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.