On Anecdotes, Exceptions, and Outliers: Harnessing the Power of Story from Multiple Perspectives

Sarah Goldin -- October 19, 2018

I had the very good fortune this July to attend a Challenge Success Summer Leadership Seminar.  As it happened, the Principal and Vice Principal of my own children’s public middle school were also in attendance.  After a busy morning of workshops, I took advantage of the lull before lunch to share with the two school administrators an anecdote with my perspective on the preceding school year.  To sum up, my story went something like this: “I just wanted to say that overall I am very satisfied with what I assume is the school’s policy to not assign homework over holidays and long breaks, with one exception.  For the winter and spring breaks both of my children, in grades 6 and 8, were asked to complete sections of a review book for the state math assessment.  What concerns me is the message that it sends about the values of our school. We say we have a commitment to breaks as downtime for students and their families to unwind and spend quality time with one another, without the stress of homework.  But when that commitment is measured against the requirements of standardized testing schedules, we allow the test to take precedence. We are in essence communicating that we value performance on a standardized test more than we value the need of families to have quality time with one another while on vacation.”  

What followed was a substantive conversation about the purpose of homework and the school’s values and philosophy of learning. Upon reflection, I found the exchange both highly gratifying and strangely unsettling.  Gratifying because my perspective and insights had been heard and appreciated, and because I had been reassured that my children’s school was genuinely invested in grappling with such questions via its engagement with Challenge Success, an organization I deeply respect and whose work, both in philosophy and execution, I wholeheartedly support.  Unsettling because of the gaps and blindspots revealed. First, the conversation revealed a disconnect between my understanding of school homework policy as extrapolated from my family’s lived experience, and the actual policy.  To my surprise, I learned that there is no specific, articulated policy -- formal or informal!  As a parent, I was completely misinformed on the issue.  Second it brought into sharp focus my concern that although the school was collecting valuable data from its students regarding culture and experience (via the Challenge Success survey), no concerted parallel efforts to engage with other stakeholders -- in this case, parents and faculty -- had been undertaken.  That chance conversation, which immediately resonated with school leaders and prompted them to consider specific priorities and policies requiring discussion and clarification -- might just as easily have never occurred. It raises the question: what other stories -- key sources of useful, actionable data -- might be overlooked or fall through the cracks in a major school initiative ?      

At GLP when we work with clients, it’s our responsibility to ensure that all avenues of valuable insight are pursued and synthesized.  We co-design a research process that is comprehensive enough to get a 360-degree view of the landscape, and sensitive enough to surface and extract meaning from individual viewpoints.  In the process of co-design we help our clients consider:

  • How and where can you most effectively hear the stories of all of your stakeholders?

  • How will you determine which voices/perspectives are outliers and which represent a plurality or majority?  Having diagnosed the outliers -- what does their experience, and how it differs from that of the plurality/majority, reveal about the culture, values, and needs of your organization?  

  • How can you surface and examine key anecdotes that illustrate the choices and commitments your organization is deliberately or unwittingly making -- when, where, why, for whom, and by whom?  

  • How can you identify and analyze organizational “exceptions to the rule” -- both to celebrate and learn from bright spots and to diagnose and resolve conflicting priorities or values?  

In short our goal is to help you develop an in depth and nuanced understanding of what the current experience actually is as a first step in determining how to move toward the future to which you aspire.  That nuanced understanding can only be derived by moving back and forth between the macro and the micro -- the wholistic and the individual -- examining both common throughlines and specific counterpoints for comparison and sense of scale.

Strategy is fundamentally about story. Schools and other mission-based organizations have a vision of the experience they wish to provide, in pursuit of a common purpose and according to shared values. In order to craft, communicate, and execute that story, you will first need to hear your current story as lived by your stakeholders -- outliers, anecdotes, exceptions, and all!  Because as we all know, every good story has twists, turns, and surprises, and you don’t want to miss them!    


FALL 2018 READING LIST

Summer reading lists abound with informative professional recommendations, but my attention in June and July tends to turn to good, old fashioned sagas (Saints for All Occasions), psychological thrillers (The Other Wife), and memoirs (Educated).  So I like the Fall reading list for getting back to work -- and there are a few things grabbing my attention now that are worthy of your nightstands. What I love about all four books is that they offer real insight into learning -- and the lessons can be applied to how organizations and individuals can lead and perform well -- by learning! For educators, many of the insights will inspire and inform your teaching practice - particularly Newport’s and Hoogterp’s books.

Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Your Perfect Presentation By Bill Hoogterp

Strategy That Works by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi

Engine of Impact by William Meehan and Kim Starkey Jonker

Enjoy!


Return to Preikestolen (Musings on Vision and Strategy)

Stephanie Rogen -- August 13, 2018

If you’ve read Creating Schools That Thrive (and if not, please do!) you may recall my story of hiking Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen), Norway in March, 2009.  The story of the hike became my metaphor for strategic design -- for distilling the language of strategy and helping clients make sense of the process to design and execute strategy.

