Category: Strategic Planning

It’s a year later….

The homework policy went into practice. Immediately issues kicked up. Did they consider the individual needs of students? Could they cookie cutter a set time for every student per grade? How could they monitor the assignment of homework? Who would supervise the policy?

Over time, the principal and her Shared Decision Making Team made some adjustments and in the end what the team could be sure of was that homework was in fact assigned more regularly than it had been in the past.

However the Team was shocked when the principal asked the “Is the Emperor wearing his clothes?” question:

“Can we somehow connect the perceived increase in homework to improved student learning?” she asked.

One thing the team could do together was squirm and squirm they did.

Then Bob said, “You mean that we have to evaluate whether the policy worked?”.

The principal wanted to say “Duh.” but restrained herself. Instead she said, “We went through a lot of trouble and a lot of fine tuning to get some sort of homework practice in place. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and to the children to find ways to decide whether what we did was worth it?”

Bob put his other foot in his mouth by saying “Well it’s not like the School Improvement Police will come after us if our plan didn’t work. Where does it say that we get raises if we succeed or pay cuts if we don’t?”


Hmm, Bob’s remarks are both fortunate and unfortunate.

They’re unfortunate in that he said them in the first place.

But they’re fortunate on a couple of counts. One is that this is a kind of mini case study and hopefully not a true story. That a professional or a member of any school improvement effort would be so callous about whether there were positive or negative results from their collective planning and decision making is frightening although I daresay that members of school improvement groups near and far might sometimes think like this.

The other fortunate development is that we can now parse this kind of thinking in terms of what this dysfunction, Inattention to Results, may suggest.

It can be argued that school leaders are sociologists who also happen to be educators. We are after all spending so much of our time dealing with groups of people in various combinations to create the self sustaining, proactive, learning organization. When the groups go sour, perhaps out of the mental model shown above, or out of any number of other group process failings, the organization, and by extension certainly, the children it serves, suffers.

Search your memory and try to recall what happens when an educational initiative, or choice, from textbook selection, to policy making, and everything in between, falters or fails, how often has someone asked “Why?” “What have we learned from this?” worst, “WHO is responsible for this?”

The subliminal message albeit the cries near and far of “accountability in schools” is that we aren’t really held that accountable for our results, and in doing so we can continue to muddle on through to perpetuate what “mostly” works for “most” students.

It occurs to me that in so many ways, Inattention to Results is the most perfidious of the five dysfunctions. To ignore, blow off, make excuses for what we do or don’t do is really unconscionable in systems thinking where the correct model has always been PDSA, Plan, Do, Study, Act.

PDSA speaks to a kind of research and set of activities that needs further exploration in our mutual exploration of Systems Thinking and that is the idea of action research. That will be the subject two blog entries from now but for now it involves the obligation of the school organization’s leadership to build in mental models and inquiry skills to establish dialogues and analyses about our school’s practices, the great ones, the good ones, and the not so good ones.

As we end this segment of systems thinking blogs about Team Learning aka, Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, let’s remind ourselves about Benjamin Franklin and his co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, one could wonder where we would be right now if these dysfunctions dominated their thinking before they signed it!


Back in the first seasons of Saturday Night Live, in their Weekly Update segment, Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin would verbally spar about the issue of the week. At some point or another Jane would launch into a diatribe about her point of view.  When she would pause to take a breath Ackroyd would look at her with a mixture of disdain and pity and say “Jane, you ignorant ….”

Inevitably it would draw laughs but perhaps the deeper message behind the dynamic was about  how or whether groups who engage in an issue for their analysis should or should not agree with each other.

Lencioni, in his Five Dysfunctions books, focuses on this issue as the second dysfunction of a group, Fear of Conflict. Namely, how can a team be effective together unless it knows how to constructively disagree with each other?

What’s that you say, shouldn’t collegial circle groups, work study teams, committees, shared decision groups, department meeting  always be congenial, affable,, and cohesive?

