Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It

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Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.

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:

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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.

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.

Shooting for Par: The Power of Purposeful Indicators

“Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

— Henry Leon Wilson, 1904

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a brief anecdote of how tackling a problem like mosquito bites can help us better understand school improvement.  That story shed light for many on the recurring pitfalls that leaders tend to encounter in the process of strategic planning for organizational change.

Such a story might be a helpful way of thinking about reaching goals in the short term, but what if the goal is more long-term?  Like perhaps…school improvement for student success?  Or even…getting good golf scores?  Can employing the thought behind strategic planning help a duffer like me start to shoot for par?  And more importantly, can describing a focused approach to becoming a better golfer really help to reframe strategic planning for school improvement?

After more than a few good walks spoiled, I’m willing to give it a shot.

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I’m far from a good golfer.  Up until this past spring, I rarely played.  But for some inexplicable reason, becoming better at the game has been on my to-do list for years.  Call it a beaten pride, a thirst for learning, or one too many spoiled walks: after my annual round this Spring Break ended up in the mid-130s again (60+ shots worse than the par of 72, for those unfamiliar with the game), I felt a need to improve.

But how would I get better?  So far, all I knew is that my goal was to get better golf scores, and my strategy was to get better at golf.  That statement could neither be more true nor less helpful.  It didn’t help me know how to act.

I decided that I needed some short-term goals, and some indicators of success toward those goals.  Up to that point, the only thing I “tracked” on the course had been my score, the number of times I struck the ball on each hole before hitting it into the cup.  So I downloaded an app to help me keep up with more than just my scores (MyCaddie Pro, for those interested in a great app that doubles as a GPS course map), and tried to decide what to start looking at.

One of my former students happened to be (and still is) a stud golfer, and he gave me some advice years ago that suddenly came to mind: “If you want to improve your score and you can only practice one thing, practice putting.”  Remembering that my last round felt as if it had far too many putts, I decided to use that as my short-term goal: hit fewer putts per round.  More specifically, my goal became to get my average number of putts per round near 36 (an average of two per hole).  Naturally, my indicator was number of putts per round.  While I had no strategy to reach this goal, at least I had a goal, one that felt attainable.

And then, I went to play.  And over the next three rounds I played, I noticed I still had pretty high scores, without any clue as to how to improve them. After averaging around 43 putts per round (7 higher than my goal), how was I supposed to get any better?

Looking at my scorecard, I noticed an interesting trend, one that helped me recognize that perhaps I was viewing my goal all wrong.  (How often does that happen in the process of school improvement?)  In a classroom situation, I would give you a copy of a couple scorecards and let you look for any trends in putting scores yourself.  Why not do the same now?

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Instead of revealing my own thinking, I’ll share another set of scorecards, all collected after having reframed my putting goal (and thus shifting the indicator for success accordingly).  Notice anything different about the putting scores?

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Well, for one thing, the scores are lower: 5 putts better per round, on average.  I’m sure that a large part of that improvement has to do with continued practice.  Personally, I attribute that success to one thing: I reframed my goal based on trends I saw in the data.  I started this experiment with the short-term goal of getting my average number of putts per round to 36 (an average of two per hole).  In the first group of scores, I noticed that I had far too many holes with more than two putts.  I realized that I would never reach my goal until I eliminated those 3-putt and 4-putt holes.

I have now reframed my goal: to reduce the number of holes where I have more than two putts.  As a result of the reframed goal, my indicator of success is the average putts per round the number of holes per round where I had two putts or less.

It may seem like a semantic difference, but this clarifying change has brought to light a strategy that has helped immensely in my putting.  Since my goal is now to reduce the number of holes where I putt more than twice, I have taken to the strategy of not necessarily trying to make the first putt.  Instead, I now imagine a hula-hoop up to 5′ in diameter surrounding the hole; my strategy is, with my first putt, I try to hit the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  My thinking is that I’m not realistically going to make too many 20-foot putts.  How many of those 20-footers can I get within three feet?  Because I can tap in from three feet without a problem.  It sounds a little hokey, but this strategy has helped me to hit far fewer 3- and 4-putt holes, while still knocking down the occasional long-distance shot on the first putt.

What does ANY of this have to do with School Improvement?

Playing golf is one of my breaks from thinking about work, and yet I find myself thinking about work a lot while playing golf.  Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

In the process of School Improvement, it is so important not only to have a goal, but to have the right goal, one that is clear and “actionable” (if that’s even the right word for this context).  In this golf example, I had a fine goal, but it wasn’t until I reframed that goal that an effective strategy became clear.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the first goal, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the right one for right now?

Also, just as in my mosquito example from the last post, the indicators here are directly tied to the goal in question.  I don’t keep data on how far back I pull my club while putting, or where I put my feet relative to my hands.  Instead, I tie the indicator directly to the goal: number of putts per round, number of holes per round with more than two putts.  Just like the importance of the clarified goal, there was a certain power in landing on a more purposeful indicator, one that more directly measured the issue I was seeing in my game.  While keeping up with the number of greater-than-2-putt holes may be a bit more challenging than tracking total putts, it is a much better indicator for the issues in my game.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the indicator that’s easy to measure, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the ones that are important and purposeful enough to measure?

Finally, while I keep those indicators on my scorecard in front of me at all times, my focus on the actual course stays on the strategies I have chosen in order to impact those indicators.  While playing, I’m not thinking about getting par; I’m trying to hit a solid tee shot.  On the green, I’m not concerned with reducing my number of 3-putt holes; I’m trying to putt the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  Sometimes, strategic plans take on a life of their own, causing those involved to forget that the purpose of the plan is to help us know how to act.  After choosing a path, schools must put their energies into fully implementing the strategies they have identified in their plans, while keeping their eyes on the chosen indicator to see if their work is having the desired effect.  It seems like both the most difficult and the most important part of strategic planning: studying the right combinations of actions and results to see if our work leads to the desired outcomes.

As for me, so far I’m happy with the results of my little “hula-hoop” strategy, and I am confident that it will help me get better golf scores (the long-term outcome, in my case…aside from having fun, of course).  Next, I’ve decided to start tracking the number of fairways I hit with my tee shot.  After one round of tracking, I’ve noticed that I miss to the right of the fairway A LOT.  Like, “missed-right-of-all-but-one-fairway-in-a-whole-round” a lot.  While I have no strategy as of yet on how to get the tee shot going straighter, I’m hopeful that keeping track of it will help me enjoy a few more good walks in the future.