In 2012, Google began studying how workers can transform productivity by examining the perfect team. They scrutinized everything from how often they socialize together, to how regularly they communicate, to their personal backgrounds. Like many organizations, Google believed that putting the best people together would create the highest level of productivity. However, no matter what data they collected, they didn’t see any consistent patterns.
What they eventually identified as a consistent thread across successful teams is the group norms. Norms are the rules of engagement, whether clearly articulated or unwritten – these are rules that govern how people function when they get together. The more aligned the group was on these norms, the quicker they were able to get things done.
The impetus for change at a high school with over 200+ staff members came this school year when a group of enthusiastic leaders was determined to see the vision of student-centered learning live inside and outside of the hallways at Wando High School. Like many high schools around the country, members of the 21st Century Learning Team (also known as a School PL Team) of the largest high school in Charleston County School District were struggling to get the message and communication out to their own staff members. Overall, the staff was aware of the vision for the work but unclear on the indicators of the implementation and how the school was measuring success.
I remember the day quite clearly: the door to my portable classroom opened and my principal walked in. My heart skipped a beat — it was my first year teaching and the first time any school leader had come into my room. I was immediately worried about the clipboard in her hand and the uncapped pen. I was convinced that whatever I was doing would be wrong, that the moment would be off, that my students unengaged or the lesson would go off the rails. I was nervous about receiving feedback, but I now know that I needed it.
I was really fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at a number of really great conferences, one of which was the Responsive Conference. The Responsive Conference is in it’s third year and features presenters and attendees focused on the future of work. There were so many great sessions but the one led by Rajkumari Neogy, Founder of iRestart, on The Epigenetics of Teams still stands out weeks later. Rajkumari shared an incredible synthesis of research around the science of feelings and trust. She helped us to understand the chemicals in our body and the impact they have on trust, collaboration, and team dynamics. For example she shared, “When teams are more engaged they have greater levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces the fear of trusting a stranger and helps signal trust. When we have higher levels of oxytocin we are able to build connections faster.” Similarly we organically, internally create serotonin when we feel seen and heard; opioids when we feel warmth and respect; and dopamine when we have autonomy and purpose.
As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I was fortunate throughout September to be able to attend and present at a number of really great conferences. In my final dispatch from the Responsive Conference, I am excited to share about Lindsey McGregor’s presentation on the power of total motivation. Lindsey is the Co-Founder and CEO of Vega Factor, and the author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.
Curiosity has driven some of the most important innovations in our world. Albert Einstein famously boasted, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Curiosity is an attribute we actively work to develop in our teams at EE (one of our core values is Never Stop Learning) and in the leaders we support (our Innovative School Leaders Competencies include Learn Constantly and Cultivate Curiosity is one of the Coaching Competencies we’ll release later this month). I see curiosity as so critically important to shaping individual practices and organizational culture, I’ve included Constant Curiosity as one of the five key ingredients in my culture of innovation framework.
Appreciation and showing gratitude, to ourselves and others, is powerful. The British Psychological Society shares the results of a series of experiments from Psychological Science, which concluded that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.” In the study:
“Participants were asked to write a letter of thanks via email to someone who had touched their life in a meaningful way, including expressing what the person had done and how it had affected their life. Across these experiments, the participants were asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Meanwhile, the researchers made contact with the recipients to find out how they actually felt and what they actually thought. The senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be. Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of findings.”
I was fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at really great conferences. One of these was TinyCon, TinyPulse’s annual conference focused on employee engagement. The event featured fantastic speakers, and one of my favorite talks came from Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks. Howard is on our board at Education Elements, and I’ve been lucky to hear him speak a number of times. However, at TinyCon I found that his message resonated in a particularly deep way with me, both personally and professionally.
