Sunday, July 31, 2011

More with less

The challenge
How can we make whatever we do in schools
  • as simple as we can
  • as functional as we can
  • as cheap as we can
  • as freely inter-connectable as we can

We need simple ways of doing things: they need to
  • be functional - simple, reliable, predictable
  • be cheap - available, easy to do and easy to use in new ways and contexts
  • be high performance actions returning substantial value
  • be useful as building blocks, that is,
    • they connect with other things that we do and 
    • they connect people who share interests and responsibility

  • "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" - Einstein
  • "You know you have achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away"  - de Sainy-Exupery

George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity (TED Talks, Apr 2010)

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Purpose of Structure

The purpose of structure is to support and enhance processes including
  • bringing the parties together
  • in a timely fashion
  • distributing authority and matching responsibility
  • utilising contributions from all concerned, and
  • achieving some of the purposes of all parties

That is, the purpose of structure is to create ‘windows of opportunity' that will
  • enable the process to proceed more easily and more successfully
  • while meet the various needs of the parties involved

For many people, education cannot be treated as piece-work. It is rarely a simple mechanistic production task as if it was a matter of
  • Input (teaching)  -> Process (learning v.) -> Output (learning n.)

BigPicture, action learning.... and similar mediated, iterative approaches incorporate the ongoing construction (and reconstruction) of generous, flexible,managed and negotiated “windows of opportunity”.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From enemies to allies

In commenting on community responses to proposed closures of 20 small Tasmanian government schools, one observer wrote:  What I have noticed more than anything is the strong accord of members of the affected communities; “we need a common enemy to unite us” C.Rice.

And of course this is true - we form alliances to defeat common enenemies. But what of the long term?

The recent defeat of the government by these small school communities is not the end of the matter. And the school communities and government remain in an on-going "relationship". Remaining enemies is not to be recommended as a way forward for winners and/or losers - it will ultimately result in lose:lose outcomes. But how to make sense of the possibilities?

Peter Block, The Empowered Manager provides a simple, but hopefully useful framework: we relate to each other according the our perceptions of each other based on two dimensions:
  • the extent to which we agree or disagree with each other (especially about purposes) 
  • the extent to which we trust or distrust each other (especially about how to achieve the purposes)

There are some important principles that can be derived on this model:
  1. DON'T confuse enemies with opponents
  2. DON'T confuse bedfellows with allies
  3. AVOID enemies - they may harm you, but LEARN about them and from them if you can
  4. MINIMISE involvement with bedfellows - there are possible hidden costs here and they may disappear at critical moments
  5. VALUE and LEARN FROM one's opponents - they have a different presepective that may include important insghts and distinctions, and they have your best interests at heart
  6. ENJOY your allies - they will voluntarily contribute to your cause
  7. LEARN about yourself - your purposes, values the resources you have available
Changing enemies into allies

To make life more enjoyable (and that includes achieving success and well-being for all) one needs to change one's enemies into one's allies,

The safest, most effective path is to
  1. Change enemies into oponents by building trust
  2. Change opponents into allies by finding agreement on higher purposes and mutually acceptable ways of achieving those purposes
Note: Taking the easy option of involving bedfellows (based on nominal agreements) could be to make the Red Riding Hood error - it didn't turn out well !!
    Sun-tzu (~400BC) recommended that we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. Good advice from ancient times.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Organisation and the emergence of relationships

    About roles

    Human beings have evolved to interact with each other. Our social actions are often organised around our culturally enabled and constrained roles. These roles may work quite well or go to extremes in terms of authority (power), responsibility, identity and pre-defined actions required of the role. Roles tend to result in consistent structures and processes. It is not unusual for roles to constrain the many and enable the few: compliance is frequently an emphasised aspect of roles.

    Roles can work very satisfactorily to achieve known purposes in well understood and manageable contexts. In the workplace roles are re-enforced through the use of job descriptions and reward (and punishment) systems

    But not all situations provide high levels of certainty and clarity. In our increasingly complex world, role descriptions are proving increasingly inadequate to respond to the challenges involved. Under these circumstances, individual "job descriptions" are also proving difficult to create and inadequate to the situations encountered.

