A Tale of Two Meetings: Practicing Presence Over Planning

In this time of continuous scenario planning, adaptation, ambiguity, and shifting sands, I feel like I have many opportunities for the “do-over.” For readers that have been following the story, this blog-folio is really a quest to lead differently. And holy cow, that is easier said than done. Let’s take a moment to see how it’s going by examining two different meetings focused primarily on the same outcome: how do we sustain a quality learning experience for our students?

Meeting 1: Oh, the possibilities!

I walked into this meeting pumped up. This was the moment. The challenges of COVID were putting pressure on education systems across the globe. My career of dreaming and working towards new models of schooling was prime for prototyping at this special little school in central Switzerland. Our task was to rethink how we would come together as a community now that the stay at home order had been lifted. In advance of the 3-hour meeting, I encouraged principals to sketch out possibilities to start the conversation. I crafted a flow of engagement for the team to help unveil critical uncertainties that we needed to consider in the development of scenarios. Tossing one design structure in after the other, I landed on a set of protocols to shape the dialogue as we moved through a PESTLE analysis unveiling the external factors that could impact decisions made inside our organization. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners

We always begin our meetings with a check-in – sometimes extended, sometimes with a quick question to bring us into the space together and to build relationship. I can’t remember the exact question, but it was in the spirit of “what is a possibility you see at this moment?” Their answers, as expected, highlighted key lessons we were learning at this time — the importance of community, of seeing learners through a multi-dimensional lens, of partnering with parents in new ways, the importance of agency… I was so excited for the conversation. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. I imagined from here, we would dip into experiences that would stretch that reality, returning to the starting place to revise, expanding our model of learning.

But that’s not how it went. At all. We would transition into some of the tasks, conversation rich with ideas, then return to their plans. I anticipated the translation of their creativity to integrate into the initial structures, but instead, they defended the original plan. They dug their heels in, they raised their voices. They were frustrated. And, I was crushed. We weren’t really going to change much at all. Three hours later, they left with the exact same plan they walked in with, and, admittedly, I walked to my office and cried. All those plans, and no difference at all.

Meeting #2: Oh, the possibilities! (Take 2)

I walked into this meeting curious. The challenges of COVID continue to put pressure on education systems around the globe, and school leaders everywhere implement, shift, cajole and cheer educators, families, and children hoping to sustain a quality learning experience for all students. This time we were building scenarios for a possible closure, for hybrid models, for alternative schedules based on the rising cases in Switzerland. As before, I asked them to sketch out ideas to start our conversation. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners. The only thing I did to prepare was to explore digital tools that would ensure that all participants, in and out of the room, had equal opportunity to contribute. [I landed on mural, which I love, by the way].

As always, we began with a check-in. Instead of priming the pump, I just wanted to know how they were stepping into the space. I wanted to know how they were really doing. And I needed to take a moment to acknowledge how I was stepping into the space. Using Junto’s Wheel of Emotion, we shared our words and what was leading to the emotion. “Hopeful, proud, excited…” I was surprised. My word? “Nervous.” The last meeting wasn’t great. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. Then, I asked them what they needed next.

The blank digital whiteboard filled up with post-its, highlighting what would make this time a win for them. Dot voting led to prioritization and we dug into the conversation, working through the co-constructed agenda items one by one, solidifying agreement, raising questions to tackle, pushing back on each other’s ideas. I worked the board. I captured their ideas, continuously shaping new pictures of a response system, altering it as they worked through different schedules and alternative decisions. A continuum emerged that would serve as the foundation for community communication, next steps with teams, and a guide for our own decision making moving forward. It took 90 minutes.

I was relieved they found the time effective and valuable. I was satisfied that there was shared clarity. I wasn’t inspired. I didn’t see the seeds of innovation taking root, but compared to the last meeting, I felt a little bit of triumph. I got up to leave, thinking they would as well.

