The Beauty of Educative Planning

This is part 3 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.

We need to approach planning as a way of thinking, not a set product or plan that has value in and of itself.”

The New School Rules, pg. 11

Say what you will about Mike Tyson, but his response to a reporter prior to a fight about his opponent’s preparation nails the problem with our over-reliance on plans. “Everyone has a plan until they get hit,” he said, “then like a rat they stop in fear and freeze.” The origins of that quote float back through history tweaked by various prize fighters and military leaders. And it resonates as much in the workplace as it does in the ring.

In schools, we operate on an annual planning cycle. We set annual goals – often in the summer – and then often do our best to adhere to that plan and those goals. The main concern I have with this approach is that we are usually addressing last year’s deficits rather than today or tomorrow’s opportunity. Our system discounts current realities and values adherence to the plan over agility and front-line decision making.

The authors of The New School Rules propose a new way of planning in Chapter 1 that adopts the idea of, “plan for change, not perfection.” Here is another comparison of planning approaches from page 19:

Page 19 – The New School Rules

But how do you “plan for change” and still assure those around we are not just making stuff up as we go? Something I may or may not have been accused of in the past.

The authors suggest we build roadmaps instead of manuals. “In order to become more responsive and successful, organizations need to move away from plans that act as manuals and focus on building roadmaps and logic models. Rather than dictating specific actions, these approaches give people the tools they need to make quicker and better decisions on their own.”

A roadmap orients us to a common destination. It has suggested routes and highlights potential obstacles and points of interest along the way. A roadmap also paints a picture of a successful destination. But a roadmap gives flexibility in decision-making along the way and pushes that decision to the people closest to the action. Everyone has the option to follow the roadmap step-by-step, but those wanting to adjust and make the path work for them have that option. Essentially we are defaulting to a system that encourages differentiation and only falls back on rigidity as a last result.

Empowering our teams to make adjustments to a plan will help us as leaders focus on coaching our teams, painting a picture of success, and clearing obstacles along the path. This shift in focus from serving the plan to serving the people helps us use planning as an educative experience where we learn more about ourselves along the way. When reaching that destination then, rather than celebrating and giving credit to the plan, we honor our work and the thinking that took place among our team. The team is now stronger and ready for the next opportunity.

The authors paint a picture of successful planning as when…

  • There’s a greater sense of being alive
  • Teams and organizations have a clear and motivating purpose
  • Everyone is continuously evolving, improving, and aiming higher
Page 33 – The New School Rules

Where in your daily work has planning become a finite rather than infinite activity? Where has the plan itself become the focus rather than the people? Where can you give more agency to the performers of the plan and help guide them on a roadmap rather than script each move as in a manual?

As with most things, it’s about balance. At the end of the day, your teams need to arrive at the destination. Just remember that the arrival at the finish line or the completion of a plan is not the end of the work. It may be the end of that project or that school year, but we are playing an infinite game. And the goal of our infinite game is to keep playing and continuous improvement, not to win or lose.

Meeting a goal and sticking with a plan that destroys a team along the way is shortsighted. That approach may work when a singular outcome at a singular point in time is all that matters. That’s finite thinking. And finite thinking only serves us when we are ready to stop playing the game. I’m not ready to stop and I hope you are not either.

Thanks for joining me on this look at chapter 1 of The New School Rules. Next week we will think through chapter 2 together and examine a new way to look at teaming. Here is a quick quote as a teaser:

In the hierarchical model, good leaders aim to grant some degree of authority to their staff and teams, but this authority if typically contingent – it’s a grant and can be taken back at any moment. This dynamic erodes trust and doesn’t allow authority to spread.

Page 45 – The New School Rules

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Three Ideas to Help My Friend

A friend recently asked for a couple book suggestions that might help her navigate her work life. She is struggling with the negativity she feels she encounters with her co-workers. She wants to maintain her relationships with her teammates, but feels herself becoming influenced in a way that does not feel healthy.

I should say up front that this friend does not work for the same organization I do, so stop trying to figure out who it is.

Most of my readers work in public education and the vast majority of us work on teams. So, it is a pretty common situation to be on a team with others who are not bringing the same vibe to the work as you are. Our inherent negativity biases make it easy to fall into patterns of pessimism. And even if personally we are trying to confront that bias, if those around us are feeding theirs then we are running a daily obstacle course that leaves us beaten down.