    About relationships

    People also interact in less formal, less pre-defined ways to address shared needs and purposes, and to better deal with uncertainty and unforseen opportunities. These interactions may be fleeting or develop into long-term or short-term relationships. That is, relationships are emergent. Of course, over time, the patterns of interaction may become socially formalised and the parties may adopt specific roles to enable and/or constrain the processes of interaction.

    In periods of rapid change, high levels of uncertainty and where existing structures and processes are inadequate, people may draw on and/or quickly create new relationships in order to address the challenges and opportunities involved. Similarly, even within specific roles, people frequently develop and utilise relationships in order to address aspects of the endeavour that are not covered by their role.

    Addressing reality

    In summary, formal roles may work well for responding to the known and the anticipated. Informal relationships are our everyday strategy for dealing with the complexity of our experience. It seems most people have a preference for interacting on the basis of relationships rather than roles. In recent times this has become increasingly common. Our responses are often enabled by social media through which people collaborate without the existence of any connections between the many roles they may individually have in their lives.

    Nurturing the emergence of relationships

    It is time for leaders and managers to acknowledge the two ways of interacting and then lead and manage accordingly. For example, a generic ‘job description’ that gets things done and nurtures the emergence of productive working relationships is as follows:
    • Know what is happening
    • Work with others to improve what is happening
    • Make it easier for the next person to do well

    Sunday, July 17, 2011

    How we have changed

    Moving from roles to relationships

    It wasn't so long ago that much of our activity was role-based. And this worked well for linear systems (input->process->output). Our respective roles determined who did what, when, how, and with what authority and responsibility. There are pluses in such arrangements. For example, such systems can be very efficient and effective for simple, well defined tasks and standardised activities. At the personal level, if the system fails but we have "done our job" then "we are not to blame". Great!!

    But there minuses as well. If the roles are poorly designed and/or some functions are omitted or fail then we may fail to fulfil our role and/or the whole system may fail. Rigid linear systems tend to give the impression of being robust while being inflexible, vulnerable to change, and to lack resilience. A strong focus on roles can promote "either-or" and "us-them" thinking, result in silos and mindless fundamentalism. Not so great!!

    But things have changes anyhow. Consider how many of our key activities, ones that make a real difference for us and for those around us, are not role-based. Rather the interactions involved are likely to be based on common interests, purposes, responsibilities, needs...

    Rather than being designed, or predefined, our relationships emerge and fade according to the needs of those us involved. Social media provide some of the tools and opportunities that enable and support many of these relationships. Twitter and Facebook (and Google+ ?) are good examples - we use these tools to establish and utilise relationships without any role prescription being placed on any of us.

    Relationships can be much more flexible and more resilient than standardised roles. The parties involved adjust their interactions as their needs are met and/or contexts change. In periods of rapid and significant change (including crises) it can be very effective to utilise and reconfigure existing relationships and nuture the emergence of new relationships as the opportunities emerge. In everyday situations, it is common for co-workers to collaborate to in order to save save a system from its inherent shortcomings by developing work-arounds.

    • Case Study: The recent government proposal to close 10% of Tasmania's schools is a good example. The government imposed very strict role constraints on staff. But the small, mainly rural school communities, distributed across the state, responded quickly and easily. With a central Facebook site and individual school Facebook sites, they quickly established a coherent network with effective working relationships and forced the government to back down in just 18 days. The role-based government, Education Department, teacher union and Parent and Friends Association were unable to match the relationship-based initiatives of the school communities. The school communities now have a new site and a well developed set of on-going relationships and associated knowledge and proven strategies that will serve them well as Tasmania continues to struggle with it budgetary difficulties. Current score: Roles = 0; Relationships = 1.
    It is time for the government to understand that the world has changed and that we are co-evolving with the world. It is not just Gen Y and Gen X who place such a high value on relationships. We have all changed because role-based linear systems are working less and less well as the world becomes more complex and interconnected (a tautology?).

