. Get more objective data about the state of things, and let that data help you identify your needs. Then let those specific needs help to define your next steps.

What often keeps us from exploring this unknown is fear, the same fear that invented the werewolf in the first place. What happens when we look under the bed – what if we see something we do not want to see? What will we need to do about what we find once we see it? This fear is what keeps us looking to fix problems from afar, and keeps us away from building solutions from within. It is far less intimidating to find a simpler and more distanced solution – like a silver bullet – that we can apply from afar.

The solution to all of this fear? Go learn. Turn on the light. Open the closet door. Look under the bed. Go into those places that you fear the most, and explore the unknown until you know exactly what needs to be done.

The other folks may be right in that there are no silver bullets, that nothing but hard work and dedicated focus can solve our problems. While I agree, I’ll also posit that it’s more impactful to recognize that there are no werewolves, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And the silver bullet for overcoming fear? To face fear head on.