Then the real kicker is that we need our teams to be successful. Even if your work seems independent I challenge you to think how much better that work would be with the support of a team.

Hopefully by now, we realize that we can’t change other people. Even the label of “positive or negative” we place on each other is framed in our own minds.

We may not even be able to quickly change ourselves, but we can change our environments, build habits, and build our understanding of ourselves and examine our perceptions of those on our teams. Through those habitual, environmental, and empathic changes we may then notice our daily experience with our teammates has shifted in the direction we hope.

Here are three resources that come to mind:

  1. Awareness: Conversations with the Masters – I’ve pretty much been continuously reading this book over the last few years. It’s great to always have on hand and jump into any chapter. I enjoy it because Anthony de Mello helps me recognize my own role in the creation of my experience. Also that it is acceptable to speak your mind and with authority.
  2. 5-Minute Journal (Or some other morning gratitude practice) – My morning gratitude practice these days usually consists of walking my dog. But, it’s not just the walk. It’s the path we take that crosses a medical district. We routinely walk past folks being wheeled into a physical rehab on a gurney, others heading in for their morning dialysis treatment, or a family holding hands as they walk into a surgery center. We walk past where my first son – who is healthy and happy – was born. Finally we walk past Austin Cancer Center and I say a quick thank I have been so healthy post Thyroid Cancer – coming up on 10 years. Anything I have to deal with that day will be easier than what the people Maeve and I pass on our morning walk are experiencing. However you choose to give thanks in the morning, it sets you up to give others and ourselves grace throughout the day.
  3. The Daily Stoic – The Stoics remind us that we hold the discipline of perception within us. Situations and people are not good or bad, or positive or negative. Rather we decide how we will frame every interaction and our response. The famous Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius tells us in his Meditations, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” The Daily Stoic is a short daily passage that helps us frame the day.

These were just some initial thoughts to share with my friend concerning a common struggle. Do you have other suggestions?

Share them in the comments.

Laying The Groundwork for The New School Rules

This is part 2 of my 7-part series focusing on, The New School Rules. If you missed part 1, check it out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

“The ideas we present here are based on the belief that static and rigid organizational systems no longer work – whether the organization is a huge corporation, a startup, a school district, or a school team, information is traveling too fast and the rate of change is quicker and more unpredictable than ever before.”

-The New School Rules

Before we jump into the main content of The New School Rules, let’s think about the ideas of responsiveness and holocracy. These two pillars of organization and management philosophy are key elements of the six practices we will dive into next week.

Let’s think on responsiveness first. How would you describe the current structures of your campus or department? Are those systems built to respond to current needs of students and teachers? Or are the systems and structures designed to create needs to which the students and teachers respond?

According to the authors, “A responsive organization, as we use the term, is one that puts responsiveness at its foundation-responsiveness to new information; to the needs and talents of staff, teachers, students, and the community; to unforeseen challenges and opportunities.” Essentially systems are created that allow for agility and flexibility. If a current process or practice is creating rigidity or hierarchies, then it is examined and likely dismantled.

“Responsive schools and districts embrace

  • an iterative and evolving approach to planning and structure,
  • meaningful autonomy for teams and team members,
  • approaches to sharing and receiving information and feedback that build trust and engagement and allow for timely and effective decision making.” -The New School Rules

Partnering with this idea of responsive organizations are elements of a management practice called Holocracy. Holocracy is an approach to people management that shifts a the majority of decision-making authority to individuals and teams rather than an organizational hierarchy of decision approvers.

Check out the video below for a deeper overview of the ideas around Holocracy.


My take on the six practices we will discuss in this series is that they are more dependent on the tenants of a responsive systems than the practice of Holocracy. And regarding either responsiveness or Holocracy, it’s as important to reflect on the ideas proposed by those ways of thinking as it is to actually change your org chart and job titles.

The key takeaway is that everything is always changing. Our systems and structures will either allow our people to benefit from and see beauty in that fluidity, or our systems and structures will hamper their growth. Either way, impermanence is a given.