    It is not a matter of choosing roles or relationships (an "either-or" choice). We need both. When relationships fail badly it can be helpful to have some key roles available to address urgent situations. For example, police interventions may be necessary under certain circumstances.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Cutbacks and metaphors

    The immanent cutbacks to education in Tasmania will create complex and unfamiliar conditions. It will not be possible to analyse all the detail in order to 'calculate' the needs and outcomes. Indeed most of the phenomena involved are emergent anyhow and so cannot be predicted.

    So how do people cope with these kinds of situations? One way is to understand the situation is to find suitable metaphors. So in this challenging situation, should one
    • Batten down the hatches so that we don't sink (we focus on our prime objectives)
    • Turn out the stock (so that they can find resources that are not provided by the "farmer")
    • Change the system (so that it works well in the new conditions)
    • Polish the fruit (so that others don't are not distracted by the flaws)
    • Develop the school as a network rather than a production line (so that resources can flow more easily to where they are needed)
    • ...????
    On the basis that "either-or" questions are usually wrong, the best response will probably be a combination of all the above and whatever you choose as your working metaphors.

    Perhaps the most important metaphor is the Holy Grail as understood in the story of the Fisher King. The Fisher King is a local lord who has been wounded in battle (the cutbacks will "wound" schools). He goes to Merlin the wizard and asks what what he must do to be healed. Merlin replies:
    • "You must find the Holy Grail and ask: Whom does it serve?"
    Good advice. Finding your Holy Grail, and asking the question to confirm that you have really found it will serve you well, and it will enable you to serve those with whom you work.

    See also the story of the Chinese Farmer

    [Note: For me, the Holy Grail of schools is the everyday success of staff and students working together]

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    The case for innovation

    We are entering an new stormy era. Governments do not have the financial resources to do all the things we want them to do in the way that things have been done in the past. But even this is not fundamentally new:

    "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, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." - Abraham Lincoln 1 Dec 1862

    One of the major constraints is that we are "enthralled" (Lincoln) and/or "entrained" (Snowden) by the past. So we try to improve and reform on the basis of the past. But will this work? Consider this!!

    Dave Snowden has proposed that there are three necessary, but not sufficient conditions for innovation to take place. These are:

    1. Starvation of familiar resource, forcing you to find new approaches, doing things in a different way;
    2. Pressure that forces you to engage in the problem;
    3. Perspective Shift to allow different patterns and ideas to be brought into play.

    The cutbacks and the need to continue create the first two conditions. The third condition is a matter of choice and opportunity. Some possible perspective shifts available for you to choose are here. The opportunity to choose will be a combination of
    • your awareness of the possibilities (the cutbacks should generate a steep learning curve)
    • external constraints imposed by the system and the expectations of stakeholders.

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    Cutbacks and innovation - doing more with less

    The vast majority of governments need to reduce their spending. Ours is no exception and this is not going to change. It is a world-wide phenomenon. The challenge is how to do more and more with less and less.

    The "more" is about providing/adding more value. The "less" about spending less time, effort, social capital, $....

    Cost and value are connected but their relationship can change and can be changed.The present budgetary difficulties represent an opportunity for real innovation. But the key is to understand the links between costs, activity and value. Finding new and better ways to do what needs to be done (activity) can greatly improve the relationship between cost and value.

