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!