So I’m excited to jump into the first rule: Planning – Plan for Change, Not Perfection. And there are three key points I will leave you with before we dissect chapter 1 next week:

From page 24, “There are several key lessons on iterative planning we can cull from their success:

  • Build roadmaps, not manuals.
  • Use cadences and pivot points, not just schedules and deadlines.
  • Encourage testing, experiments, and responsiveness

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Diving Into The New School Rules

The culture of our schools, organizational structures, and methods of communication and decision making – not educational approaches – are the actual drivers for success and failure.

– Anthony Kim

You ever notice when a book takes the thoughts from you mind you’ve been struggling to communicate and puts them out on the page in front of you?

As a senior in high school I stumbled upon a book in our campus library by George Sheehan called Running and Being. It took the way I felt about long distance running and helped me make sense of my own hormone-laden mind.

It’s only happened a handful of times since. The most recent was last month when I picked up The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black.

I’ve read hundreds of books about leadership ideas, curriculum strategies, data analysis, motivation, and the like focusing on public K-12 education. Many have been exceptional and more than a few sparked immediate desire to action.

The New School Rules stands out though because the authors choose to focus on six practices related to organizational decisions that have little to do with teaching and learning. They don’t discuss assessments, curriculum, or feedback. There are no ideas shared around intervention or how to motivate teachers and students. Instead Kim and Gonzales-Black choose to focus on organizational practices they posit are either currently getting in the way of success or need to be implemented in order for schools and school systems to meet the needs of our students and team members.


Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to pull apart each of the 6 identified vital practices:

  1. Planning – how to find the right purpose and plan to achieve it
  2. Teaming – what makes teams function as powerful, effective groups that lead projects and change
  3. Managing Roles – new ways of thinking about who should do the work to unleash expertise, interest, and desire to learn
  4. Decision Making – the truth about who gets to decide and how a new model of decision making can speed up experimentation, change, and engagement
  5. Sharing Information – the nuance of putting out information and actual communication that leads to a powerful shared purpose
  6. The Learning Organization – coming full circle, the importance of school organizations that have a learning culture to model and test the learning culture we want and need for our students

In each post we will look at that particular domain and how we could incorporate the ideas into our daily work as leaders in creating the space for teaching and learning. And I think that very idea is why this book speaks to me. As Marc Lesser taught us in an earlier post, our job as leaders is to think, listen, and provide space. The New School Rules provides us ways of creating that space in a responsive way.

So each Monday morning starting Feb. 17th I’ll post an in-depth look at each chapter starting on the 17th with the introduction. I would love for you to pick up a copy and share thoughts in the comments each week or just share ideas based on what I write.

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Two-Word Challenge Accepted

I want to start by thanking my colleague and Elementary Math Curriculum Coordinator for Round Rock ISD, Brian Bushart for publishing a post challenging our teams to think about two words we should remove from vocabularies and ethoses going into 2020. Check it out here and then come back.


Several words or ideas come to mind looking back over my career as a special education teacher, assistant principal, and central office leader. For these purposes though we are going to focus on…”Late/Missing Work.” I may be bending the rules using a hyphenated/slashed first word so I appreciate your grace.

It’s been almost seven years since I was an assistant principal and roughly 12 years since I was in the classroom. Looking back at my students though – especially one whose self-portrait I’ve kept framed on my wall since the early 2000s – I believe they would agree that a never-ending cycle of late/missing work clouded everything.

Da’Vonte Lyon, 8th Grade DPMS 2006. Self-Portrait. Sold to Mr. Smith for an undisclosed price.

It usually went something like this:

The group of students I was responsible for – I’m hoping someone else chooses “Caseload” as one of their words to remove – would usually have one or two days at the beginning of a grading period where we were on a level playing field with everyone else. Birds were chirping, everyone was smiling, we all stood a little taller without the weight of “owing” something to a teacher.

I could see a physical difference in my students during these sweet times free of burden. I felt it too. My interactions with the other teachers on my team were progressive and optimistic during this narrow window. We talked about learning, and ways to better meet the overall needs of our students.

Inevitably though, my students would soon miss a deadline for an assignment. This would usually happen by the end of the first week of a grading period. Then, for five weeks we were caught in a growing maelstrom of missing assignments from 4-5 different classes. Our focus quickly shifted to managing time, negotiating with teachers, and valuing the completion of tasks above all else. My students would miss Tier 1 instruction from their classroom teacher, electives, and opportunities to learn from their peers as I guided them through their piles of missing work. Being behind became our culture.