Often as leaders, we want to make things run smoothly. But Howard continually pushes us to see that people are not machines who can be “smooth” all the time. As he often says, “People are not assets. Assets are trucks, boxes, etc. Assets always give you what you expect. People are people. People never give you what you expect. You don’t even give yourself what you expect!” People are inevitably going to surprise, wow, and disappoint you. Howard offers this powerful question you can ask yourself and your organization when these people moments occur. “What happens when someone makes a mistake in the organization?” This singular question can have a tremendous impact on how we as leaders reflect and act.
Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling from state to state talking with superintendents and systems leaders about how to create a culture of innovation. One of the key themes we discuss in these conversations, workshops, and keynotes is around developing deep trust. For me, and many other leaders, deep trust is built through fostering a psychologically safe environment. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Researcher who coined this term, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
Last month I had the opportunity to collaborate with Kawai Lai, a former Education Elements (EE) teammate who recently founded VizLit with Lisa Kay Solomon and Dan Roam. Kawai and I are working together to create a Responsive Org Playbook for EE (sneak peek here). We believe the playbook will help us clarify our organizational design, support us to continue evolving as a company, and enable us to share our responsive practices with others (and build on what we’ve already shared with The NEW School Rules). During our three days huddled in a room together, it became increasingly clear to me that visuals are the best way to simplify complex ideas. This isn’t an insight unique to me, in fact, many others including Nancy Duarte, Dan Roam, David McCandless, Willemien Brand, and Jamie Slater have expressed the power of visuals to clarify and synthesize your thinking.
One of the unspoken rules of The New School Rules is “make your organization human.” From the way you make decisions to the way you shape rules and communicate information, being responsive is at its core about making your organization value people over processes. There is no better way to start valuing people than starting to put connections before content.
As someone whose career has spanned everything from circus performance to management consulting, I am constantly impressed by people. Individually, humans can be incredible learners, capable of resilience and adaptation. And, in well-organized teams, we can accomplish even more. Yet our schools are failing to adapt to the quickly changing culture and technology around us.
In Rule #1 Planning: Plan for Change, Not Perfection Alexis and Anthony articulate the importance of a clear purpose to help drive the actions and decisions of individuals and teams in an organization. As they’ve written, “We need to stick vigilantly to our purpose, not the plans we make to get us there.”
As we support districts to use The NEW School Rules to make changes in their teams and organizations, we often hear the terms complicated and complex used interchangeably. I’ve also often used them as synonyms. It wasn’t until facilitators at a change management workshop last year asked my group to define the difference that I Googled “complex vs complicated” and found a simple definition that I like and continue to use today. Complicated challenges are the “known unknowns” and complex ones are the “unknown unknowns.”
I had the opportunity to attend a webinar with Lynn Carter, Director of Talent Acquisition at Netflix. Many of you know Netflix as the first company to ship a DVD straight to your home (my mom still loyally queues up movies to be delivered to her Oregon home every week). In the past decade, Netflix has also gained recognition as a leader in organizational design and culture. Having had the chance to learn from Carter, I listen to Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings on Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. From these two interviews, I discerned three key lessons from how Netflix thinks about building and evolving their organizational culture that I think are relevant to any leader who wants to strengthen their own organizational culture.
In writing this blog post I revisited notes from the dozens of conferences I’ve been lucky to attend in the past year. One conference that continues to stand out in terms of content, collaboration, and creativity is the Responsive Conference. I was lucky to join as an attendee last year and plan to return with a team of colleagues and clients this September.
There were so many great sessions and presenters, but one quote, in particular, has stuck with me. Jocelyn Ling Malan, Principal Incandescent shared this concise, but powerful advice about organizational culture, “Design things as systems, not in parts.”
In one of the panel presentations at the Education Elements Personalized Learning Summit , Julia Freeland-Fisher (The Clayton Christensen Institute), Anthony Kim (Education Elements), and Lydia Dobyns (New Tech Network) shared what they’ve been reading, thinking, and writing about networked teams and learning. All three have new books out this year exploring the power of networks. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how we learn and how we share information as I’ve worked with Alexis Gonzales-Black and Anthony Kim to develop activities to support their book, The NEW School Rules.