What’s that you say, shouldn’t collegial circle groups, work study teams, committees, shared decision groups, department meetings always be positive, agreeable, and friendly?

What’s that you say, shouldn’t collegial circle groups, work study teams, committees, shared decision groups, department meeting aways be accepting, and avoid conflict?

Obviously the answer to the above question is a literary device to get you to say “FALSE”!

If the choices are between True or False, False is the right answer. However as with most true / false questions, there are nuances to each statement that could influence a respondent to think gray instead of black or white. After all neither Lencioni nor I am advocating for name calling and vitriol.

Obviously  – Obviously, we need to distill the three sentences for their common “message: ”

And that is, “Is there, should there, be room in the dynamics of a team for disagreement?”

Of course. And yet, think about meetings in which you have participated where members have said or supported a “truism” that was patently false or inaccurate and yet was allowed to slide through because of a reluctance of other members to question its veracity?

On one level and for sure, the team leader / facilitator has several responsibilities to make a dysfunctional team functional in regard to this particular set of team behaviors. (S)he must

– not permit personal attacks

– permit members to ask other members to cite evidence and logic for their points of view

– point out inconsistencies if no one else is willing to do so

– if necessary, train the group how to, as Covey put it, “seek first to understand before being understood.”

– if necessary, train the group to use inquiry skills in order to more nearly burn off emotional, non-logical conclusions in favor of reasoned – logical ones.

So, what would a FUNCTIONAL group look like in this regard?

Most likely the Facilitator would permit stakeholders to offer points of view. Then (S)he would make room in the analysis to follow for questions and probes of each other so that over a series of such dynamics, the group would recognize where a “conclusion” was indeed valid or if not, how they can rework the premise so that it is valid.

In systems thinking, particularly in Team Learning, such a skills set, both of the Leader and of her  participants, is vital so that the group’s comfort with each other to inquire and to build together is not a function of  often mindless group-think and more nearly one of  Collective Smart Think.

If you’re looking for a textbook or want to read a book re Leadership. Check out book just published where I am co-editor and a co-author, “Leadership for a Global Economy”.

Available through Amazon and North American Business Press.

1. How will you know if the Yankees met their strategic goal?

Answer: They won the World Series.

2. How will you know if you lost weight?

Answer: You lost weight.

3. How will you know if your organization’s systems are working?

Answer: Everything seemed to work.

Answer to number one: Yes, they must win the World Series. Anything less is an organizational failure.

Answer to number two: Technically yes, i.e. if you lose weight. But HOW much weight? One pound? Two? One hundred?

Answer to number three: How DO you know if your organization’s systems are working?

– if no one complains?

– if you have a profit?

– if your students are achieving?

Before we answer number three let’s piggyback off the first two questions: We all know that any athletic or competitive team (not only the Yankees), “measures” itself by whether or by how much they have  won their respective championship. It’s an absolute, either you have won the championship or you have not, sort of like if you’re pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t.

If my goal is “lose weight” it might be fine to lose a pound or two. But I’d also offer that a dieter measures her “success” by more weight loss than one pound.

If we consider organizations, especially schools as systems – as organizations those first two throw – in questions offer some guidelines, although not nearly enough to truly assess the extent to which the school-as-system-as-0rganization  (SASAO) has met its goals.

For one thing, there is no World Series by which it can measure itself for school systems. For sure we “create” artificial World Series types targets. 100 per cent diploma rates, everyone meeting standards, are two examples. But they are more nearly akin to leaves on a tree than they the stoutness of that same tree’s trunk.

For another thing, and maybe more preferably,  if a school-as-systems-as-organizations measures itself incrementally it can keep track of a promising or not so promising trend. Oh sure there is that AYP, Annual Yearly Progress.  This type goal basically says “Well you haven’t met the ULTIMATE goal but you are showing progress toward that goal. Let’s be satisfied with that for now. So let’s look at that. I’d proffer that that sort of measurement COULD be more effective than “winning the World Series” if the yardstick measured a continuum toward a meaningful goal in the first place.

