Everything I know about Ed Leadership, I learned from Netflix.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, is BAD ASS. First he fronted the attack that took down Blockbuster and its clones, now he has network television firmly in his sights. On its debut weekend, 670 000 people “binge-watched” all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” Season 2. That represents 2% of all Netflix subscribers. In another coup, Hastings signed a deal with Marvel Entertainment in late 2013 to air three new original shows based on Marvel characters on Netflix.  He has led the creation of a streaming platform that mixes Netflix original content and studio features.

Netflix has created the ultimate win – win – win. Viewers get to choose both when and what to watch, studios get royalties as well as audience and Netflix gets paid. A content platform also leaves room for growth and innovation. Educational leaders could learn a thing or two from the Netflix story.

Professional development in education is broken. Caught in “activity traps”, PD sessions that reach a miniscule percentage of the system rule the day. Any other industry that behaved in such a manner would be ripe for disruption. Instead of trying to improve current processes, we need to ask new questions and investigate new possibilities. What if the central level of a school board served as a platform a la Netflix? Imagine if the goal was to find excellence in the field and support its scaling? Rather than pushing PD out to the system, ideas from the field would be solicited through targeted design questions and openness to on-going projects.

The goal is to create a network that is simultaneously tight and loose. The values of the board represent the tight portion of the network. The loose part stems from the fact that specific areas or hubs are empowered to generate ideas. Central would use its resources to support the scaling of proven ideas. Prototype and test ideas that have contextual value and then work to make them repeatable. People are now empowered to be agents of change within their system.

Netflix is successful because it has a vision. It has created a platform for content, and has left the content creation to those who do it best. It has offered people choice and a measure of self-determination. Netflix is constantly evolving and has proven to be a truly disruptive innovation.

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An “Army of Davids”

I love educators. I am the product of two educators. I married an educator. Most of my closest friends are educators. I don’t like formal education though. It’s really complicated and I really like simplicity. Please allow me to explain. Picture it, a homeowner needs to move a piano from a main floor living room to his newly redecorated second floor study. The piano has wheels so it is easily slid over to the staircase by our eager participant. After this early success, the homeowner is full of eagerness and begins to problem solve when faced with the staircase. Undaunted by the gravity of trying to move a piano up the staircase by himself, the homeowner measures, sketches and plots out ideas. On paper, these plans seem like they might work but in practice they all fail.  The homeowner tries out dozens of methods to get that piano up the stairs and is frustrated by the lack of success. Eventually, the homeowner gives up and decides to leave the piano in the living room. He tries to justify his decision and eventually convinces himself that it probably belonged in the living room in the first place. Hopefully at this point, you are asking the same questions that I have. Why didn’t he just ask for help? Wouldn’t a team of people have had a greater chance of success? Well, duh?!? Of course they would.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, I recognize, but you get the gist. Formal education too often acts like our hapless homeowner. Individuals or very small teams seek to tackle system level problems without engaging the wider community of educators within their respective system. System leaders are often left frustrated when PD plans do not take root or when a new program quickly stalls. In their book “Decisive”, Chip and Dan Heath describe major enemies to good decision making. Chief amoung these enemies is what they call “Narrow-Framing” which is limiting the number of possibilities when making a decision. Our homeowner is guilty of narrow-framing because he never considered the possibility of involving others in his efforts to move the piano. Education leaders are WONDERFUL people who care deeply about kids BUT they are notorious narrow-framers. Decisions are made a by small group of people and the status quo (with a few minor tweaks) rules the day. We want co-construction at the classroom level but it often doesn’t transfer to a system level. Rather than giving up in frustration like our homeowner who chose to go it alone, education leaders must make greater use of the genius in the system to create meaningful change.