As we work with schools and districts around the county to help them learn about and implement The NEW School Rules, one of the questions we’re often asked is “how do I become a better manager?” There are many theories of leadership and what it takes to be a great managers. I am particularly inspired by the work of LifeLabs Learning, who help managers develop a coaching mindset.
Take a look at your calendars and consider the number of meetings you have each week. Can you say that you go through most of those meetings and 100% finish on time and in each of those meetings you get 80%-90% of the agenda items covered? While getting all this done, can you say that 100% of all meeting attendees get a chance to participate? I can. Just tweaking a few things about your meeting will make a significant difference in your organizational culture.
Many of you may know about the influential book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World that was published in 2016. General McChrystal and his book have had an enormous impact on how leaders think about teaming and collaboration. In particular, McChrystal’s book inspired Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black and how they think about teams and decision-making in their own book, The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools.
Last month I was privileged to be one of 175 leaders selected to attend the inspiring Culture Conference in Santa Clara, CA. There were so many brilliant thinkers and ideas at this event that it will likely provide fodder for many future blog posts.
We all are familiar with the Trust Fall – the stereotypical team building activity where you fall backwards and another person catches you. The goal of this activity is to promote trust in the workplace; unfortunately, it doesn’t work. That is, although we almost always catch the falling teammate, the trust isn’t easily transferred to the world of work, where the circumstances, the speed, and the definitions of roles and accountabilities are apt to be much different.
If there was ever a time in my career as a school and district leader that I wish I could have a “do-over”, it is now.
Why, you might ask? Well, I just finished this fascinating new book about teaming.
In fact, as I read through Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black’s recent book, The NEW School Rules (NSR), I was taken back by how clearly they identified the dysfunctions that occur so often in school district work. They point out what I experienced time after time. Teams I led, and teams I was a member of, worked so hard to develop plans to solve our problems. We had, what Anthony and Alexis refer to as the “effort of the engine.” But, we weren’t addressing the underlying structure, processes, and rules that our teams were using to focus and shape our efforts. Looking back, we missed in three key ways.
I was recently introduced to The NEW School Rules book on a webinar with co-author Anthony Kim. After learning about the book, I decided to dig into Chapter 1 Planning: Plan For Change, Not Perfection and Chapter 2 Teaming: Build Trust and Allow Authority To Spread. As I read, I found myself looking through a distributed leadership lens, starting with the question: How do superintendents bring innovation into their district while balancing the pressures for high levels of accountability for student success, as well as the maintenance of a professional learning environment for their teachers?
Like most of the nation and, in particular, like many urban districts, Miami-Dade County Public Schools focuses a lot of energy and considerable resources on recruiting and retaining the best teachers. In fact, in some years we have recruited and hired between 700 to 1,000 teachers.
We also recognize that the needs and expected experiences of the workforce of tomorrow is changing and therefore we must also change what we do to meet their needs, both in how we recruit and retain teachers. This is challenging.
In high functioning schools and systems, leaders play four important roles: governance, operations, community building, and change leadership. As El Paso superintendent Juan Cabrera and I discussed in a recent post, each of these these roles can feel like a full time job.
Just maintaining the status quo (governance and operations) are complex and politically charged roles. Mobilizing collective community action to better support youth and families can be an enormous lift -- and school leaders almost always have a role in making it happen.
Now that my book is being published, I wanted to reshare this post which originally appeared in the Thoughtful Org blog. It answers a perennial question I encounter -- "How can we get away from using consensus as a default for all decisions?"
There are many avenues you can take when making change in your organization. Change can be made at the structural level by redesigning the way teams are organized. Change can be made at the team level by refining the way collaboration happens. Change can be made at the individual level by evolving personal habits and practices.
How many of you have been on a team where one person carries the bulk of the work? One where teammates spend hours fighting for control of decisions and resources? One where nobody claims responsibility for the failure of a project?
This confusion over roles, conflict over authority, and lack of accountability is unfortunately all too common.