Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky

Pulling Threads: Unraveling Foundations

“The faster the car, the further the headlights must go.” -Gaston Berger

It is difficult to put into words the amount of pain, suffering, disruption and damage this pandemic has wreaked across society. It cannot be understated, ignored or denied. And yet, on other fronts, it has acted as catalyst for rapid, sweeping change. Riding alongside this pandemic has been plethora of panruption. We’ve watched business transformed from mortar to mobile. Education has moved from the schoolhouse to the homestead. Every facet of society has experienced or continues to experience some form of change or transformation, often in an ultra-accelerated manner. And for that reason…

Adaptability, agility and learnability through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity under continuously shifting context and circumstances has become our current environment under which we are required to survive and thrive. 

It is the environment we planned for, but never truly expected to experience or ever arrive. But no matter, as it has become our current context, the one we currently reside within, both as individuals and as organizations. And for that reason, we are learning that our legacy mannerisms are limiting factors that tend to pigeon hole us and our organizations in past practices that have or are currently losing any semblance of relevance for the future. We can no longer define ourselves by where we’ve been or what we’ve achieved previously, as it has become imperative that we are able to adapt and reinvent our systems continuously in moving forward. It is the loop that we find ourselves and our organizations in. And we are finding it to be an incredibly heavy lift.

It is a learning challenge. 

It is an adaptive challenge.

And it is an everyone challenge…

If we are going to engage the action and language of real transformation.

And it will require pulling threads, no longer just out of curiosity, but now out of necessity and need. Everywhere we look there are threads hanging, waiting to be pulled. But we know, once those threads are pulled, there is no going back once the unraveling begins. And that can be deeply unsettling, not only in the unknowns that lie behind those hanging threads, but the paradigm shifts that accompany them.

Pulling threads takes us into and opens up spaces that we’ve tended to avoid or even failed to acknowledge. We can no longer choose to neatly cut off these threads and move on. We have to prepare ourselves for the unraveling. We have to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what these unravelings will provoke, the reflection they will require, the learning they will necessitate, and the action that they will eventually initiate.

And at an even deeper level, it is also in realizing that the pulling of these threads will unravel the mental models and maps that we’ve all built up as individuals and as organizations.

Pulling threads also opens up new possibilities and moves us towards a variety of emerging futures, which will necessitate much more exploring of new learnings, new strategies and new thinking. For, if we are going to get to a point of truly doing different, we will have to learn to think different.

Here are just a few concepts, frameworks, tools and strategies to explore and threads to begin to pull…

  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Strategic Foresight
  • Sensemaking
  • Scenarios and Scenario Planning
  • Experiential Futures
  • Horizon or Environmental Scanning 
  • Strategic and/or Future Narratives
  • Emergence / Emergent Complexity
  • Identifying and Mapping Change Drivers
  • Axes of Uncertainty
  • Trend Analysis
  • Backcasting
  • Networks
  • Forecasting

We live in a time where no one concept, framework, tool or strategy will be enough to move us forward into these emerging futures effectively. Rather, it will require the braiding of these in ways that best supports individual and current circumstances and the context in which they reside. It will necessitate moving past either/or to and thinking, as well as understanding that we have to create broad agency within each individual as well as an anticipatory stance towards creating and moving from what we see as plausible to much more possible futures.

“It is important that the future be seen as a number of possible alternatives. Futures, not future.” -Eleonara Masini

 

The Two Types…

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”  –Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress

There is something about that quote that I just love, it stirs something inside.  It is also incredibly fitting for our current circumstances in education.  Especially, in regards to “we must think anew, and act anew.”  And most importantly, we must “disenthrall ourselves.”  It is really an outstanding quote for the 21st century mindset.  However, most of you will be less familiar with this quote as it extends from Abraham Lincoln, than from Sir Ken Robinson’s famed TED-talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution.”  If you haven’t watched “Bring on the Learning Revolution,” it is truly worth taking the time.

Besides his moving use of Lincoln’s Message to Congress, Ken Robinson references Jeremy Bentham, an English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer.  And to quote, “It was Jeremy Bentham, I believe who said there are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who don’t.”  For which he replies, “Well, these days I do.”

Though I have watched this TED-talk a number of times and referenced bits and clips for a variety of presentations, I never really gave that comment much thought.  Until now.