In his book, “Citizenville” Gavin Newson (current Lt. Governor of California) equates government to a vending machine. Taxpayers put money into the machine and the machine dishes out services. The relationship is one of transaction and not participation. He argues that government should serve as platform for participation in order to progress. He uses examples from his previous administration as Mayor of San Francisco and that of Michael Bloomberg in New York as examples. These two mayors allowed for the creation open API’s for developers to use city data to create web apps to  support citizen needs. Recognizing the inherent deficits of knowledge within their own teams, they created a platform for others to supply the necessary ideas and know-how. This is a winning proposition for everyone. The civic leaders get the services that they need, citizens get an opportunity to participate and shine a light on their particular skills and the larger population benefits from faster and more efficient innovative practice. Newsom describes it in the video below:

This kind of stakeholder participation is happening in the private sector as well. “My Starbucks Idea” is site where Starbucks customers are able to suggest product or service ideas for system wide adoption. Once an idea reaches a certain threshold of user support, it gets considered for adoption by Starbucks. The infographic below highlights the success of this platform:

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If organizations as large as Starbucks, San Francisco and New York (to name just three from a long list) can find create participatory platforms, why couldn’t a school board? The actual teaching and learning side of our education system can most certainly be turned into a participatory platform as well. Why not open up wicked education problems to crowdsourced solutions? Ask design or inquiry questions and allow the field to suggest solutions ala OPENIdeo.  We can’t keep trying to push that piano up the stairs by ourselves, its exhausting, wasteful and quite silly. Even if only a handful of people participate in the early rounds of this open system, that’s still more than we would have had. My Starbucks idea has seen the amount of adopted ideas rise from 25 to 75 in five years. This success is not just limited to the actual ideas, it also extends to those who voted to support them. Over 2 million people have voted on the site since it was created. These voters might not offer ideas BUT they are engaged in a platform that genuinely values their input. Regardless of the number of workable ideas that we might get from the education equivalent, we begin to interact with our system in new ways. It moves from a expert to novice or transactional relationship to one of co-learning and co-construction. Newsom calls this an “Army of Davids”. Engaging many people in solving problems can create avenues that were previously never considered or even conceived.  It operationalizes the adage, “many hands make light work”. Rather than acting the hapless homeowner, we need to follow the lead of our young leader in this “Lead India” video:

In a connected world, there is no excuse for the lack of wider participation in decision-making. There are countless FREE tools that we can use to foster this participatory platform. We have expertise in the field that we haven’t even come close to utilizing. It is the ultimate win-win. New ideas are generated and people feel valued. We create powerful and virtuous feedback loops. It’s not about thinking outside of the box, its really about creating new ones. We can plan and plot all we want about moving a piano up the stairs on our own but it will only move once we approach it from a brand new perspective.

 

Shut-up and listen!

It’s time that all education “experts” just shut-up and listen.  Too much talk, too much hubris, too many ideas and not nearly enough listening plague progress in education. New ideas from researchers and thinkers are valuable. The problem is not with the creators or interpreters of knowledge but rather with those in public education who are responsible for putting ideas into action.

@SEFleadTCDSB pointed me in the direction of this TEDx talk from Ernesto Sirolli; more than 15 minutes long but WELL worth the time commitment.

If we want change, we have to listen. We have to think like designers and less like consultants. Designers ooze empathy. They first seek to authentically understand the user’s particular problem. Solutions are grown and adapted according to circumstance. They are not forced solutions based on “best practice”. Consultants push canned solutions to nebulous and generalized circumstance. Their type of ABC’s is more akin to the sales version of “Always Be Closing”. Selling ideas trumps growing a meaningful program.

Sirolli’s talk teaches us the power of listening. Assuming the role of expert, precludes one from immersing in context and situation. There are certain universal truths in education but they only work if we are sensitive to time, need and context. Force feeding an idea doesn’t just get you nowhere, it sets the process further back.

Toyota has a good saying, if you want understand problems of practice, “Go to the Gemba” or the factory floor – the source. If we want to affect meaningful change, it’s time to shut-up and listen.