I’d argue that the mental models offered and practiced in just about any schoolhouse have surface level merit but in their collective aggregate  miss the mark because the goals that steer them are faulty to begin with.

Because the “vision”, the shared vision, is not enunciated, or if vocalized from time to time, is not truly the beat by which the school-as- systems-as organization marches. Visions and so-called missions like these are  the  kind you find posted somewhere in the school entrance and in the masthead of the school newsletter, or even on its website if it has one.  But the so-called vision has little or no collective conscious in the day to day energies of the stakeholders.

More than that if the purpose of American schooling is to prepare citizens of the 21st century with economic, critical thinking, creative, and technological literacies and capacities, we will need to create CRITERIA BY WHICH WE ASSESS goals as offered in this very sentence that will give us true input as to whether we are in fact doing this or something far less effective and far less worthy.

So when we craft that plan to meet that vision, let’s wag the school-as-systems-as organization’s tail effectively by knowing how we will know before we construct what we think we want.

Those of us still willing to call ourselves trekkies remember with a grin and with fondness Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s famous “Make it so” command. By that he meant “I as Captain am giving you as subordinates authority to carry out my direction.” And thankfully THAT dialogue never made it to the television script!

But the sum is the same. Jean-Luc empowered his crew to carry out the mission.

Now suppose an outtake on the script was something like this:

NAVIGATOR: Sir, what do you mean by “Make it so.”?

PICARD: What do you mean by what do I mean?!!! I have told you to set course for the Romulan Empire!

NAVIGATOR: Sir. I do not know how to set course for Romulus anymore than set course for Earth.

Hmmm. Thankfully that dialogue never made it to the series either.

And the message is that the great leader – systems ensure that all participants have been trained to carry out their roles and need only minimum direction to take the appropriate initiative.

The question then becomes “To what extent do systemically unhealthy school organizations actually know HOW to make it so?”

And in this case, our Tale of Two Cities, to what extent do the LEADERS know HOW to make it so?!

And speaking of so, do school leaders of various stripes and types know HOW to first of all develop an effective strategic or operational plan even if they know what they want to have happen?

Going back to previous posts, we saw how an administrative team’s collective mental model could be transformed. All well and good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. To get where you really you want to go, you need to know how to plan all details and issues properly.

So speaking of so, let’s consider what a plan should look like in this and succeeding posts.

The first step is obvious, for heaven’s sake, have a goal. As Jim Collins said “a big hairy one”, something first of all worth shooting for, and something that has been a result of heavy duty root cause analyses by all stakeholders and that has been accepted by all stakeholders.

So speaking of so, be sure that you recognize the goal’s complexity and that most likely this target will require in many cases, a multi-year plan as opposed to the usual thumb in the dike short term solutions to surface leaks we often expediently grab.

Once you have honed, shaped, smelted, and purified your long term goal then you need to be very clear on deciding how this goal will be assessed, formatively and summatively along the journey towards achieving it.

And that will be the next post.

It may be one thing to “turn and twist a mental model from positive to negative or its counterpart. It is another thing to, as Kurt Lewin said, “refreeze” that mental model in a new place.

So it may be all fine and good to have empowered the citizens of my new city to use that right brain muscle too often neglected in a world of Mr. Spock Thinkers but it is another to transform the “I-thinks” to “I-cans”.

This is reminiscent of the High Involvement Model best described by Dr. Priscilla Wohlstetter and her colleagues at the USC Center for Educational Governance. I also describe it in my own research and can be found at

Basically Wohlstetter showed that high involvement, and by extension, effective input and contribution by a cross section of stakeholders is only guaranteed when seven variables are operating. These are Power, Knowledge, Information, Leadership, Goals, Resources, and Rewards.