And actually I believe he is right, in its simplest of forms, reflecting on the educational landscape, as a teacher, a principal, or a district level administrator, there basically are two types

As educators, we have a tendency, for all intents and purposes to fall into two camps or two types (for which I have taken the liberty of naming)

1. The Twistovators

and

2. The Blockstacles

Over my twenty years as an educator, in its rawest and simplest form, through every meeting and training, always seems to boil down to us falling into one or the other of these two camps whenever any new initiative, program, policy, or procedure is unveiled.

To get a clearer picture, let’s define the two types.

First, let’s look at the Blockstacles, which are those educators who immediately hit the stop button at the first sign of any new idea, initiative, or change effort.  They are so named for their ability to quickly block any change effort and immediately begin erecting a myriad of obstacles to throw in front of the process.  They have an uncanny ability to provide an endless tirade of reasons why something can’t or won’t work.

The second group I will refer to as the Twistovators, which tend to be a rather quiet group.  In contrast to the Blockstacles, they usually have little to say because their minds are racing in an entirely different direction.  Before the initiative is entirely rolled out they have already internalized the concept and are now running with it.  They have taken the idea, added their own twist to the initiative, and are now considering a multitude of ways to innovate the idea (beyond what you may have considered) to fit their circumstances and needs.

As instructional leaders, our focus should not be caught up on whether one type or camp is better or worse than the other, or even how frustrating they can be rather, it is to utilize understanding of both camps to increase our leadership capacity and influence.  Acknowledging the two types exist requires deeper preparation for moving any change effort or initiative forward.  For example, knowing that the Blockstacles will be ready for you demands clarity from your leadership to the ‘why’ and not merely the ‘what’ and ‘how‘  for the initiative.  Without true clarity to the ‘why’ the Blockstacles will undoubtedly plow over the initiative before it ever has a chance to gain traction.  And they will most likely do it in a public manner.

Knowing that the Twistovators exist requires you to determine the loose/tight (autonomy) approach you are willing to take with the change effort or initiative.  You begin with the end in mind and directly attend to expectations at the beginning of the effort.  Whether that be tight alignment or full autonomy to run with the idea.  Either way, clarity will save a lot of wasted time and backtracking for all involved.

So rather than being frustrated with the two types, use this knowledge to build and strengthen your leadership capacity.  Determining the ‘why’ of any initiative and/or change effort and being prepared for the two types not only strengthens your understanding of the initiative, but requires you to reflect deeply on whether the initiative is in alignment with the goals and core values of your organization.  And even more importantly, allows you to determine whether the timing is right to move forward.  Remember, very seldom are there do-overs, you get one chance to make the impact and impression.  Be prepared.

And as Lincoln stated to Congress in 1862, “we must think and act anew.”

The Slow Roll To Organizational Health


“The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”  -Warren G. Bennis

Whether we are aware or not, a restrained barrier of interference often lurks just beneath the surface of our organizations.  A barrier that not only inhibits, but often serves as a detriment to our leadership and the overall health of our organization. While many would consider it an obstacle to overcome, others may view it as a strategy to unfurl when necessary.  Attuned to it or not, it occurs in our workplaces, at both the subordinate and administrative ranks, and often has profound consequences on our overall ability to lead.

However, if we take the time to notice, we might realize it occurs in our lives more than we recognize, and it isn’t always others, sometimes we are the guilty ones.

What possible obstacle or barrier may be inhibiting not only the health of our organization, but the effectiveness of our leadership?

Not a word or term, rather a military coined phrase, referenced as slow ball rolling.

Now, you might be saying, military? Slow ball rolling? What does that have to do with my leadership and even the health of my organization? For which I counter, a lot!  And furthermore, we are all guilty of it!

More often than not, slow ball rolling is prevalent in many situations within and throughout our lives.  While it does touch our personal lives, it plays an even deeper role in its effect on our organizations and leadership.  Before we address those implications, let’s take a stab at defining this term…

While research rendered no actual definition for the term, slow ball rolling can be seen as a strategy (positive or negative) to slow or stall efforts towards implementation of a program, policy, initiative or other change effort.  It is worth noting that slow ball rolling can and does occur at all levels or tiers within an organization.  However, it appears to be most prevalent as a strategy or tool utilized by a person or persons who are most heavily tasked with implementing the initiative or change effort.