Look deep into the crystal ball…

Innovation is an overplayed word. It has been misused, overused and misunderstood. True innovation though is sexy, smart and seductive. I know that it should go without saying, but real innovation is also truly forward looking. It can be frustratingly incremental at times while at other times it seems to leap forward in the blink of an eye. The incremental piece gets overlooked and we forget that great products are often paradoxically “overnight sensations that were years in the making.” When a truly brilliant idea finally comes to fruition as a usable product, it is the result of some carefully placed and forward thinking early bets by the creators.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both approached an important fork in the tech road; Jobs moved down the path of the “post PC” movement while Gates took the PC path. In the words of Frost (kinda), “(Jobs) took the path less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” Jobs looked into the crystal ball and began to position Apple towards eventual explosive growth. Incremental choices were made  that would ultimately converge into true disruption. Apple’s unveiling of the 5s and the 5c iPhones was an underwhelming event for some. I see it a bit differently. Two things really standout: the Fingerprint Security Ring and the 64Bit chip. The fingerprint security potentially could open up all kinds of integration. Think about the options for purchasing that come from the security of fingerprint level security. The 64bit chip also creates crazy speed and multi-tasking options for the phone. The shift towards mobile moves even faster now. The other key piece to consider is iOS7. It seems to me that the devices are being designed to showcase the operating system. The tech is the peripheral while the operating system takes on even greater importance. These seemingly incremental additions have to potential to eventually to lead to Apple’s next big thing.

Innovation is dependent on an overarching vision that is supported by smaller, integrated and forward thinking bets about the future. It is all about positioning hunches.  The vision of the future might be a bit fuzzy but there is a gut feeling about the correct direction.  At the outset of the creative process, rarely is the final product conceptualized or clearly pictured. Instead there is an understanding of needs, trends and possibilities for change. I have always been a proponent of the coaching adage, “practice makes permanent.” Just like the muscle memory that comes from repeated physical action, there is also institutional memory. This type of memory can be powerful or highly corrosive. In the right environment, the repeated practice creates powerful innovation and productivity. P&G, Apple, Google, Facebook, and numerous other companies are so successful because of the reflective positioning that creates the right institutional memory. Repeatedly bad positioning leads to the type of institutional memory that creates companies like ENRON! Each and every decision that an organization makes adds fuel to a feedback loop (picture the old cartoon image of the snowball rolling down a snowy hill).

In education, we are very much rooted in the now. Decisions are made based on test scores and other accumulated data. Analyzing this data is obviously important BUT it must be used wisely. Test scores are trailing indicators, good glimpses into “what was” that really need to be rethought before trying to use them to project what might be. We need to start being bolder with our interpretations of the data.  We need to use that data to start making important small bets now with an eye towards reaching a grander vision. Just like Steve Jobs aligned Apple with an eye towards the post-PC world, we need to start aligning all decisions towards a post-SCHOOL version of education. Instead of perpetuating and propping up the status quo of bureaucratic education, we have to start positioning our system to handle an “anytime and anyplace” version of education. Decentralization of education is underway and no one has a perfect vision of what the final product will look like. Our goal is to start making the decisions now that allow the learning to bloom. If we don’t, we risk irrelevance and obsolescence.

We have to take a glimpse into the crystal ball and try to make sense of the blurry future staring back at us. Let’s start the positioning of those small bets and hunches in order to create something powerful and self-perpetuating.

Are you up to the challenge?

As we approach the start of the new school year, I would like to issue a few challenges. These requests are targeted at the key stakeholders in our public education system: board officials, administrators, teaching staff, parents and students.  These are some “double dog dare you” type of challenges, so make sure that you properly warm-up before starting!

To senior and central staff:

I challenge you to start thinking like designers. Work to  break down the compartmentalization of education and start designing an empowering and integrated vision. Follow a human-centred design model based on HCD (HEAR – CREATE-DELIVER). The deliver part you have down, the hear and create, not so much! Hear those in the field, don’t narrow frame the idea gathering by staying in the central echo chamber. Social media tools can aggregate ideas fast enough that the sample size of” brainstormers” can be radically bigger than in days past.

