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.

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

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.