Good or bad, consciously or unconsciously, slow ball rolling aims to slow down change within an organization.  For that reason, it is vital for leaders to not only have the awareness of its existence, but determine if and for how long this strategy has been deployed.  Strong leaders will not only identify it, they will analyze and determine the why behind the stall tactic, which will be crucial to determining next steps.  In many organizations, the slow ball rolling approach to change provides the perfect vehicle to move an effort from the stage of implementation to the category of this too shall pass.  For many, slow ball rolling provides a simple strategy or vehicle for preserving and maintaining status quo as the main driver of their organization.

The one thing about slow ball rolling, once you understand the term, it opens your eyes to how prevalent it is within our organizations.  People utilize slow ball rolling more than we realize to stall and delay initiatives, it is virtually entrenched in our organizations.  As a leader, recognizing the slow ball roll is the first step, more important is your ability to analyze and understand the why behind the roll.

Leaders must also recognize that not all who slow ball roll initiatives do it for negative or purely personal reasons, oftentimes those serving on the front lines of the organization have a deeper understanding of the implications associated with implementing the initiative or change effort.  Many times, better than the leadership. Some situations call for those to support the organization by slow ball rolling to stall or delay a change effort that may not be in the best interest of the organization. However, this is not the usual formula for implementation.

Slow ball rolling as a strategy or tactic provides us another example to the importance of creating an environment of trust, supported with clear communications and transparency of action, as a strong deterrent to slow ball rolling.  When relationships, trust, and the lines of communication break down is when we see these types of tactics raise their ugly heads within organizations.

Digging down into what lays behind slow ball rolling will most often surface underlying issues that must be addressed to support improved organizational health.  Leaders who can quickly recognize slow ball rolling, diagnose the underlying issues, and implement a strategy to combat the tactic, will better serve the ongoing growth and welfare of their organization.  In addition, those same leaders must determine how to effectively deal with those perpetrators who slow ball roll initiatives otherwise, the ongoing efforts and effectiveness of their leadership will ultimately be undermined or compromised.

For better or worse, slow ball rolling is alive and well in most organizations. Awareness and attention to it before it adversely affects your organization, its health, and our your leadership is the key.

Be aware!

Aligning for Momentum

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanged principles.” – J. Carter

As educators, we spend an inordinate amount of time creating or recreating momentum and flow within our system. From the district office down to the individual classroom, we have a tendency to approach education in a year to year, compartmentalized manner. Unfortunately, that same approach, viewed through the societal lens, may be a warning sign that our current system has run its course for a providing an appropriate 21st century education. Furthermore, the focus and magnification from that same societal lens will require us as educators to reflect deeply on current practices to determine if we are even adequately meeting the growing academic and emotional needs of our students. We may have to concede that rapid advances in technology and major shifts in our global economy have left our current approaches to education viewed as either deeply flawed or outdated for our current circumstances.

In an effort to advance our profession, reflection of and on current practices will be an important aspect of the process if our educational leaders are to better serve our students in the 21st century. Engaging in reflective thought, discourse and collaboration will be the catalyst for those same leaders to ask critical questions…questions that initiate new learnings that build capacity and spur forward action that motivates and moves us forward in our efforts to improve our current practice. Leaders who are willing to ‘mine for conflict’ through probing questions, who are willing to face the brutal truth of their current situation and circumstances, who seek collaboration and team-building, who appreciate and request honest feedback, will be the same leaders who bridge the divide from their current situation to an elevated level of learning for those they lead and the students they serve.

Educators must thoroughly appreciate that our world has changed and the work we do is of crucial importance to providing our students the necessary skills and ability to lead a full and abundant life.  We must also recognize that often our unwillingness to stay ahead of the curve hurts our children and decreases their opportunities for the future.  We must begin to analyze and root out those practices that inhibit flow and momentum in our classrooms, schools and districts from year to year. Acknowledging current successful practices, along with incorporating new and innovative strategies and structures should not be just a good start, it should be a requirement.

However, we must understand that this is no easy proposition and will require educators and educational leaders to relentlessly seek out new and innovative ideas and incorporate out of the box thinking.  Innovation of this magnitude will require courageous leaders who are willing to umbrella the possible fall out and shoulder the inherent risks faced from increased sanctions coupled with a growing public scrutiny aligned to high-stakes assessments.

