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

spider_man_color_by_txboi001-d4f3ufn

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.

Half Empty? Half Full? That’s Only Half The Story

Photo Sep 11, 10 37 46 PMIt’s the age-old “optimist or pessimist” question: do you see this glass as half-empty or half-full? As it turns out, there are a variety of ways to answer that question outside of the “either/or” choice provided, and that could tell you a lot more about how you (and those around you) perceive the world.

For instance, this website contains a collection of funny one-liners imagining different professions answering the question. An engineer might see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be, while an entrepreneur sees a glass undervalued by half its potential.

West Wing fans may remember White House speech writer (and noted grumpy-pants) Toby Ziegler’s passionate response: “Half-full, half-empty- can we at least agree it’s not full yet?”

And when I’m asked that question, I generally respond with a smarty-pants science guy answer: “You know, the glass is ENTIRELY full. It’s just half-filled with water, and half-filled with air!” #nerdalert, I know.

Those who know me (and have read other posts on this blog, like this one and this one) know that I think about organizational change a lot, specifically through a reasonable facsimile of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation work. This metaphor recently came to mind, and I thought it might be interesting to consider how I would imagine five aforementioned “adopter types” responding to this question:

If you had this glass of water, what would you do with it?

  • The Daredevil: “We’ve got some water- let’s drink it! Or splash it! Or pour it on our heads! Or we could float something in it! Wait- AND WE’VE GOT A GLASS, TOO? Let’s see what we could do with that!”
  • The Early Adopter: “I say we drink the water so we can keep on pressing forward and be better hydrated. And I heard that guy over there talk about what he was going to do with the glass- I hadn’t thought of that as a resource. Once we finish our water, let’s keep the glass and fill it the next chance we get!”
  • The Pragmatist: “Well, let’s see. It’s looking like it’s half-empty…but it’s also half-full. What are we going to do with this water? I’m really not sure. I want to make sure I’m putting it to good use, so if I could see someone else use this water successfully, then I’d feel a lot better about doing anything with it.”
  • The Skeptic: “You know, it’s not really THAT much water. I mean, we could drink it, but then it would all be gone! I’m thinking we hold on to it- keep the water we have, and make sure we have it available when the time strikes. I’d hate to be in a situation where I really needed water and there was none to be had.”
  • The Cynic: “Wait…you call that A GLASS OF WATER? That’s NOTHING. And besides, I can’t believe someone would dirty an entire glass, drink a half of it, and then just leave the rest sitting out. What is their problem? I seriously do not understand why people can’t just well enough alone.”

It’s kind of funny to read in this context, but I really do think that this little vignette encapsulates the wide variety of perceptions that different people tend to have about the exact same reality in the face of potential change.

Writing this post was inspired by an Oscar Wilde quote: “What is a cynic? Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” My contention is that change adoption types tends to correlate to their recognition of perceived value versus perceived cost. My thinking is that this continuum of adoption types follows a relatively linear progression that balances perceived value and perceive cost in a given situation:

Screenshot 2014-09-12 07.22.19

So, what does this all mean for leaders wrestling with organizational change?

  • Come to grips with your own lens. How do you tend to perceive the situations your organization faces? Are you more of a Daredevil, seeing only the value of change without any of the costs? Or perhaps more like the Skeptic, noticing many more of the costs from the outset? Understanding yourself may become a window into your own values when it comes to leading change, and could help you uncover potential blind spots you might not naturally see.
  • Incorporate the viewpoints of counter-perspectives into your own vision. It can be a challenge to let your inner voice be quiet enough to recognize the truths in what you hear in viewpoints opposing your ideas for change. That does not make these viewpoints any less valid. If you tend to see the “glass half full,” go find a Skeptic who easily sees inherent costs, and present them with your idea for change. Holes will be poked, no doubt. But these are holes that you can fill, which will make your plan much richer as a result.
  • Listen for the lens that others are using, and let it inform your communications. The better you can understand others, the more likely you know how to engage them in the change process. Know a Daredevil who always tends to “jump right in”? Recognize that they’ll jump right in (though be wary if they don’t, and ask them why they didn’t). Pragmatists, however, may need a model before they’ll consider changing- consider enrolling your Early Adopters to help you build one. And the Cynics? They may never enroll- not until the change no longer looks like a change.

When considering this post through another lens, a different kind of “change” came to mind: Which to choose, Heads or Tails? A quippy quote:

Let’s stop arguing “either/ors” of heads & tails and realize what we have is one coin. Then we can spend our time figuring out what that coin is worth.

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.

Learning as a Mash-Up

I’m a sucker for music mash-ups.  Whether it’s one of the more prominent early mash-ups pairing Nirvana & Destiny’s Childa reworked Beatles record backing Jay-Z’s lyrics (careful with the language on that one), or even a new video from those crazy kids from Glee, consider me hooked in. Though the trend may not be as viral as it was when the novelty first arose in the early-’00s, the practice still strikes a chord in me, as I get down on making “new” ideas by putting two “old” ideas together when they fit.

In the introduction to Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, the authors describe their book as a complement to one specific section of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: “In [our] book…we will identify the traits that make ideas sticky, a subject that was beyond the scope of Gladwell’s book [in the chapter, “The Stickiness Factor”].”  Their description made me think: what would a mash-up of these two books look like?  If I could make a flexbook that switched from the words of Gladwell to those of the Heaths right at the opportune moment, what would that do for my learning?

I started a mindmap using bubbl.us to chronicle the start of some of these contextual connections between the two books.  While the Heaths’ suggestions about making ideas “sticky” greatly appeal to me in terms of shifts in practice (probably a reflection for another post sometime), building this map has me wondering about the next steps related to this “mash-up” idea:

  • Does anyone out there know of a similar “companion text” that might go into more detail related to “The Law of the Few” or “The Power of Context,” the other two focal points in Gladwell’s book?
  • Has anyone seen any real-time flexbook makers for making connections/combinations such as these? While I could dissemble my copies of these books and rebound them, I’m feeling as if there must be a tech tool that might help me in this kind of process.