Instead the conversation continued. Not at that moment, but in the meetings that followed. They started asking how a hybrid model might push us to think differently about the curriculum. They started thinking through new schedules to carry into the “next normal.” This meeting opened up a conversation we’re still having that landed on the same possibilities I’ve been eager to explore.

When reflecting on these two experiences, it’s clear how much of a barrier I can be in the cultivation of a generative social field. For decades I’ve been building a toolbox of facilitation strategies, from design thinking activities to visible thinking protocols. I pull from pages of ideas I’ve been collecting over time, planning and crafting an experience. The protocols themselves lend to collaboration, to critical engagement in ways that I’ve always felt were successful and are often celebrated. What I haven’t been cultivating as much is trust. What I haven’t been cultivating is the balance between my own vision (full of blindspots), with the hopes and aspirations of a community. What I haven’t been cultivating is patience and presence. A protocol is not going to sufficiently change education. People authentically working together might.

Uncovering Blind Spots of Experience: Facing Urgency with Patience

We make the road by walking.

Paulo Friere and Myles Horton
Photo by Jeremy Lishner on Unsplash

I’ve been facilitating professional learning for the bulk of my career, beginning as a school designer and instructional coach with EL Education in 2004. What I learned in those early days of working with teachers and principals is the importance of “wearing the student hat” in our own learning, of experiencing the role of a student when expanding pedagogy. Friend and former colleague Meg Riordan and her writing partner Emily Klein highlight the research behind the experiential professional development model in this article exploring the four key components that contribute to the success of transferring their learning to the learning experience of students. Over the years I’ve learned an experiential model of professional learning does lend to meaningful change.

Now we find ourselves in need of urgent change, not only because the systems and structures of education fall short of serving all students, which has been true for a long time, but because so many teachers, students and families have been catapulted into new environments for engaging in learning.

We’ve always held high expectations for our teachers, and over time we’ve piled more and more on their plates without really removing anything. Now we’ve placed on them the need to revolutionize an education system brilliant in its design – but certainly not its outcomes – resilient to change in so many ways. We bombard them with webinars; we drip-feed new instructional strategies via twitter; we cheer from the sidelines, changing their job descriptions and expanding their roles. Until we rethink how we will approach change, our efforts are likely to fall short of achieving a future that is possible.

So where might that leave us? Last week I wrapped up the first stage of what will be a year-long commitment focused on Compassionate Systems, a mindset and a set of tools that helps uncover blindspots of both individuals and communities. This global team of forty educators and community leaders, led by Peter Senge, Mette Miriam Boell and the team at the Center for Systems Awareness, has been invited to grow into master practitioners who can develop an organizational climate and culture that ultimately ensures people within the community (students, parents, teachers and leaders) are adept at integrating the inner and outer dimensions of systems awareness.

Dustin Yellin’s Psychogeographies invite viewers to engage with the legions of their own consciousness and its embodied emotions as well as that of our shared collective society and its infrastructures. To me, his work is a perfect representation of the social field. (Courtesy, https://dustinyellin.com/)

After five days immersed online with this community, it’s interesting that I found my way back to what I’ve believed to be true for most of my career: experience is the ultimate teacher. Much like my days with EL, I recognize how important it is that we don the learner hat and experience the shifts intimately for ourselves. What is becoming clearer, however, is how we experience things. Yes, reflection is critical, but over the last five days I recognized there are additional dimensions to experience I hadn’t considered both personally and in my role as a leader. There exist dimensions that will allow us to move beyond historical approaches and replications of “better”, yet similar, systems of bias and inequity.

At this stage, I barely have the language to capture what is emerging. The closest I can find is the work of neuroscientist Francisco Varela. Verala’s work highlights the importance of an awareness of our lived experience, not just reflection after the fact.

What is becoming more clear is the role the Compassionate Systems tools play in deepening this awareness – an awareness perhaps that allows us to break the patterns of the past and make space for a very different future to emerge.