Successful educational leaders will be those who invest the necessary time and effort into building a deeper understanding of systems thinking and will ultimately find themselves better prepared to vertically align programs and initiatives within their school or district.  When we have strong alignment within the system, students have a better opportunity to build momentum with their learning as each progressive year builds on the concepts and learning from the previous year.

When a school or district lacks the ability or willingness to create alignment within the system, we not only hinder flow and momentum for student learning, we actually provide our students with a disjointed and vision-less educational career. When each year is compartmentalized by stagnant, non-negotiable and often inflexible structures such as school calendars, the school day, master schedules, grading and/or homework policies, students begin to see each year as a separate entity in which they have to ‘get through’ to ‘get the grade.’  For many students it becomes a tedious and disjointed process till graduation, if they stay that long.  For most of our students, this compartmentalized, industrial mode of ‘doing’ education has outrun its effectiveness.

Finally, we need to look towards placing those non-negotiables on the table, we have to determine to do different, to work different, to think different, to be different if we are to offer our current students a real vision for their K-12 educational career. While there is no reliable and/or available data, I don’t believe that many of our current high school students can look over their school career and be able to reflect and articulate any type of vision for their many years in the K-12 educational setting. We have the opportunity to change that reality.

Blindsided by Complacency

Complacency is not a new phenomena to organizational leadership in society or the 21st century. Whether in a business, medical, sporting, or educational organization, complacency is a lingering “inhibitor” to many a change effort or initiative.

Understanding these growing concerns, today’s leaders must promptly equip themselves with a deeper understanding on how to best lead change efforts and challenge complacency in our professions. Leading change in our present-day organizations requires a perceptive barometer for determining the cultural atmosphere.  To advance organizational goals and alignment, a change agent must acquire a strong grasp and familiarity with their organization’s culture, vigilantly monitoring the “temperature” of the cultural waters.  Leadership must discern and determine the why that necessitates the what and how of change, acknowledge the patience needed for implementing with appropriate timing, and creating the necessary urgency and momentum behind the initiative.

Business and thought leader, John Kotter, asserts in “Leading Change” that eight steps are necessary to leading sustained change efforts within your teams or organizations. However, the inability to gain traction with step one, “creating a sense of urgency” deflates and defeats most change efforts before they ever get out of the gate.  Kotter notes that,  “establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. Transformation is not possible when complacency is high.  Without a sense of urgency, momentum dies before the change effort can finish.

The inability to create a “sense of urgency” in your people, teams and organization will usually lead you down a path to complacency.  In today’s rapidly changing and evolving technological environment, the overabundance of data and information has been the demise of many a complacent organization as those they serve seek out better service and products when that complacency fails to deliver on expectations.  Unfortunately, most realize the consequences of their complacency after the damage is done and the window for corrective change has closed.

To paint the picture in a different light…

I truly enjoy the sport of hockey.  During the years that I was privileged to play, the game time bench was the center of activity, filled with wise cracks and taunts.  One of which I remember fondly, which was usually applied just after a player was steamrolled by a hit…

…”better skate with your head up.”  Meaning that many a player has found themselves caught up in skating and puck handling when they need to be aware of their environment and the hit that may be bearing down on them.  Playing “head down” takes you out of the play and opens you up for real disaster on the ice.  When your attention is feverishly focused on the puck, awareness of your environment is constrained, opportunities are missed, teammates are frustrated, and the intensity and collaborative efforts on the ice are hampered.  Not to mention opening yourself up to a possibly devastating and/or game ending hit.

Players that refuse put in the necessary time and effort to increase their skills are often the same players that continue to “skate with their head down” oblivious to the game unfolding around them.  Those are the same players that are often blindsided by hits that they should have seen coming.

When teams, organizations, and their leaders let complacency set in, disregard the necessity to continually invest time and energy towards new skill-sets and learning, they find themselves blindsided by a hit they should have seen coming.  When we allow our leadership button to default to “cruise control” and keep skating “with our head down” then we should not act surprised by the consequences of our actions, or inaction…

Consequences…finding yourself laid out on your back, blindsided by a hit you weren’t prepared for.  Consequences…instantaneous increase in the urgency meter…being blindsided has a way of immediately tearing down the walls of complacency.

We live in a world of constantly evolving technology and endless streams of data and information…there is no reason for us to “skate with our head down.”  We must seize the opportunity that innovation has provided us to grow our skill-sets and knowledge and increase our ability to “skate with our head up.”

