Nodes in a Network Not Stations in a Sequence

This is part 4 of my 7-part series focusing on The New School Rules. If you missed previous parts, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

One of the important features of responsive teams is that they are structured like nodes in a network instead of stations in a rigid sequence. One of the characteristics of network nodes is that they have their own purpose, individual accountabilities, autonomy, and authority. In other words, the bosses and leaders no longer command the pieces on the board.

The New School Rules

Last week we learned new ways to think about planning, but this week we dive into deep structures around how we build our organizations and even our identities. Chapter 2 in The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black looks at teaming and the way we create systems that allow teams to either flourish or stagnate.

The “New Rule” around teaming is – Build Trust and Allow Authority to Spread. Keeping with our overall focus on responsiveness we will look as deeply at how our teams are structured as we do at the tasks we ask them to perform. I can’t think of any campus or central office structure that does not have staff divided up into teams or departments. Those two contexts may look slightly different, but a commonality in most settings is that the work of the team floats vertically rather than horizontally.

Projects, expectations, goals are often assigned in a hierarchical approach from a principal or director and the team then performs those tasks while reporting back up the chain to said principal/director. Teams will at times work together, but that collaboration is based around meeting the expectations set from above.

According to the authors, this hierarchical model allows leaders to grant authority to teams but it is gifted in a conditional and limiting way. This conditionality leads to teams playing it safe or focusing on ways to maintain that authority rather than becoming a flexible and learning team. When authority – like anything else – is a scarce resource we compete to either maintain or capture it from others. Then this competition distracts our teams from their purpose.

Ask yourself where and why you are granting conditional authority and you will find all roads lead back to trust. Trust in our teams and trust in ourselves as leaders is a fluid state or being. I try to think about conditionality often as a parent. “Where might my kids think my love, respect, or praise is conditional depending on their actions?” I hope they don’t think my love is conditional. They are judging my actions more than my words and I hope those actions and words or congruent, but I’m sure they are not always aligned. Congruence between our words and actions build trust.

And trust builds teams that move a campus, department, or company incrementally forward. Trust builds teams that can adapt to inevitable, demographic changes, funding issues, or changes in leadership positions.

Kim and Gonzales-Black suggest we must build trust in two ways in our organizations on pages 53-54:

  1. The first level is the trust between individuals on teams. The purpose and goals of the team come first, and team members commit to productively surfacing tension instead of avoiding it or sweeping it under the rug. Having trust within a team means important discussions happen directly with the group, not in side meetings , campaigning, and gossip.
  2. The second level – within an organization and especially between teams – is equally important. It means that information flows between groups and is accessible as needed. Communication takes place about what teams are doing and what help or input they might need. This type of organizational trust acknowledges that other teams are doing work that is as good and important as your team’s and they are doing it with the best information they have to get the work done.

So how do we build this trust? We will revisit this question when we wrap up this series looking at all six “new rules” outlined in the book because my hunch is that building individual and structural trust is so important and yet so difficult that it takes a comprehensive system to allow trust to grow. The authors outline several ideas around talking about tensions, defining purpose, and building strong team habits that are all valuable. And if you have a copy of the book, please take time to read those sections.

But I’m going to wrap this up here before we go too long with one tip of building trust. Be relentless about actually doing what you say you are going to do. I struggle with this at times because it feels so good to say “yes.” We over-commit. And each time we don’t follow-through we lose trust. So be stingy with your “yes’s” and be liberal – yet transparent – with your “no’s” and you will build trust.

The other big idea around “building trust and letting authority go” I’ll leave you with is to start looking at your teams as nodes in a network rather than stations in a sequence. We want our teams to bump into each other when they need to learn and be on their own when they need the space to do the work. As the leader we create the space that allows this to happen. Or, we create the railroad tracks that point in one direction with multiple stops along the way. Stations in a sequence only work in a stable and predictable setting.

Public education has been with us for a long time, but it is not a stable and predictable setting. We are in a people business and never really know what each day will bring. We need teams and teams of teams that can think for themselves and make the best decisions closest to the action. So trust yourself enough to set up a system through strong hiring and coaching that propagates unconditional authority among your teams. Then step aside, manage the environment, clear obstacles, coach, and facilitate connections.

Next week we look at Managing Roles – Define the Work Before You Define the People. This third new school rule will help us think beyond job descriptions understand that we all manage our own work and step into multiple roles depending on the current reality.

Rather than being able to step into different roles with clarity and purpose, our titles become a uniform we can’t take off.”

The New School Rules, Page 66

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