I see implications on my (well, anyone’s) work based on Verala’s insights. The first is a commitment to modeling meta-awareness. In this moment’s urgent need for change, I recognize speed will only diminish the potential of the school. I’m committed to stepping into this space of change conscious and careful so as not to reduce the transformational promise of this moment. Not only does this demand a patience I often struggle to employ, it means cultivating both the vulnerability and the discipline to make visible my own attentive state and my emergent thought process. This is sure to be an interesting ride.

Three Actions to Challenge the Status Quo of Change

The symbol of the dandelion: resilient. resistant. regenerative. decentralized
(brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 34)

Emergent Strategy is about shifting the way we see and feel the world and each other. If we begin to understand ourselves as practice ground for transformation, we can transform the world.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 143

I have learned again and again (and again) the importance of transparency as a leader. I believe in its importance but sometimes struggle to make transparent the layers of my thinking and intention when working with organizations. That is why I am so grateful for the work of Peter Senge, Meg Wheatley, Bob Kegan and a line-up of others who both inspire and inform my work. I depend on their voices to help shape and share my own narrative of change.

Recently, I have been exploring a new voice that resonates deeply with my approach and belief about change. That voice is adrienne maree brown. brown is an American author, doula, women’s rights activist and black feminist based in Detroit, Michigan. At the heart of all her work is facilitating, within and beyond the organizations she served. Her 2017 book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds challenges change models that stem from linear organizing based on a belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change. Instead she highlights that “emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32). Emergent strategy mirrors my hypothesis that we need to shift from a mechanistic view to a living-systems view of organization design if we are to create the conditions where every individual within schools can thrive.

So what is meant by emergence? Emergence is the way complex systems and pattern arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions… Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 11,12

Principles of Emergent Strategy

I found that brown’s principles of emergent strategy provide a strong guide to anchor my efforts and tune my attention. (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 32)

  • Small is good; small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.
  • Change is constant; be like water.
  • There is always enough time for the right work.
  • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  • Never a failure, always a lesson.
  • Trust the people.
  • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships
  • Less prep, more presence.

These principles, alongside the six elements she uses to inform her own work provide a sharp framework for challenging the status quo of change. Included in the book is a “quickie assessment” for measuring one’s embodiment of emergent strategy at this moment (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 135). Through the assessment and reading, reflecting and simply meandering through her book (which is as poetic as it is pragmatic) I landed on three actions I believe will advance my ability to cultivate a model of leadership that drives a new paradigm of change.

Challenging the Status Quo

Work to identify, “What is the next most elegant step?” Like brown, I love, love, love this question. Too often I am steps ahead in a plan, jumping into conversations with the intent to get people where I am now. This stems from my intention to support people, to provide them with a clear path so perhaps they won’t feel anxious or burdened. It also stems from history – the expectation that I know, as the leader, what we need to be doing. This, I realize, only perpetuates the current, short-sighted view of leadership. brown highlights, “an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. An elegant step allows humility, allows people to say “Actually we need to do some research” or “Actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room” or “Actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable.” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 163). The goal instead is to look for the next step as one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go.

Add to my listening repertoire. Once upon a time I would have said I am a poor listener. In various situations I would find my mind wandering, tuning out or even worse, turning in to listen for the moment I could enter to build on my case, responding before I had any real sense of understanding. My habits of listening were closing the space of possibility. “At the human scale, in order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. We have to recognize that a multitude of realities have, do, and will exist” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 115). I continue to deepen my practice of listening (and it does take practice) to amplify what is emerging within a conversation. I recognize now it’s not just about being a “good” or “bad” listener; instead, it is about what level of listening do I engage in, and when.

Recently, I had an experience that elevated my awareness of the levels of listening. As part of a cohort of change leaders across the globe, I had the opportunity to use a case clinic protocol to investigate what would typically be a problem of practice. Unlike other protocols I’ve used to help a colleague think through and respond to a challenge they may have, this format invites a level of listening that requires stillness and mirroring back through imagery what was heard. It’s the first time, I understood the power of Otto Scharmer’s four levels of listening, especially in the space of collective creativity.

