A Hopeful Subversion

I have been pondering culture and the meaning of community a lot these past few weeks. A recent bout of journaling has led to thinking about our approach to strategy. In my brain, strategy is a learning agenda; it’s a hypothesis of the value of learning. Typically, you choose a goal that you think is going to matter. Then, to achieve that goal you often need to do something – and doing something often requires learning (or unlearning/re-learning) something. For me, it comes down to did we learn (then acted) on what we needed to learn and did it have the value (impact on the learner’s experience) we predicted. 

So what does strategy have to do with culture and community? The obvious answer is everything. 

I imagine you’ve heard the alleged Peter Drucker quote as often as I: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This quippy statement, often met with chortles and chuckles, has been pulled out in almost every strategic workshop I’ve been in over the past decade, and yet, my experience suggests it’s problematic to pit one against the other in any way. Rather, I believe culture is strategy. Full stop. So, following my “strategy is a learning agenda” one could surmise that why, how, and what we choose to learn is key. All of these processes, decisions, and behaviors shape and will be shaped by culture. Who decides and who does the learning is also critical. Who is the community. (I’ll move on. This is heading into an Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First bit).

Strategy is a tough nut to crack with decades of assumptions of what a strategy should be and do within an organization. It’s often the operating system that drives the priorities and behaviors of the school if anyone is paying attention to it at all. I’ve been trying to figure out a strategic approach that is more generative in nature, creating space for the “what ifs” to emerge within a model that acts as a reinforcing feedback loop between strategy and culture, with one generating more possibility in the other.

Seeing Possibility

In 2019 I introduced an Objective and Key Result (OKR) model of goal management as our strategic framework. [New to OKRs? Head here or to Doerr’s latest – and hopeful- application of OKRs to solve the climate crisis for some real inspiration]. I had experience with the model when working at AltSchool whose executive leadership team brought it from their days at Google. I appreciated the impact it had on the culture of our teams in aligning and directing efforts to achieve something purposeful.

It’s clear, concise, and drives measurable outcomes – just what a strategy is expected to do, right?

What I experienced as an effective model at a product-driven, market-dependent company, however, is falling short of what I hope for our school. We’re not quite there, yet

Let me back up for a moment. WHY we chose this strategic framework matters. We shifted from a multi-year strategy so we can continue to be responsive to our community’s needs and learning. Certainly, our school is not an outlier in this shift. Covid has highlighted how unpredictable and ambiguous circumstances really are in reality. More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate that this sense of unpredictability can lead to possibility when and where you least expect. The OKR framework is simply a tool to create alignment and engagement around shared goals on a more dynamic timeline. I believe it also can shift the relationships and power structure within the organization. Yes, leadership is responsible for illuminating a direction, but our OKRs are designed to turn our leadership team into stewards and project managers, acting in service of the efforts of our teams and students. At our school, I see the greatest value of OKRs is the transparency and the coordination of these efforts so they can add up to something valuable for learners. 

OKRs signal a different way of valuing and doing work together. It is a completely different mental model of how the school has been operating. Schools are infamous for “top-down” initiatives. In my mind, the inter-relatedness of institutional transformation and individual work are significant. At the early stages of our development, my hopeful connection was our community would see that “my work and my learning matter.” Surely, this new approach would signal a shift. Not exactly. 

In introducing this approach, we took the time to gauge our faculty’s response. Why? Only when the system can see itself can it begin to change itself.  We did a few things that fed our learning early in the process:

First, we surfaced how we each associate with things differently by playing a simple word association game. (“When I say morning, you say…”) This highlighted that there is an entire “file cabinet” of experiences and emotions that leads to our reaction. We also emphasized that their reaction is rational and informed by a mental model that has been built over time. A moment’s reaction is the sum of our past. We made this visible by creating an iceberg model in teams.

This activity made visible WHY we think the way we do when a strategy is introduced. The iceberg highlights how patterns of behavior and structures reinforce beliefs. Not only can we see the system more clearly in the icebergs, but their reflections also unveiled what we need to attend to over time.

As you can see from this team’s model, feelings of disconnect and lack of trust proliferate the community. “Same shovel with more snow,” basically says it all. We accepted and acknowledged current mental models with compassion and without judgment. Although we did our own iceberg as a leadership team and predicted much of what would surface, admittedly, it was emotional to read some of the responses.

We also didn’t take full responsibility for a solution or a clear way forward. (Yes, you read that right.) I believe we hold onto stories that serve us and we all share in perpetuating the current culture. Yes, it is important for administrators to acknowledge the experience of staff, and staff shares equal responsibility for our learning culture. This is about our personal growth and the internal dialogue we perpetuate. Things are not likely to change until we each make a choice to engage differently with each other as a community and to accept collective responsibility for bringing our school’s potential to life.

What’s Clearer To Me Now

The source of the strategy came from multiple channels of feedback across our community and more importantly from tuning in to the energy of current efforts. Although I believe we have a valuable start, I trust we can do this process better. Where we seem to be failing (in all the right ways) and where I’m finding tensions is naming the outcome of the key results before engaging in the learning with learners. The pressure is coming from the mental models we hold true for strategy. I’m often asked, “how will we measure this?” and I think many are beginning to tire of my benign smile and “it will make sense soon” response. In reality, I am beginning to sweat this one a bit, too. 

Currently, we can only imagine what it is we don’t know and what it’s going to look and feel like after we’ve worked like this for a year. The challenge with the OKR framework is it assumes a certain level of predictability, but students are not a product. We’re working with a complex, living dynamic system. If we map the entirety of our learning for what our efforts could look like, it will be a very static application on something that is organic. It will be a quick way to shut down real wonder or to listen to what is growing in our community and in the work of our learners.  

What is becoming clear is we need to have some integrity with the intent of this approach. This is where I come back to community and culture. Alongside this structure, we put in place advisers and critical friends to be sounding boards and provide feedback on each other’s efforts. We have educator competencies sketched out as a terrain for faculty’s reflection and we have learning principles in place to define the impact we hope to achieve with and for learners. This model sits in a larger system designed to help shape a new culture of learning together. 

Our strategy – our learning agenda – is my bet on this community. In three weeks, key result teams across the school will come together with artifacts of learning to reflect and tell us- based on the trajectory of learning they see in their teams – the impact we should expect. Then our job as a leadership team is to help hold us accountable for that vision.

What is clear is this model of a strategic framework for our school is my hope for the learning environment of our students, one that represents a shift in power structures and a sense of collective responsibility.

These questions I ask of our organization are the same I ask for the experience of our learners. How can we do a better job of creating multiple channels of feedback to shape the collective learning agenda alongside our students? How can we help students connect their purpose to a project that plugs into cultivating potential and holds value for their community? How do we help students develop plans and access resources to support their development? How do we match students with critical friends and advisers to expand their network of support and stretch what they believe is possible? How do we enlist their perspective to determine if we, as a community, are having the impact we hope and believe possible? 

This is why my ponderings of culture and community landed me on strategy. How we do the work and who chooses it is as important as the work that we do. Perhaps this is a bastardization of the OKR framework for the purists out there, but I’m wondering if subverting a structure that holds limits for learning at an organizational level will help us confront the structures we have for limiting the learning of our students. I’m finding the tensions incredibly helpful and hopeful when translated to a living system. In Part II, I’ll break down an example of a project and its inter-related parts in case you’re wondering how this looks on the ground.

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.

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.