We hiked it again last week - I’m nine years older (and 15 lbs heavier) and as I began the climb I wondered what would be different.  As it turned out -- everything! It was sunny and hot rather than cold and rainy. The crowds were overwhelming thanks to Tom Cruise, whose 6th Mission Impossible installment brought new attention to this spectacular cliff high above the fjord. And trail conditions had improved (perhaps to aid the film crews?).  But it was still a steep, rocky climb 2.5 miles up and 2.5 miles down.

As I hiked, I couldn’t help but recall my strategy metaphor. There is something about a hike like this -- the focused, steady process of choosing each foothold, the serene beauty of sky and rock, the wildflowers and willowy birches,  and the jaw dropping surprises of each new vista --- that stimulate deep reflection. Our family’s vision and values held -- to reach the glorious summit safely and together -- but our mission had changed a bit. This hike was grounded in a new challenge and question -- how would the experience be different this time? How could we introduce our newest family members -- all under age 10 -- to the joy?

In response, I offer here a few new insights -- consider this an addendum to Creating Schools that Thrive!

Vision may be more enduring than mission: Does this surprise you? It was a bit of an a-ha for me! I think schools take for granted that mission never changes but the truth is, in real strategy work mission can change more often than vision. Think of it this way - your vision may be to eradicate world hunger. That’s a big, audacious vision -- one that puts you out of business if you achieve it.  Your mission is likely to change more frequently -- you may start with a mission to provide food to a local population via a food pantry. You may evolve to a mission of building community gardens with your pantry as distribution, and you may then evolve to a mission that scales your pantry and garden model -- your core purpose and the strategy to deliver adapts -- but your vision holds.

Schools might benefit by thinking this way. Most schools should have a vision that endures and sustains -- and might, for example, foresee a world where your brand of education has transformed lives and produced lifelong learners who thrive and contribute.  But purpose changes --- as the conditions and needs of the world change and as you, as an organization, change - and your mission will clarify the what and how of your brand.  So recall my advice to “back into your mission” --- as you move through the design and execution of strategy your new purpose will come into sight!

If it isn’t daunting  or scary it’s probably not much of a vision: I was out of my comfort zone hiking this time. Last time I was too, but this time I actually knew how hard it would be and I wondered about my stamina (and my weak ankles). The truth is, a worthwhile vision pushes you to do what you may not be so sure you know how to do -- and it calls upon you to find capacity, to learn, and to adapt as you engage in the process. I had to test myself continuously, push through the mental and physical discomfort, and try things in order to see what worked. Nowhere was this more clear than in my attempts to scramble up and down the rocky faces of the mountainside -- never entirely sure of how well  my feet would work!

Keep your eyes up and keep your eyes down: Sort of like the balcony-dance floor metaphor that Ron Heifetz uses, the truth is you can’t hike to Pulpit Rock unless you manage to both perspectives.  I needed to see both where I was headed -- and anticipate 2-3 steps head -- as I looked down to ensure I was placing my feet where they would be stable and allow me to proceed. My husband, a naval aviator,  calls this “situational awareness” -- the ability to operate step-by-step as you take into account all the factors that surround you. It takes focus, attention, and agility -- expect to be tired! But also expect great rewards as you celebrate the success and beautiful vistas along the way.

When you can build momentum, go for it: There were moments on the hike when I could move quickly and with confidence because the conditions were just right. We were on a time push as we headed down to catch the last ferry -- so when the landscape was right, I took a chance and really moved.  I didn’t want to be the old lady who slowed us down -- and these moments allowed me flexibility when I really needed to take care. They also filled me with confidence and kept my energy up. When we execute on strategy, as a leader or a team, momentum can buoy spirits, capture much needed time, and accelerate learning. Don’t squander these moments.

If you get stuck, don’t stop longer than you need to get help: Getting stuck is often where strategy goes awry -- you hit an obstacle and quit altogether -- or maybe you revert to the old way of working.  Resist this. On a hike chances are you have to overcome or you won’t get home -- but in the day to day life of organizations people quit or regress all the time. This disruption to momentum is one of the biggest threats to success -- so push yourself to find solutions, engage others, and get the help you need to move forward on your path.  More than once on my hike, I received a helping hand in spots where I could not see the way alone.
 

Let children lead the way:  This last insight may be the most important. Chances are, children are a lot more agile, open, and courageous as you move forward on your journey. I watched our young cousins, ages 3, 6, and 9 literally jump like rabbits from rock to rock, often barefoot.  My fear for them was less about their capabilities and more about my own discomfort. As I saw what they could do I relaxed. And I realized they had much to teach me about how to scale Preikestolen. Our students can do the same if we let them lead.

Taking Our Own Advice!