For more, check out Kelvy Bird‘s beautiful visuals and write-ups on this work in practice.

Utilize proposal-based decision making. There is little that frustrates me more than a group spinning around a decision, unsure if a decision has been made or if they even know what they are deciding to do, or if they are making a decision at all! (Perhaps it’s just a conversation.) Reaching consensus on ambitious proposals aiming for big results can be a daunting task, and I often go about it all wrong. This tool for facilitators leading proposal-based decision making creates the opportunity for equity by making space
for everyone to provide input and is used to get decisions that stick, decisions that everyone can support and that lead to action. I’ve had varying success so far with this approach. When the process does fall short, it is because I’ve failed to devote enough time to the conversation, I don’t have the right people in the room or I’ve set inappropriate expectations for the level of consensus that is needed. As brown points out, however, “eventually in most groups, you develop your own rhythm and code for this. Some groups only move forward when everyone is all in. Others do modified versions of consensus. The key is cultivating transparency, honesty in the decision-making process” (brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy, 174).

brown’s book is more than a treat for leaders seeking new ways to empower and elevate possibility. It is a treatise on how deep attention lends to emergent acts that can impact a learner’s experience in fundamental ways.

Mission, Meetings, and Muda

It’s been a while since I took the time to gather my thoughts. The end of last school year was such a relief that I ran, both literally and figuratively, from so many of the realities that remain. While the pandemic continues to sweep the globe, impacting millions and racial pressures continue to bubble above and below the surface, I feel choked up with emotions and words unspoken. Silence and inactivity, however, are not a solution.

So, I return to chisel away at the fixed, industrial age of education that seeks predictability and uniformity to reveal a system that honors and grows the uniqueness of each individual.

As we know, this fundamental change of how we “do school” cannot be approached as yet another “change initiative.” We cannot combat challenges such as systemic racism nor learning for our complex future by inserting online instructional strategies or adopting a new project-based management tool. As Senge et al, highlighted in The Dance of Change “the sources of these problems cannot be remedied by more expert advice, better consultants, or more committed managers. The sources lie in our most basic ways of thinking. If these do not change, any “input”, will end up producing the same fundamentally unproductive types of actions” (pg. 6).

The thinking I’m challenging at this time is the use of time itself. Our school leadership team launched the school year in typical fashion: a retreat to both ground ourselves and calibrate direction based on the spring’s learning. Plans were in place to use Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, our summer read, to reflect. Interestingly, however, we ended up in a very different place than we first imagined. Instead of doubling down on improving the processes of our team as predicted, we started by questioning why we even meet as a team.

Aside from admitting every school we’ve worked at had a leadership team that met weekly, it became less clear if coming together with any regular cadence was of greatest service to the organization and actualizing our mission. Instead, we committed to coming together only if there was an explicit purpose that required us to be in a room together and that this meeting would be the best use of our time.

Time, or lack thereof, is always noted as one of the greatest constraints of change. Senge underscores that “the fundamental problem, in the end, is not lack of time per se, but lack of time flexibility... Often, people’s time is so consumed with tasks and goals forced by management, they have little discretionary time to pursue what might be much more important for them, and the organization, in the long run (Dance of Change, 68). To this, I would add we are so consumed with tasks and goals not only forced by management but also by sheer momentum and routine as well. Until we consciously disrupt “business as usual”, we will fall short of creating the generative space that allows for new possibilities to emerge.