To the adminstrators:

I challenge you embrace inquiry. Open yourselves up to learning in new ways; empower your staff and students to direct the learning and school direction in new ways. Be strong enough to support the process even during potential rough patches. Provide your teachers with a shield that will allow them to experiment with emerging curriculum from the primary grades right up to senior. Be the vanguard of new ideas and not necessarily the CREATOR of them. Commit to a mission and vision that are based on collaborative inquiry and then get busy funding initiatives that support that mission. Don’t get lost in the sea of disjointed crap that gets thrown at you daily. Remain focused on the power of developing life-long learners.

To the teachers:

I challenge you to let go. We became teachers because we want to see kids succeed. It hurts us at our core when they don’t. We want to control the learning process (although we call it guiding) because we don’t want the them to fail. The by-product of this helicoptering is that it interferes with them becoming life-long learners. Learn right along with the kids and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. They need us to model learning skills just as much as they need us to model paragraph building or addition and subtraction.

To the parents:

I challenge you to let teachers teach. Research shows that parents can help their kids succeed in school best by:

  • Having high expectations
  • Talking to your kids about school
  • Building good attitudes and work habits
  • Reading to your children in any language

To read the full report, visit People for Education. Get involved in the learning by supporting the school. This doesn’t mean blind support. It means questioning critically when necessary but ALWAYS assume positive intent from the outset. Attempting to empathize with the school can go a long way towards resolution.

To the students:

Take control of your learning. Do not just “do school”, embrace learning. You do not have to be perfect but you do have to persevere. Be tough-minded and fight through the difficult times during the school year. Don’t shutdown because of bad experiences; fight through them. You cannot leave your future in the hands of others. Learn from anyone and everyone. You won’t always like what someone says or does but there is always something that you can learn. Remember sometimes, you learn more by seeing what NOT to do. You can do it; if you can breath, then you can learn. TAKE CHARGE!!!

I leave you with the following pep talk from our friends at NIKE. Now get to work dammit!

No more waiting, find your Greatness!

My 7 year old son is an insanely passionate baseball fan. Like many boys in the city of Toronto, he loves Jose Bautista (the Blue Jays star rightfielder).  Despite going to games and seeing him play live, Bautista seemed like a distant, almost mythical being to Liam. He seemed like a TV character rather than a real person. Two seasons ago, we started to follow Bautista on Twitter. We added a whole slew of other MLB players as well. Liam was fascinated by seeing what they had to say on a daily basis.  During that season, Bautista got hurt. Nothing major (unlike last year’s season-ending wrist injury) but Liam was VERY concerned. We tweeted Bautista expressing our concern and wishing him the best on a speedy recovery. Something very cool happened next, Bautista responded. It was just a quick thanks but Liam was overjoyed. His hero did not seem so far away at all. A connection was made and Bautista became real to Liam rather than mythical. Rather than admiring from afar, Liam had connected.

This is the power of connective technology; moving from the ASPIRATIONAL to the ACTUALIZED. Change has long been in the hands of those at the top of linear and hierarchical organizations. One way communication modes like TV served to cement this reality. It is time that we stop simply aspiring to change schools or aspiring to create 21C programs and time to acting on our best intentions.

Watch the two commercials below; both are related to the London 2012 Olympics but with different approaches. What stands out?

VISA:

NIKE:

Right from the Gold filter to the glory shots of Phelps, the Visa commercial puts the athlete on a pedestal. He is beyond our reach; his greatness is to be aspired to rather than to be achieved by the everyday person. The implied message is that Michael Phelps is great and you are not.

Nike on the other hand sticks a huge middle finger up in the direction of the whole contrived modern Olympic experience. The company still makes use of celebrities but FAR less than in days gone by. Nike espouses the belief that if you can breath, then you are an athlete. Greatness is not something only to aspire to, it is something to reach out and grab. It is tangible, real and achievable.