In the case of this “City” the High Involvement variable of Knowledge was sorely lacking. Knowledge in this case, speaks to the How to and can be associated with Senge’s Disciplines of both Personal Mastery and Team Learning.

In English, this means that while the group had generated many significant and potentially effective ideas to not only right their own Mental Models, but also to realign their own energies towards systemic health, they really didn’t know how to do this.

And so, under the “Teach a man to fish” point of view, that is, when the group knows HOW then no one leader needs to be so indispensable to the group’s successful continuance some schoolin’ was necessary.

So I taught them, however quickly, how to strategically action plan their ideas.

Here I claim no magic wand or secret formula about action plan design. Indeed I’d venture that most leaders, in education or otherwise are taught somewhere along the line, how to strategically plan. My website shows a couple of examples.

But the big HOWEVER is that learning such a skill as with learning most skills in a vacuum, has little or no translation unless or until the premise is embedded in a purpose.

Here my new City-dwellers indeed had purpose. That is they recognized that their ideas, as worthy as they were, needed to be translated to action. And that these actions couldn’t be willy-nilly throws of the dice. Instead, they had to sequence their ideas into actionable strategies. They needed to know who would be responsible, what they needed, how to overcome obstacles they could anticipate, and above all, how to measure their progress both formatively and summatively. Isn’t that what the quarterback does in the huddle?

And that will be the next Tale of This City.

The Root Cause term has garnered some attention these past few years of economic upset. When the market tanked in 2008 commentator after commentator pontificated on the root cause(s) for this systemic failure.

There are ways to more nearly isolate what “lies beneath” and how or to what extent groups and individuals can do this, first on a micro level and then at its counterpart. This is a skill and a mindset that needs more structured attention than what I intend to do in this blog series.

This blog series instead is meant to showcase how leaders “teach a man to fish” systemically. In this instance that idea appears to speak most nearly to Senge’s Personal Mastery and to Team Learning Disciplines but I would argue that neither has much traction without a reversal of prevailing Mental Models.

The Mental Model in this City appeared to be a dangerous mix of Futility, Powerlessness, Resentment, Frustration.

But I couldn’t tell them that. I needed them to figure that out and that was the challenge! I needed to teach them to fish.

I do not claim major victory here. I do claim that I distilled their feelings about the issues noted above by flat out telling them. “You feel Futile.” “You feel Powerless.” You feel Resentment”. and “You feel Frustration.”

They were almost surprised that I had “diagnosed” their concerns. And then came the key point.

To borrow a page from the late Steven Covey, I asked, “So there’s nothing you can do about any of the issues you lament?”

I guess it’s better put that I used a “reverse” Steven Covey. He among many practices, speaks to identifying what power or influence an individual or in this case, a group may actually have and to seek to use those competencies or abilities to work at solutions.

At first there was nothing. No answers or ideas. I waited the famous 6 seconds “wait time” strategy hoping that someone would offer up an idea.

Then I got, “Well, maybe the community has lost sight of what they want us to do. Maybe we should either reassert our vision or invite stakeholders to review it with us.”

Then I got, “I’m not sure we are communicating about the many wonderful projects and programs our districts offer.”

Then I got, X and then I got Y. And then I got Z.

And then, and then.

The ideas flowed! The Mental Model had been punctured.

What was necessary next was to take the bundle of ideas and show them how to make them happen.

Listen to its apPEAL.

Get it?

There are many metaphors to use about keeping the Shared Vision of a school sustained. Here, I recommend Senge’s book, Schools that Learn, that contains a whole section about how schools around the world have worked hard to develop meaningful shared visions and how they have stayed true to their message.

As two quick examples I know of a school district where, in their elementary schools, their mission is recited after the Pledge of Allegiance. I know of several school districts where the mission statement is visited as the first teaching task of each school year. Each grade level has an assigned task, appropriate to it, that they complete; e.g. poetry, pictures, writing assignments, etc. These are shared in  a special Fair within the first two weeks of school’s opening.