    Build capacity and resilience

    • Find the Holy Grail in your situation and ask "Whom does it serve?"  (see the Fisher King)
    • ACT on sound theory, principles & heuristics - needed in periods of rapid change and uncertainty
    • Work from the present reality - good, bad or indifferent
    • ALWAYS start by making things easier - reduces costs; releases resources; enables people to more and better
    • FIX the Broken Windows - tackle the common, important issues collaboratively
    • LEARN from what happens - do prompt post-mortems and immediately update planning for next time (PDSA)
    • be business-like - STOP doing things that don't produce value - 100% cost saving; no change to value
    • DON'T ask permission - just DO IT: if it is the right thing to do, you don't need permission
    • use focused technology (tools) in new and more productive ways. "Innovation comes from people who are responsible only to themselves."
    • develop better working relationships: it is everyone's job to
      • know what is happening
      • work with others to make sense of, and  improve, what is happening
      • make it easier for the next person to do their work well
    • reduce waste and rework
    • make policies and regulations helpful (make things easier)
    • find or create synergies - break down barriers to collaboration
    • move from "either-or" (win-lose) thinking to "both-and" (win-win) thinking
    • improve processes continuously
    • understand the difference between change and improvement
    • work towards well understood shared purposes
    • understand and manage your levels of response
    • provide flexibility to increase responsiveness and initiative
    • discover what's already working and support its wider deployment
    • focus on solutions (not problems)
    • avoid counter measures - get it right the first time - counter measures are waste
    • invest in prevention (SWPBS, restorative practices, SEL...
    • align and improve activity (purposes, processes, systems) before changing structures
    • reduce multitasking - it slows things down!!
    • understand and respond according to the phenomena involve
      • fix the simple things
      • get good advice about the complicated things
      • try some safe-fail experiments for complex things
      • impose order if there is (genuine) chaos
    These kinds of development work best as decision making moves away from traditional command and control, production line and linear systems thinking towards more open and flexible arrangements. It works best as decision makers understand their task is to nurture emergence.

    The starting point for such a shift in the thinking of policy/decision makers is to acknowledge that
    • under stress, there is a natural urge for management in increase their use of command and control
    • while they may be in charge, decision makers are not in control
    • they are somewhat removed from the action that is the source of real value
    • no-one has the whole story of what is happening
    • the staff in the field frequently save an organisation from its own plans and policies (by creating and implementing the necessary workarounds)
    The initial steps may be to
    • revisit and re-affirm core purposes
    • rethink working relationships
    • join the dots - understand how and where value is produced, and how value flows, throughout the organisation
    • reduce spending as required
    • manage for it is ideal
    • simplify as much as possible
    The implications are that it takes the knowledge and efforts of everyone, working in collaboration, to make the organisation more cost effective. Unilateral decision making by management is unlikely to achieve the best possible outcomes - it is rarely more than tampering. Tampering increases costs and reduces value.

    Thursday, July 7, 2011

    Our world has changed

    Why do government and communities need to consider the next steps in relation to school closures?  Because

    • Our recent experience is only the first of many resource-related challenges that face virtually all communities and governments world-wide. 

    The biggest, most consistent question facing us is

    • How can the system change so that we can all do more and more with less and less?

    Ironically this is emerging at a time when we seem to have lost all touch with systems thinking and change management. It is more common for policy/decision makers to respond as if we are at the edge of chaos [*].

    Admittedly, the nature of systems has changed, particularly since the arrival of the internet. Systems are now networks of often largely autonomous agents, Systems, including school systems, can no longer be treated as production lines (example) with an overlay of organisational trees that describe the  relative status, power and authority of those involved.

    Clearly, at least 20 Tasmanian school communities are already better prepared for what is to come. These communities still have Facebook and a whole new set of knowledge, skills, experiences, networks and relationships and a clearer sense of their own identities. They have transformed their initial sense of being at the edge of chaos into something that could be very useful to all concerned is sustained and developed. Managed well, there is a close potential link between innovation and being at the edge of chaos, but it does require a change of mindset.

    I cannot think of anything that the policy/decision makers (government and government departments) have to enable them to match what the school communities have done in 18 days!!  The old "golden rule" (Those who have the gold make the rules) is not as valid as it used to be.

    But what might happen next?   So many lessons to be still to be learned!!

    [*The sudden decision to finalise the closure 10% of Tasmania's schools within four weeks is a classic response made under is a chaotic situation. It didn't work because only the decision makers were in chaos at the time. The schools and their communities were far from chaos]

    School closures - some next actions

    Here are some possibilities to consider.