And we would stumble our way to the end of a grading period not really sure what anyone learned, yet usually with passing grades.

My students were learning what it feels like to “owe” someone though. That feeling you get when you’re struggling financially and move debt from one credit card to another, or when you move apartments when the rent comes due must feel similar to how our students feel when they get stuck drowning in the cycle of being perpetually behind. You can’t escape that feeling. That weight. It may lessen until someone reminds you that you are in debt, but it doesn’t go away. It’s a low-level constant stream of anxiety.

I remember using the word “owe” often when I and everyone else reminded my students daily that they had missing/late work. I’m pretty sure I even wrote it up on the board.

But they didn’t really “owe” me or their classroom teacher anything. It’s not like I loaned them a sum of money with the agreement they would repay. If anything, I “owed” them for showing up every day. I “owed” their families for giving me their trust and the taxpayers who support public education. I’m adding the use of the word “owe” to my long list of things I’ll do differently if ever find myself in the classroom again.

That word has such power and assumptions behind it. To tell someone they “owe” you is heavy. If I tell someone I care for that they “owe” me something, and then repeatedly remind them about it, that fundamentally changes our relationship.

Maybe our students “owe” themselves or their families, but they don’t “owe” us anything.

I’m not recommending you stop assigning homework – that’s up to you. I am recommending that you take this spring semester and become more aware and mindful of the language you use and decision you make regarding your students who struggle to keep up with your assignment due dates. How does their daily experience change once they get behind? At the end of the grading period, what did they learn from you? What did they learn about you? What did they learn about themselves?

Take the answers to those questions and decide if you want to do anything differently. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Either way, you will be much more aware of your practice and the impact of your decisions. You will be more intentional about your use of terms such as “Late/Missing Work” and “owe.” If you continue to use them at all.


Thanks again Brian for pushing us in this direction and I hope others will share their thoughts and take the Two-Word Challenge in the comments here or on the RRISD Elementary Math blog.

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Updated Personal User Manual 2020

It’s been about a year and a half since I started sharing the idea of using a personal user manual as a leader. The idea of clearly stating the nuts and bolts of how others should work with you resonated quickly with many other leaders in my organization. I spent most of the summer of 2018 speaking to campus and department leaders about the value, but I don’t think I spoke on the importance of it being a living document.

Like a river, we are changing minute to minute and we can’t expect those on our teams to keep up if we don’t communicate those changes. So, I decided to update my Personal User Manual for 2020 to share with my teams in Round Rock ISD and plan on making it an annual update.


Moving into my third year as the Executive Director of Teaching & Learning I think it’s important for those on my team to better understand how I work and what I’m hoping to get better at in 2020. So, I’m updating my Personal User Manual. Here it is:

Communication:

Email – If you email me, I’ll try to respond on the same workday, even if it’s just to let you know that I’ll give a more detailed response later. If I email you with a question, I expect a response/answer in 24 hours. If there is no question or ask in the email then don’t feel like you need to respond – I’ll assume you got it and are good to go. I’m continuing my practice of not checking my email from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am on workdays and not at all on non-work days. You may rarely get an email from me during these, but I don’t expect you to respond during non-work times. If we need to be in touch outside these times, I’ll call or text your cell phone. You can do the same and I’ll share more about talk/messaging below. 

Messaging/Voice – My cell-phone number is (512) 632-5062. Feel free to call or text during the workday. I’m not promising I’ll pick up, but it’s the quickest way to get in touch. I use Google Chat on my mobile device and the best way to get in touch with a quick question during the day. I like Google Chat because it allows us to capture ongoing work-related conversations in one place. 

Social Media – This is always a moving target for me. For lack of a better way to describe my current thoughts on friending and following colleagues, here is where I stand at the moment. It’s ok to friend/follow your boss, but it’s kind of weird for your boss to friend/follow you first. I don’t know if anyone else agrees with that, but it’s what I do. If you are on one of my teams feel free to friend/follow and I will reciprocate, but I’m not going to make the first move. 