What’s troubling about vision and mission statements and the fact that their appeal and momentum all too often lose their reverberation is that the effort to develop one that has long lasting meaning and by extension requires long lasting conscious sustenance and adherence may be developed poorly.

There is research both ways about this. That is, engage stakeholders pretty much from the outset in identifying those values, priorities and actions to meet both so that all the planning and involvement activities that follow are powered by that initial development of the shared vision. That would be fine if the facilitator and her stakeholders realize that the subsequent series of processes in which they are going to splash may very well lead them to CHANGE their initial thinking. And when that happens both the facilitator and the stakeholders have to be flexible enough to be willing to adjust and maybe even totally jettison what they originally agreed to.

If you have been part of the arduous and sometimes plodding process that may lead to a mission statement you will easily understand that it could be hard to give up a single comma notwithstanding that new thoughts and themes may have evolved in the activities that you have been participating in.

Better I think to wait on that shared vision statement until the group has had ample time to dialogue about what their shared vision will be.

Then and only then should it be solidified and then and only then should it be the rallying point for all of what a systemically healthy learning organization should be.

Senge speaks volumes to the learning-organization’s “discipline” he calls Mental Models.

Before we speak to what it is and how it may operate, let’s be clear about the premise of learning organization. I sometimes think that we in educational leadership positions might mistakenly equate Senge’s use of the learning organization term in the context of schools since after all, we are organizations that we hope foster learning. And by the way, that may be a pretty good example of a mental model.

However that isn’t how I interpret Senge’s premise.

His, and others who espouse what Demings and others would equate learning organization to, speak to an organization committed to learning, sustaining, and perpetuating itself. There are plenty of examples of such who have successfully been learning organizations and of others that have failed at it.

Let’s take the negative first: Blacksmiths were not a learning organization. If they were  they converted their skills and practices and learned how to run gas stations and auto repair businesses. Video store owners on whole were not learning organizations because they likely missed  or were unable to react to the technological innovations that deliver video directly to consumers.

On the positive side: Think of Apple. Apple was losing what was left of its computer marketing share until Steve Jobs recognized Apple had to reinvent itself to be a platform for linked technologies where the computer stood as the hub of other connected services, like video, music, and mobile computing. Think of … you know what? I cannot think of other companies or institutions that are better examples of reinventing themselves! I am sure there are many others but maybe someone can offer some ideas to me. I will refer you to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great for potential examples. And actually on writing this I am thinking of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney corporation as potentially good examples.

At any rate, where would you put the organization known as public education? Has it reinvented itself to not only sustain its existence but also to improve its likelihood of success? Hmmm. For that matter, what about governing agencies in general? How good have those organizations been at reinventing themselves against uncertain futures?

Senge argues strongly for five disciplines or practices that characterize exemplary learning organizations. One is Mental Models. I like the term ” ‘tude” as in Attitude as a more concrete one. That is, what are the attitudes, paradigms, mental models, dominating beliefs, of an organization that characterize how it does or does not operate?

Apply the idea to schools. What are the mental models driving the conversations in a school’s faculty rooms? What are the mental models that the school leaders use in their  faculty meetings? Are they toxic? Are they hopeful? Are they positive? Are they grounded in the belief that they and their colleagues are united around finding ways to continue to meet the needs of 21st students who will be 21st century citizens?

Are they locked into “We can’t!” or restricted by “They won’t let us!” or by “You know, we can do that?” or “Let’s try it and apologize later if it doesn’t work?”

And that brings me back to two points, one from a previous post, another is new: Remember unlocking creativity? We spoke about that when I noted how I as coach / facilitator felt morally responsible to keep the ideas rolling and flowing lest the one or two good ideas amongst the torrent never get a chance to flow through the filter? The other point is about my experiences in wrapping up the school improvement reviews I have describing.