    School communities
    1. Carry out a post-mortem on the last few weeks as soon as convenient
    (a) What worked? And why? Be prepared more of the same next time it is needed!!
    (b) What didn't? Try to find alternative/better ways to do next time!! It might even work next time!!
    (c) What have we discovered about "us"? Attend to the things than need to be attended to in our school and our community!!
    (d) What have we discovered about others? What worked for them? What did they learn? ... What are the implications for the future?
    (e) What else might we do now? In the near future? Next time?

    2. Gather the data: During the past few weeks you have greatly increased your knowledge of what your school really is, in the life and work of your community.
    (a) Capture 30 to 50 most significant stories that were told. And continue to add to them. These stories might be about students, families, the community itself, education, the local economy, the way in which the school and its community support and nurture people...
    (b) Begin gathering the demographics - be more informed so that you can respond quickly to those who want to do things TO you!! And work with those who want to do things WITH you
    (c) Map the school district showing where families live (big map). It is not the distance between schools that matter. It is the distance for home to the possible next school.
    (d) Involve the students in learning (and teaching others) about their community, its life and work...
    (e) Educate everyone about the school and its community...

    3.  Consider small next steps for the school, and other aspects of the community, for example,
    (a)  Update the history of school and the community
    (b)  Put the school and community on show to passers by
    (c)  Develop a shared voice with related schools and communities
    (d)  Enhance the presence of the school and its community: use signage, the web, the media, events....

    4. Participate in wider networks
    (a) Sustain and extend the networks that have served you so well in recent weeks
    The Policy/Decision Makers
    I am concerned that the decision makers (and their advisers) may be the last to learn and respond constructively. Our world has changed. They may be in charge but this does not mean they are in control. Our children teach us this lesson everyday. The failure to close schools is more than a failure of process. It is a failure to understand what is happening and how the world works. Until they really learn the lessons they are unlikely to look around for the tools, processes and strategies to make sense of what is happening and work WITH those involved to make much better responses that will enable us all to navigate future challenges.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    School closures - what happens next

    Recent attempts by the Minister, government and department to close 20 schools have revealed much. The following are just some possible lessons:

    Closing a school is not something that can be done one the basis of numbers. It is a complex and uncertain task with broad ramifications

    Parents and communities place a very high value on the current well-being and long-term success of their children.

    When it comes to success and well-being, parents and communities are confident about their local schools. Their confidence in the Minister, government and department has been severely undermined.

    And so on…

    School closures failed this time for two reasons: they were based on a very narrow discourse; and they were set up as win-lose and would have resulted in a net loss. The losses to the students, their families and community would have been far greater than the modest financial gains to the government.

    The next step is for the lessons to be learned. This means taking advantage of the current situation to learn as much as possible and develop a new sustainable dialogue around all schools: what they are for and how to manage their futures.

    The important conversation we need to have is not just between some schools and the government. The fundamental "fight" is about how we as a state understand, talk about, utilise and value our schools and their futures: what they are; what they do; how they make things possible.... And this involves all schools, communities, governments, departments...
    The conversation really counts. And it needs to be ongoing, not just when there is an urgent need for the government to reduce spending. The conversation should include the full range of direct and indirect costs, benefits, values, relationships and possibilities associated with schools.

    And these are best captured as stories of real people in real contexts as schools have demonstrated. This is what schools have all been gathering and sharing in recent weeks. And it worked so well.

    Schools should look after their stories well. There will come a time when they will be needed again... not only for the sake of the school, but also to help the decision makers make better decisions next time. Hopefully the proposed Reference Group will be wise enough to tap into this goldmine before it dissipates. Governments world-wide are having to reducing spending and this will continue.

    I hope The Minister gets full credit for correcting the mistake. Clearly he acted on poor advice from others who should have known better - they are the ones who need the stories most.

    To be successful the conversation needs to be open, rich and interactive... not constraints by a narrow set of terms of reference with a particular outcome in mind. It needs to lead to innovation and overall win-win outcomes which may or may not result in some actual closures!!

    The schools have demonstrated that this can be done. Facebook played a key role. There are tools for enabling even more focused and productive outcomes. Now it is time for the Minister, government and department to catch up.

    Perhaps the critical next step is to make the Reference Group about School Futures (not just school closures).