So how do we do this? I’m quite taken by lean improvement processes and have spent years exploring how other industries approach change. Toyota Production Service is a model I return to again and again. Through systemic structures, Toyota’s organizational culture includes cultivating an awareness of “Muda.” In simplest terms, Muda means wastefulness, uselessness, and futility. (There are complementary concepts – Mura and Muri – which I’m sure I’ll be eager to explore here at a different time). If we are to open up time not only for leadership but more importantly for educators and students alike to pursue emerging ideas, what are we asking people to do that does not bring value to the learner’s experience? Without taking you too far down the rabbit hole of Taiichi Ohno’s management philosophy, there are seven wastes recognized in Muda. I’ve taken what are typically manufacturing wastes and translated some of them into questions I’m exploring as we start the year.

  • Unnecessary movement between stages of a process: How do I support ISZL in amplifying small powerful acts to develop and test in the simplest way possible? What triggers the move from one state to the next?
  • Idle tasks. The Muda of waiting is easily the most obvious form of waste. There is no doubt that ISZL is peppered with potentially transformative ideas, left idle. Commonly this exists because people lack the capacity to pull the ideas through the queue into exploration and action. How might I create flexible spaces to invite the willing and the curious to build skills and understanding that may translate across the system over time?
  • Doing more than is necessary. The over-processing Muda often comes from defining success for your “client” too loosely. For example, team members strive to deliver 100% when one might only need 75% to reach their goals. At ISZL, what is the smallest unit of change that would inspire and engage learners in new ways?

The leadership meeting, when left without revisiting intention, each and every week, was slipping into Muda. I discovered it was easier to let go of our leadership meeting because other elements and behaviors within the system had already begun to change. We could identify waste because we sharpened our focus on ISZL’s mission and vision. This focus allowed for a strategic approach that included shorter timelines modeled after Grove’s philosophy made famous by John Doerr’s OKR framework at Google. This shift from the 2-3 year strategic improvement plan enabled us to identify essential projects and the people best positioned to tackle these projects. We quickly discovered those projects required different people in the room than us.. Anthony Kim and the team from Ed Elements have unpacked this responsive approach beautifully in The New School Rules. It wasn’t until I rethought how we approached strategy and questioned my fundamental belief about who drives change that I could let go of inefficiencies I once believed necessary.

Push Pause: The Compassionate Pre-Mortem

[Before you start reading. I committed to posting weekly, so I’m posting. It’s a reflection I started early last week, before May 25. It is hard to ignore what is happening in the US right now, and quite frankly, the world. The pain and injustices of black people – marginalized people – is all of our responsibility. I post today not blind to the inequities that exist but because of those inequities. I went into education for a reason and that reason has never been more clear. If we don’t think differently about how to cultivate a system where everyone has a right to thrive, then we are the problem. Perhaps what follows may provide a step to honoring the communities that we serve, wherever they may be.]

Wherever I seem to turn these days, people are posting plans for reopening, redesigning, or reimagining school for August and September. I get it. It’s a critical time in education. It’s during such moments, however, that stepping back can make a huge difference when it comes to creating a possible future. Unless we pause during this planning stage, “we will fail to see the blind spots of our change efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas. We will fail to see that transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.” (Peter Senge)

What could that look like? A key tool I return to again and again is the process of the pre-mortem. In brief, a pre-mortem is a meeting before a plan is implemented or a project starts in which a team imagines what might happen to cause it to fail. The team then works backward to create a plan to help prevent potential obstacles and increase the chances of success. This technique is recommended by behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists as an especially effective way of combatting cognitive bias and reducing project risk. I was introduced to the pre-mortem by a colleague during my days at @AltitudeLearning while designing an onboarding experience for teachers new to our platform. Since then I’ve used it for things such as developing our professional learning framework, in-service days, schedules, and projects with students. There was even one awkward moment that I tried to use it with my husband to plan an especially complicated climbing trip.

From Gamestorming

What do you do? The process is deceptively simple.