However, many of today’s leaders will choose to “skate with their head down,” complacent and unaware, often at the peril of the organization and those that serve within it.  When the hit comes, will they be able to get back in the game, or like many of today’s organizations, will the hit eliminate you from the game?  Unfortunately, many individuals, teams and organizations never fully recover.  While some players are able to come back even stronger, building new skill sets and knowledge, determined to avoid the next hit.  Others may get back in the game, but they are never the same and spend the remainder of their career tentative and scared of being hit again.

The question is…are you playing with your head up or will you find yourself blindsided by complacency?  And if you already find yourself laying on your back…can you get back in the game and learn from the complacency that put you on your back?  Or will you play the rest of the game in fear?  Either way…

The puck is on your stick…

The Importance of Relevant Leadership

Relevant and relevance, two often overlooked and yet vitally important terms, especially in regards to the organizations that operate in our modern society. More and more often we see those organizations and products that we viewed as constants in our lives both disrupted and eradicated as they lose their ability to meet the needs of a constantly changing and evolving world.

Kodak, Mervyns, Circuit City, Blockbuster and a plethora of other organizations have watched as innovation has disrupted and rendered their products and services no longer needed…forcing them to close shop and forever shut their doors to a public they once served. When organizations and individuals are unable or unwilling to notice and anticipate the change forces coming at them they very often find themselves and their organizations not only losing relevance, but becoming irrelevant. For some the process is very quick and decisive and for others it is a slow march to extinction.

Most often, leadership can be faulted for their inability or unwillingness to anticipate and understand the change forces that are underfoot. Leaders have to adjust their mindset to recognize that we operate in a completely different society, a society where trends in fashion, music, business and technology change as quickly as they are ushered into existence. Those same trends in technology are responsible for a constant need to innovate and disrupt itself exponentially. It is that same disruptive technology that serves as the medium for a current and constant data stream that often reveals the ground is moving below our feet even before we have noticed.

However, as leaders, it is our responsibility to the organizations and individuals we lead and serve to be ever vigilant in anticipating those changes. Making ourselves accountable to data and data-based decision-making is an increasing component of today’s leadership duties. Understanding and utilizing relevant information to prepare your organization to meet the demands of an ever changing and evolving world and society in which we exist is a requirement for relevancy in the 21st century.

Leaders themselves have to be attentive to their own abilities and skill-sets if they are to increase their capacity to stay relevant. Today’s leaders need to be intrinsically motivated to embrace their own professional and personal development. Personal accountability to themselves and those they lead spurs the motivation to continually put them ahead of the curve. A leader must be in a constant state of building upon and evolving the skill-sets that took them to the level of leadership for which they currently reside. The willingness to put forth the effort and time to improve at your craft is a true mark of a professional.

However, one of the many reasons organizations find themselves facing a relevance dilemma is that the same leadership that took them to their current level of achievement no longer has the applicable skill-set to guide them further down the continuum. We often see our leaders work diligently to acquire the learning and knowledge to reach their current level in an organization, and once acquired, the diligence to continue their learning and build upon their current skill-set diminishes or dissolves altogether. What many fail to realize is that those same skill-sets and acquired knowledge that took you to your current position is often outdated by the time you fill the position. A reason why a focus on increasing the learning capacity in our organizations is truly vital to their ability to stay relevant and ahead of the curve in today’s society. It is also the reason why organizational leaders must not only model, but lead the charge.

As a leader, take charge of your own learning and professional development if you want make sure that both you and the organization that you lead remain a vital and relevant factor in today’s society.

Can We Overcome Our Innovation Gap?

Our educational system is facing a multitude of “tipping points” in today’s landscape.  You might say it is both a very exciting and rather difficult and concerning time to be working in public education.

Our world has opened up and been condensed through the relentless advance of technology.  And with that technology, a plethora of research, strategies and ideas has been placed at our fingertips for us to utilize and implement for the benefit of our students.

Yet, even in the 21st century, we still struggle with large pockets of complacency and avoidance to the research and best practices. Often decisions are made in spite of knowledge to current research that not only hinders the progress and growth of the profession, but the very students who rely on us to prepare them for an unknown and quickly changing future.

