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.

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.