  • Prepare: Before you start the pre-mortem, make sure everyone is clear on the plan. And by everyone I mean a team of representative stakeholders. It’s best to have a full range of perspectives. I’ve messed this up before. For example, the first pre-mortem of our professional learning plan was with our senior leadership team. However, when I reran the process with a few teachers, I discovered a whole pile of challenges we couldn’t even see. Once everyone has the plan, drop the bomb and let them know the project was an epic fail.
  • Why Did the Project Fail? Give the team an hour or more to identify why the project failed. I usually start with individual brainstorming then shift to small groups. Tell them to be as imaginative as they can, capturing all their ideas in writing.
  • Share Reasons for Failure: Ask each person to share one item on their list and continue to go around the room until everyone has exhausted their lists. Record all reasons on a white board or a shared digital document. Depending on how long the list can get — and sometimes it’s overwhelmingly long – if need be, spend some time prioritizing which ones feel like challenges that significantly impact the success of the project.
  • Brainstorm with solutions: Get back into those small groups and begin to tackle possible solutions, mitigating risks to success and strengthening the plan through adding or revising their original step.

Here are a few prompts I’ve used to get the ball rolling:

Describe the failure.

  • What important stuff did we not do?
  • What unimportant stuff did we do?
  • What current problems remain?
  • What new problems emerged?

Consider Symptoms and Causes.

  • How will we know we failed?
  • What got in the way?
  • Was there something we lacked?
  • Was it not well coordinated? Communicated? Supported?

If you get this far, then it’s a win. You’ll get a whole bunch of mileage from this process. However, recently, I’ve added a new dimension to the pre-mortem using a lens of the Center for Systems Awareness’s Compassionate Systems Framework. It has elevated the process and guided me in considering more systemic outcomes. I haven’t played with this a bunch yet, but by simply reflecting on the the three core capacities of system leaders as part of this process, I noticed not only better plans but more authentic work.

The three capacities represent an inter-related set of competencies (as Peter would jokingly refer to as, “the three sides of the same coin” or, more practically, the three legs of a stool) for a deep commitment to learning.  As a result, they engender an alternative set of behaviors needed to allow a  group of people to work at their best so that the organization creates the results that matter to them. The first is a the spirit of deep intention.  The Learner/Leader crystallizes their vision of what actually are we trying to accomplish. The second leg represents the capacity for reflective conversation. The third leg is about seeing the larger system to understand complexity.  

Where does it fit? For the most part, the process is similar, but I’ve integrated additional reflective prompts to use during the pre-mortem stage to help uncover blind spots and pursue a more generative social field. I noticed in the first round of prompts, I focused teams more on reactive problem solving without acknowledging long-term value creation.

Additional Prompts:

  • Do we allow people to orient themselves toward what they truly care about?
  • Do we provide the space for people to change in ways they want to?
  • How does this align to our shared vision or help us continue to deepen our understanding of a shared vision?
  • Have we identified what we can do with the new thinking that emerges?
  • Do we build on our habits of reflection and inquiry?
  • How have we enabled that we all learn from the insights of individuals?

These few “simple” questions led to a big shift in my plans for a faculty conversations last week. Originally designed more as a workshop model where I had planned to solve what I perceived as a school-wide challenge, I completely shifted the structure to invite people to explore their own challenge, offering up shared tools as a lens to see if it helped them make sense of things they cared about. I shifted the bulk of the meeting from whole group to small group dialogue, bringing people back to share reflections and insights.

It was an interesting (good?) first step in re-orienting myself. So many of us are eager to step into this time of possibility with dreams that perhaps were seeded decades ago. (At least that is true in my case.) Yet following the approaches to change we’ve always followed is unlikely to lead to the potential we see, and likely to perpetuate the same systemic shortcomings. As Peter points out, “organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together.”

…. creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. Right now, it feels like we have a long way to go.

Learn More

Please stop using the term “non-essential worker” and think about the job to be done

If I’ve learned anything about schools during this most unusual time, I’ve learned school is about community. This isn’t a new insight for many, I’m sure. Yet, in all my work of thinking through how to do education better, I failed to place the right amount of value on this fundamental truth. Without a doubt, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the complexities of community. But for now, the questions on my mind are how do we support our communities? More importantly, how do we value everyone in the community through honoring all they can contribute?