In 2000, Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton released their seminal work dedicated to improving the ability of organizations to turn knowledge into action, known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” While touted as a business leadership book, their work speaks volumes to the various tipping points we are facing in moving our educational system forward into the 21st century. Let’s look at how their work with business organizations can shed light on factors that may be impeding ‘next steps’ to progress…

“Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished.  When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”  –The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton

A gathering of the world’s highest performing educational systems met in New York to discuss and determine how to best prepare teachers and school leaders for the 21st century. This International Summit focused on how to best improve the teaching profession and methods needed to develop and increase the ability of our school leaders and teachers to prepare our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

While discussions took on varied topics at the summit, a main theme that ran throughout was a focus on strong leadership and the key role that instructional leaders must play in creating and sustaining high performing education systems. Creating these high performing systems would require our instructional leaders to possess the necessary tools and ability to support, develop and evaluate teachers towards increased quality and effectiveness. Alongside leadership and teacher quality, themes such as equity, accountability and building a results-focused culture of commitment were central talking points at the summit. However, it appears that instructional leadership and teacher quality took center stage  in these discussions.

If this is true and leadership does play a central role in the success of our public educational system in preparing our students to thrive in the 21st century, then it is vital that our actions and initiatives match the rhetoric behind this monumental task.

As with any great system or organization, building a culture of commitment requires a foundation built upon and based on trust if it is to be both effective and sustained. If you want those in the system to be committed and results-focused, then it is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture where those themes can flourish. Otherwise, best case scenario, when leadership is lacking, you end up with a culture of compliance that seeps into your organization or system. And for these reasons, we have to determine if the culture we have constructed in education supports what teachers are being asked to accomplish.

What we are asking teachers to do is to be more innovative, integrate technology, equip our students with the skills necessary for them to be successful in a changing and growing global economy. To have a 21st century skill-set.

And in the same breath, we are sending our teachers an incongruent message by incorporating “new evaluation systems” aimed at eliminating ineffective teachers and implementing value-added initiatives that spotlight individual teacher progress for student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests.

So what is the message that is being heard by teachers?

Be innovative at your own risk.  There is no room for failure and/or learning from mistakes. Innovation and building new skill-sets is great, as long as your scores on high-stakes tests continue to increase each year.

While our rhetoric may focus on the importance of integrating technology and preparing our students with those necessary 21st century skills, our initiatives send what our teachers hear as the ‘real’ message. If your students don’t perform well on high-stakes standardized tests then you risk being labeled as ineffective, with the possibility of being terminated from your position.

Do not misread the message here, I am in no way against the use of assessments and assessment data to determine and monitor the progress and achievement of our students. Assessment and assessment data are incredibly valuable tools for determining the effectiveness of our instruction and the level of student learning achieved from that instruction.

Formative assessment is one of the best interventions available to teachers in the classroom for determining progress and next steps. However, as with all good tools, how you use them determines their overall effectiveness.

As instructional leaders, should we be the least bit surprised when we use assessment and assessment data as a hammer and/or evaluative tool and in the same breath demand teachers to be more innovative and wonder why change is limited or often non-existent?

Pfeffer and Sutton accurately point out in the opening quote’ “when people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”

If we continue to send the message that high-stakes standardized tests are the pinnacle of determining your effectiveness as a teacher, we will continue to see our classrooms shielded from new and innovative ways of teaching. The risk of job loss and being labeled as an ineffective instructor will keep teachers focused on “scoring high” and inhibit, rather than increase innovative methods of instruction and learning that prepare our students for the 21st century.

Beyond leadership and teacher evaluation, the summit engaged itself around methods to transform our classrooms and focused on;

  • complex ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and learning
  • complex ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communication technologies.

Once again, necessary skill sets for students heading out into a fierce and competitive global marketplace.

However, if we are going to transform education for the 21st century, it is the responsibility of our instructional leaders to incorporate and model those necessary skills in our educational system.

More creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration will be necessary if we are going to exact positive change for student success. We have to increase our understanding of change and change theory and processes if we are going to be more effective within the educational system. Comprehending that fear is a strong deterrent to change and change efforts is a great first place to start.

As Pfeffer and Sutton soundly express in The Knowing-Doing Gap, “it is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, in an atmosphere of trust and safety.  Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.”

If our students are to reap the benefits of graduating both college and career ready and appropriately equipped to thrive in a competitive global marketplace, the decision-making prowess of our instructional leaders must remain focused on developing and sustaining the conditions and cultures that will support and allow forward-thinking and innovative ideas and methods to grow and flourish in the system.