You know the joke about the carpenter's house never being finished or the doctor who doesn't follow her own advice? Last month, in a flurry of work and new engagements, I realized we had the same issue at GLP as the carpenter has with his partially built home. So - in the midst of the heaviest work schedule this year - I called for a one day retreat with the team and planned it much in the same way we would with our clients.  

To be clear, I was feeling simultaneously excited and anxious about all the possibilities before us. I wanted to ensure the best work in current projects and maybe dive into some new opportunities -- but realized that to make good decisions we first needed to be more strategic about what we would do, why we do it, and how we would execute well.  I knew I needed to get out of my own head and into a dialogue with the team -- that the best answers laid beyond me. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what many leaders express when they call us for the first time. There may be a particular issue that sparks the need, but in every case our clients want to slow down, think strategically, and immerse themselves in productive dialogue with their colleagues, their boards and their communities.

What did we do? We went back to basics and created our own one page strategy draft.  Our values had never been precisely articulated so we started there.  A brainstorm on the whiteboard was the most satisfying moment of the day for me -- we converged quickly and without dissent on our five values  -- in all of ten minutes!

Here’s what we came up with:

  • People First

  • Joy Matters

  • Learn Always

  • Flexibility

  • Beautiful Work

We moved from there to our mission and vision -- and recognized that success goes something like this:  

GLP will be nationally known as the trusted partner, expert, and coach for educational and mission based organizations who want to build capacity, learn, and thrive in the face of change.

And we covered a lot more. We talked about the challenges our clients are facing and where we feel we added the greatest value. We talked about our own learning and growth, and how that happens in our work with our clients.  We pushed ourselves to make four targeted and specific choices about where we would focus our energies in the upcoming year: by 2pm we felt like we had just gotten a fresh (or refreshed) start.

Best of all, we scheduled quarterly retreats -- because we know this work never stops.  It was time to take our own advice

SUMMER 2018 READING LIST

SUMMER 2018 READING LIST

Our Summer 2018 Reading List is here and we are eager to share some great suggestions, both new and old.  As usual, some of our choices are education focused and others take a broader view to issues that we think matter for schools.  And of course, we must put in a plug for our own book coming out in mid June: Creating Schools that Thrive: A Blueprint for Strategy.

Wishing you lots of sunshine and lazy days - please let us know what you are reading!


Make 2018 the Year for Feedback

Make 2018 the Year for Feedback

Resolutions abound around January 1. We commit to all sorts of new behaviors, we set goals, and we feel the excitement of starting anew.

I’ve found that one resolution always worth making is to commit to better feedback practices. Make a commitment to request and offer feedback effectively.  If you are already doing it, how can you do it better? And if you are not doing, how do you start?

Data-driven decision making (NOT data-driven madness)

Data-driven decision making (NOT data-driven madness)

In December 2015, the cheekily named “Study of Maternal and Child Kissing (SMACK) Work Group” published a study titled “Maternal kisses are not effective in alleviating minor childhood injuries (boo-boos): a randomized, controlled and blinded study” in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice.

Although the journal is real, the study is (of course) a spoof - a mocking jab at the cool data-driven objectivity of empirical studies taken to an extreme.  

Leading from the Inside Out A Report from Leadership Lab: Cohort II

Leading from the Inside Out A Report from Leadership Lab: Cohort II

In July of 2016, GLP launched its Leadership Lab for new heads of school with the belief that a small, intimate and personalized approach to leadership preparation was needed for independent school heads. The program provides time to retreat and look inward, to build deep relationships with other leaders, and to prepare for the real work of headship. We prototyped our vision with cohort I---and this July cohort II continued this work – but with a modified design to incorporate suggestions. So together, we gathered four new Heads in bucolic Connecticut to reflect, prepare, practice and offer feedback to each other as they entered the first year of headship at their new schools. As was the case last year, cohort II was invited to be intentionally small and, though not intentional, was again all women.

Slow Innovation: What Really Drives Value in Schools

Slow Innovation: What Really Drives Value in Schools

GLP is happy to welcome Kirk Greer as a member of the GLP team and guest blogger this summer. Kirk is currently the upper school history chair at the Latin School of Chicago and previously served as its Director of Studies and Professional Development. He is also a new board member at Baker, a progressive JK-8 independent school on Chicago's North Shore.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to share a beer (or two) with a colleague who reflected on changes he had made to his communication style with students. Having read research that detailed how vital the teacher-student relationship is to the success of students of color in predominantly white schools, my white colleague invested more time in cultivating positive affect and personalizing his communication and encouragement so that he might connect more authentically with all his students.

GLP Summer 2017 Reading List

GLP Summer 2017 Reading List

Just in time for the extended summer holiday weekend, we’re excited to share with you our summer must reads!  

We’re focused on two themes this summer: 1) understanding the rapidly changing macro-context that independent schools face and 2) how schools should prepare themselves to thrive in the face of these uncertain times and re-envision teaching and learning in response to those macro-conditions.