This is why I bristle at the term “non-essential worker” and applaud schools that are rethinking the role people play when taking responsibility for the education of children. (For example, I applaud the districts, like Austin ISD, who are using school buses to establish wifi hotspots for students that don’t have access to the internet). During this time of crisis, I’ve had to shift my thinking away from the jobs people were hired to do and instead focus on the jobs that needed to be done.

I first learned about the jobs to be done theory when I was lucky enough to work on a project with Michael Horn. For me, the jobs to be done theory (JTBD) is best defined as a perspective — a lens by which one understands some area of life where a customer is at the center of a struggle, and they want some help solving the problem. I use this lens a lot because it helps push my thinking beyond typical solutions so I can serve others better. In this case, the customer is our school community and the job to be done is simple. It is connection. Now more than ever, the connection of community is critical to well-being.

With this lens in place, with this clarity of what people were struggling with in this moment, I recognized that those that had the time, like our transportation manager who couldn’t do the job she was hired to do, were invaluable, not non-essential. She, along with 27 other invaluable members of our staff, organized to reach out weekly to every family with a phone call asking how they were doing. They weren’t asking about a missed assignment. They weren’t updating them on reopening plans. They were simply checking in on how they were experiencing this time as people. And the results blew me away. I discovered talents on our team that only came into play because we were able to see beyond their everyday role and instead, shift their efforts and offer the support to ensure they could address a clear need.

Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done Framework

I’m finding the JTBD lens a crucial tool at this time. There is a thundering call for change in education based on challenges we cannot turn away from and opportunities that are emerging. It’s both exciting and daunting. As a leader, I’m beginning to sort through the possibilities that are emerging for our community. This framework is especially helpful when you begin with the end. What are we trying to achieve and more importantly, for whom? How does understanding the struggle of students and teachers especially give us greater clarity on how we employ the talents of a community and refine – even transform – our services? Michael’s latest book Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life was a good catalyst to return to the JTBD theory to sharpen our school’s strategy. I worry that all the chatter about change, although well-intended, is disconnected from the jobs our students and our community are trying to accomplish. What is emerging for me is the tension between what our community is hiring our school to do and what I think should be done. This, I suppose, is the challenge of Servant – Leadership. What is helpful at this moment is to be crystal clear on who I am here to serve and whose struggle I can help solve. Right now, our community is in need and the tool led to a solution that expanded beyond the boundary of what we were hired to do. Ultimately, however, I am here to serve learners. In what way might the tool lead to a solution that expands beyond our current traditional jobs at school? That is what I’ll tackle next.

… begin. Again: Re-owning the learner experience designer mindset

This moment away from our campuses has taught us much, and I imagine, it will be some time before we surface all the key learnings that will seed all that is possible. One thing, however, is becoming clear: when I fail to design an experience without putting the “user” at the center, I fail to create opportunities where people can thrive. At this stage, the user I’m focused on is most often educators and leaders. I’ve learned it’s not enough to focus on the usual instructional and meeting facilitation moves, instead I need to focus on developing engaging and collaborative experiences that extend beyond business as usual if I hope for long-lasting change. For that to happen, I’ve been thinking through how to tackle and cultivate a mindset shift from an instructional designer to a learning experience designer (LXD) whether we’re online (where this lesson has become very clear) or when we’re together as a learning community. (The importance doesn’t go away).

So let’s break this down a bit. Learner experience designer? Huh? Let’s start with a basic definition.

Margaret Weigel, from Six Red Marbles, defines LXD as a synthesis of instructional design, educational pedagogy, neuroscience, social sciences, design thinking, and user experience design. It truly takes the best practices of each of these fields and combines them to create learning that is experiential, engaging, impactful, and designed with the learner (instead of the instructor) in mind.

Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience:
Moving From “User” to “Learner”

What’s powerful about this? A designer at heart is a problem solver. Without a problem to solve a designer has little value. We continue to learn that traditional instructional design is more and more dated. Advances in cognitive science are consistently showing that understanding doesn’t happen through instruction but through the experiences themselves, guided reflection and the application in new and meaningful situations. So why do we keep focusing on the instruction and not the learner? As a learning experience designer, my focus should be on the problems my user (learner, educator, leader) is trying to solve in order to meet their desired outcome. My first question should always be: what is the user (learner, educator, leader) trying to accomplish?

Andre Plaut, a LXD for Apple, Obama for America, and General Assembly., highlighted the top five “problems” that typically emerge:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete their task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

The LXD mindset has proven to be a powerful guide for both designing and reflecting – and that is why I write today’s post. I kinda blew it (remember this is a learning blog, not a showcase blog). It = a meeting with 9 leaders grappling with a re-opening plan. Without unpacking the whole darn meeting (essentially a design session to solve for an extreme scenario) I failed to lead with the most important thing: what is the user trying to accomplish? (Yes, the critical empathy piece). I solved for knowledge, for skills, and certainly for access, but I didn’t design an experience where my user walked away confident – and this is what mattered to them most. What leader wouldn’t want to feel confident in re-opening campus after a global pandemic? D’Oh!

It strikes me that we do this all the time with kids. We seek to solve for the wrong problems — problems we imagine or think important, instead of those that are authentic to them. This is hard. Some days more than others. So, as my meditation teacher says, just find your breath, and begin. Again.

Additional Resources:

in medias res.

Photo by Manuel Polo on Unsplash

In medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events…

The Write Practice

More than twenty years in and I’m not sure I can even recall the beginning, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? If I was doing this right, our scene would open at the end of the journey (insert The Odyssey here) building a driving need to know: How ever did we end up here, like this? But alas, nothing quite so elegant for these pages because I find learning is messy, sometimes poorly timed and most often understood in retrospect.

Our story opens in the space between a quick classroom conversation (yes, we’ve reopened our campus) and a Zoom meeting (hardly a unique setting these days). First, the Zoom meeting. Ninety- eight educators, leaders, and community organizers from around the globe committed to understanding and utilizing the Compassionate Systems Framework. The conversation, launched by Peter Senge, begins with a brief meditation before shifting to the focus of our gathering: generative social fields. In brief, generative social fields are the relational spaces in which we all live. This Zoom call is part of a weekly exploration of how shifts in these spaces can lead to the transformation of individuals, families, and organizations. (For a full explanation, head to Boell and Senge’s School Climate and Social Fields).

Through engaging in this call, I was reminded of the importance of knowing how I show up because how we show up matters. I didn’t slip in that we started with meditation to be “on trend.” I called it out because it’s essential for people (adults and kids alike) to pause and become aware of their emotional, physical state – to make explicit, the implicit. I am of greatest service to the teams and schools I work with when I understand the place from which I (the leader) operate, as Otto Scharmer would put it.

I now know why a quick conversation with one of our third grade teachers gave me pause and hope for the change we are capable of in education. In a conversation with her students, this teacher called out in a very authentic way that it “feels weird” for her to determine how they plan their time when they’ve had such independence. “Does that even make sense anymore?” she asked.

I imagine students scoffing at the idea that they would pick up where they left off. Then, the crucial question emerged, “if we continue to do our work independently, now that we’re back at school when should we come together and why?”

Why, indeed. It does beg the question what is the purpose of school. Why come together and in this way? It also highlights that these students (like so many others) are poised to help us discover our best self as a community when placed in the generative social field like the one this teacher is cultivating. How will we show up in this space we return to? Will we recognize we’ve changed in simple and sometimes fundamental ways? Will we allow for authentic questions to emerge and new voices to respond?

When coming together in generative ways, Senge noted, “We don’t have to work too hard. We just have to look.” And, I would add, listen.