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.

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.

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.

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