Evaluation: Differentiation vs. Show Me

In these days of constricting budgets and intense internal and external accountability, our school instructional leaders are required to wear a variety of administrative hats out of necessity. Their leadership efforts and decisions drive the culture and collaborative efforts of those who work within and attend their school. They play the role of both leader and manager and must do both equally well. A ten to twelve hour work day is not out of the norm for many of our school leaders.

Daily responsibilities include creating a safe and secure campus for all students, appropriate use of general and categorical funds, determining which instructional programs and strategies to implement, and what methods will best support students and their learning through appropriate progress monitoring, differentiation of instruction and necessary and timely interventions. While this may sound like a lot, it is just a glimpse, this does not include a variety of staff, team, intervention and IEP meetings, parent concerns, lunch duty, after school sporting and academic events, etc. For school leaders, no day is the same and the unexpected is often the norm.

However, like many other professions and organizations, the area of evaluation remains an elusive target to pin down and implement effectively. For school leaders, the overwhelming amount of responsibilities can impede on the evaluation process and the urgent often supercedes the necessary. Evaluation often becomes an obligatory process in which the evaluator and evaluatee meet between two to four times a year and usually after a perfunctory classroom observation. The process can lack the meaningful dialogue and support that is necessary to drive its overall purpose, improving professional practice and student learning.

Evaluation often ends up another example in the educational setting of what is best practice for student learning is not best practice for adults and their learning. In the classroom we utilize a variety of strategies to engage students in their learning, yet we utilize few if any of those strategies in our own meetings and wonder at the lack of engagement by our own colleagues. The same rings true with the evaluation process…in the classroom we determine how we are going to monitor the progress of the learner, in what ways we will need to differentiate for equity within the process, issuing timely feedback to support growth and next steps, and what interventions are necessary to support and scaffold the learning for the student. The question is why are these best practices not implemented in the evaluation process?

Evaluation is an excellent opportunity for school instructional leaders to infuse and increase adult learning throughout the campus. Rather, it is often a process of choosing a few obligatory standards for focus and scheduling few dates during the year for the evaluatee to “show me” your progress. We must look for opportunities to differentiate and engage teachers in the process, invoking collegial discussions, feedback, and providing targeted professional development in real time. It is both the duty and the opportunity of the school’s instructional leader to provide supportive assistance that increases capacity, rather than the utilizing evaluation as a “gotcha.”

Differentiating the evaluation process will include an instructional leader’s abilities to engage teachers in new learnings, build capacity, foster a collaborative and innovative culture, provide effective and strategic feedback, and build relationships based on trust. Evaluation can be an exciting process depending on how it is approached and implemented in your school. Look for ways to differentiate and engage people in the process, rather than the “tried and true” standardized model that is so prevalent in most organizations.

In closing, make sure that those you lead know that you are for them and their success, it will increase commitment and build trust into the process. And remember, leaders have the privilege of going first, it is up to you to make sure the evaluation process hits its intended target, increasing professional practice in order to support student learning. If we are to create students who are lifelong learners, then we must model that love of learning for those we teach in our practice and in our work.

Trust: It’s Not Just A Buzzword

Trust is one of those words that gets thrown around quite frequently these days, to the point that its true depth and importance to growing and nurturing successful relationships and organizations is often lost. Without it, relationships and organizations often grind down into dysfunction, support and teamwork are often replaced with personal agendas, doubt, suspicion, fear, and distrust that disable the momentum and effectiveness of your relationships, teams and organizations.

When we as leaders fail to see and understand the importance of building trust with those we lead, we run the risk of losing the confidence of those we serve. A confidence that is easily broken if not nurtured and fed. Understanding that trust serves as a foundation for our leadership will increase our ability to create strong and successful relationships and organizations. The avoidance of many leaders to make themselves vulnerable and real to those they lead can inhibit their ability to sustain trusting relationships in their organizations.

Our leadership literature abounds with the many ways we can build and lose trust in our relationships, teams, and our organizations, whether it is a 10 step process, 6 vital ways, or an 8 point plan, the strategies are all there. However, we often fail to recognize one vital component that will lie at the core of your ability to build trust with those you lead…

Are you for me?

Those four words lie at the heart of your trust-building efforts. Everything hinges on those four words. People have to know that you are for them before they are willing to trust you. If you want those you lead to follow you, make sure they know that you are for them!