It is time to stop aspiring for school change and it is time to do it. Mistakes will happen but we must learn from them, recalibrate and move forward. No more fear and no more excuses because our students deserve more from us. This year, I implore the teachers out there to try something new as often as possible. Administrators, start making the macro level changes necessary to allow the community members to succeed in this new era.

We can all find our greatness, rather than admire someone else’s!

Did you put the new coversheet on your TPS Report?

Picture it, a small room filled with a team of educators. Its late September or early October. EQAO IIR’s, CAT/4 scores and other forms of student achievement data are strewn across a table. Highlighters, pencils and possibly a few laptops are being furiously engaged to find the “magic bullet”.  The room is filled with equal parts apathy, cynicism, excitement, hope and a bit of fear.   The educators around this table are an interesting cross-section of the staff. There are the keeners who love to be involved, the vets who know where all the bodies are buried, the career minded and the true believers. You guessed it folks, it’s School Improvement Planning time! It’s time to make use of trailing indicators of student achievement to plot out the future of the school! It’s a quant’s happiest time of the year.

I am an education geek, which should come as no surprise. I have always loved the idea of school planning and its potential. I have great difficulties with what the process has become rather than with the process itself. We have some very talented and well-intentioned board leaders who see the best in the process. They work tirelessly to try and breath life into this dead horse. They see the potential for change in the process but sadly in schools, it has become an accountability piece to be completed for sign-off by a supervisory officer and then put out to pasture. As Pasi Sahlberg says, “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility has been subtracted.” While there are always exceptions, most schools cling to narrowly defined goals that sound good but have little potential for change. The goals are framed in the lens of a system that has long valued improvement FAR more than innovation.

Ontario’s school planning process is old school business. It places emphasis on the analyzing and less on the doing. As the private sector moves away from static business plans and models to a lean mentality, education must follow suit. If we don’t, then we are simply doing school rather than making improvements. I think that SMART goals by nature are nonsense and become even sillier when put into practice. It rings of acrostic poetry at its finest! As a wise man has consistently reminded me, education is a messy business. The speed of innovation in this era makes things even messier. In 2009 Clay Shirky put it best:

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It is time to stop planning and to start designing.  IKEA is a perfectly designed ecosystem from its entrance to its exit. It provides an experience that engages more than it infuriates. It is designed around a set of core values that  inform all planning. The general design shapes any strategic planning. Education runs directly opposite to this premise. This is why education fails prey to fad programs. Ad hoc or shifting plans that are not grounded in a deeper design or philosophy are like a house built on a sand.

I love Duke basketball (which gives some reason to hate me!!!). Coach K is a genius at creating culture and established values. Year in and year out Duke wins. They don’t always win the whole thing but they are always in the reckoning. Improvement planning for Duke might include a goal like a 3% increase in FG% a la SMART BUT it would be part of a larger design structure rather than an isolated and inconsequential goal. Winning programs win because of culture and design. They have a program that weathers storms. Alex Ferguson thrived for 26 years at Manchester United because of a designed structure and culture. He did not bend to fads or silly trends. Core values ruled the day. He changed with the times but he did not bend to them.

School Improvement Planning in its current construction is simply another example of “doing school”. I am so amazed by the number of things that we just because we have to do them. This is dangerous business since we risk alienated staff, students and parents while wasting HUGE amounts of money. We risk “TPS Form” madness:

I have seem incremental improvements in this area but by and large public education still has its feet stuck in the mud. I strongly believe that the best way to improve planning is to craft REAL and ACTIONABLE mission, vision and value statements. Mission statements are the “me” statements. They are about what the school or the system stand for while the vision is about “them”. Vision is about what we will do to support our stakeholders. Mission and vision must be supported by strong values. Once these have been established, we can get busy creating a culture and designing the necessary functions for success.

Design incorporates context, relevancy and authenticity. Planning alone is pure accountability for accountability’s sake. Design and strategy will lead to success. Planning alone will leave us wandering in the desert looking for the promised land.