As I twine the two points together both are about Mental Models. As I began the process of giving the finalized reports to the school / district teams I was once again struck by the chains that bound them. The Money-Mental-Model was one as described in the previous post, but not money or lack thereof, rather the lack of imagination or of courage to Reallocate monies to fund new and worthy ideas.

Of course doing so would threaten the system that created the original and Ineffective programs that perpetuate current power structures and power blocs. I’m not naive though. I understand how contracts, unions, and mandates real or imagined, can restrict reapportioning  resources to support new and creative ideas.

Nonetheless, the mental model, the attitude, that drives the decision making and the implementation of these choices, has, must be, courageously identified, parsed, twisted, turned, and eliminated in order to recreate the organization so it can recreate itself.

One effective way to confront and at least clarify negative mental models is to first of all point out what a mental model is to the group. Doing so sensitizes a group to how mental models may drive or defeat creativity and decision making. That will help but it must also be complemented by the leaders’ task to model and to help the group work very hard at HEARING each other by giving each other opportunities to dialogue so that folks become comfortable enough to hear their own paradigms – tudes and comfortable enough to adjust them if they realize how doing so will actually open the way for making an organization a learning organization.

Should I apologize for fancying myself a school-improvement nerd? I am that for sure. And while nerd usually has some unpleasant connotations in this world I guess it is still fair to say that I am one.

That is why it is a bit difficult for me to bring closure to the process I have been describing. One reason for that is that I don’t think there is closure to school reform / improvement efforts especially in schools with persistent needs.  For this reason, whilst the review process is largely done and now we are in the stage of finalizing the recommendations, there are plenty of lessons for those school leaders who also engage this process.

One I will allude to now and speak to mightily up the road is my wonder whether how, if, or ever, “support” from a state, regional, or federal agency has any positive, sustainable, results. What research I have begun to do thus far has not yielded much positive on this count. IF my continuous research efforts in this regard continue to be a dry hole then the obvious question is why?

We all deserve to have answers to this. NCLB, now RTTT and who knows what initials yet to be spawned continue to require that government agencies of some sort or another will invest themselves on one level supportively and perhaps on another level punitively (or so perceived by the schools or district under such lenses), into helping schools designated in need to improve their achievement.

But it simply isn’t as simple as their formulas would have you believe. In one of the schools where we are finishing up, on data analysis, we found that their African American population which in aggregate had not made the standard, was practically all also classified as Students with Disabilities. In addition, while the school was not cited for the performance of students with low economic wealth, 90% of these same students were also classified as such.

So were these children disabled? Were they underperforming because they were poor? Is poverty the ultimate root cause?

Covey speaks about one’s “sphere of influence”. Is it within any school’s power to overcome the consequences of poverty? Perhaps this is true in many instances, but can it be true, especially in the vile political rhetoric we are suffering nowadays, buoyed by terrible economic times that schools, of their own, with what resources they have, can universally make it all happen?

Some of you will cherry pick schools and school leaders who appear to have overcome the anchors of poverty for their school’s children. Some will point to dysfunctional public school systems and argue for charter schools or vouchers. By the way the research about their success isn’t too glowing either. And I even confess to some more than passing interest in their potential to be more successful than public school systems.

But now I come back to the school I describe above. They recognize many of their deficits. One solution they had put in place was to increase their school periods from eight to nine so that another period in the day would give them scheduling flexibility to provide more support services and to encourage more professional development among staff.

Then le Deluge kicked in, state aid monies were drastically reduced. Administrative and teaching staff  were slashed to the bone. And guess what, the ninth period? That’s right. It has been eliminated.

What is the message? If you say “Do more with less.” after I scream, I’ll say what “you’re” saying is that our governing and societal value system talks out of both sides of its mouth.

I did not intend for this post to go in this direction. I will point to other dynamics and creativity and mind sets and systems adjustments in the next post(s), but this is one mental model, poverty’s impact, that is an elephant in this room today .

Or maybe it’s about what we really think has importance.