Workplace – I’m excited about using Workplace and believe it can be a valuable tool for organizational communication and learning. Still in the early phase though and I will be focusing on the best way to use this in 2020.

What I’m Working On:

I’m working on getting better at building connections between teams in our organization. So, if I ask you a lot of questions about your job or ask for a brief 1-1 meeting to dig a little deeper, it’s for my own learning, not to put you on the spot.

Potpurri:

  • I’m not in my office much so don’t call my office phone number. Use the number above. 
  • I expect everyone to write professionally. Grammarly is your friend, use it for everything.
  • This video is a little lengthy, but it pretty much sums up how I view Organizational Communication.
  • I’ll share ideas often around your projects or plans. Some ideas may be good, many will be off-base. Please try not to take my ideas/comments as orders and I respect people who disagree. If I want you to do something, I’ll tell you to do it. Those directives, however, will likely be few and far between. 
  • I’m still working on smiling more. I’m happier at this point in my life than I have ever been, but for some reason, it does not always show on my face. Those that don’t know me well often assume that I’m upset or disengaged when I’m happy and fully engaged. If I’m not happy with something you are doing I promise to tell you. If you are curious, ask. 

I’m pretty open and go deeper into thoughts around leadership and education at ryansmith.blog


The Personal User Manual is one of my favorite tools to help teams communicate and cut through some of the assumptions we throw at one another. It’s not your manifesto. It’s the basics to help those you spend your days with better understand why you do what you do.

Questions? Ideas? Connections? Share them below in the comments.


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Our Constant Struggle to Make It Simpler

This is part 8 of my 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-7, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We’ve come a long way and have made it to the seventh and final post in our look at Marc Lesser’s Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. This practice focuses on our ability to take a step back, remember our priority, and test some assumptions. Welcome to the seventh practice – Keep Making It Simpler.

It’s easier to take the complex road in our work as leaders. Keep adding tools, resources, ideas to our toolboxes and we want to play with them. We go to conferences or workshops and want to implement something new. Or we are striving to impress our own bosses and the people on our teams suffer the consequences.

Many of us work in industries driven by goals and plans. Key Performance Indicators, Campus/District Improvement, goals of more types than we can remember often shape our decision-making more than we like. And as leaders, we must remember that our goals shape the behavior of those on our teams. We can’t pretend we operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected and too often these goals and plans add unnecessary complexity or inject unintended consequences.

The complex path is easy but it’s also shallow, and it allows us to spread out accountability. It also provides us as leaders additional cover if the results do not pan out the way you were hoping. But, that is playing not to lose rather than to win. This often plays out by over-intervening. We add layer upon layer of programs so at the end of the day we can say, “we did everything we could,” or, “we covered everything.” We rarely are asked if by doing/covering everything, we made the system too complex and did nothing well.

So it’s the simple path that is hard, but lasting. It’s the simple path that provides our teams the space to do their best work and become mindful leaders themselves.

How then, do we protect our teams from the barrage of noise looking to invade their work, the anxiety that comes from a perception that they must do everything, and the fear that can permeate a culture driven by an annual performance measure?

Lesser takes us back to where we started so many weeks ago. We help our teams make things simpler by making things simpler ourselves. He suggests a meditative practice of “letting go.” The ideas he tells us to let go of are the exact things others in our lives are telling us to pay attention to, so there is an inherent societal conflict in making things simpler. Simple is rarely praised or rewarded. The practice outlined in the picture below does not tell us to permanently let go of our to-do lists and our expectations of others, but rather to lean into the feeling of how we would see our work without these burdens.

Another aspect of Keep Making it Simpler suggested by Lesser is responding to the expectation of others that, “we are all so busy.”

Does anyone else struggle with how to respond to colleagues who assume we are feeling as busy as they are? I’m never sure how to respond. I have as much to do as anyone else, but at the same time do everything I can to never feel busy. When I find myself feeling busy, that’s an internal message I’m doing something wrong – not a badge of honor. Yet, when someone asks me if, or assumes I’m busy, then I feel social pressure to make a heavy sigh, hitch up by belt, and say something like, “oh yea,” or “sure am.” But, am I doing something wrong or is my work less important if I’m not busy? I don’t think so. Some internal work to do there for sure.

Luckily Lesser shares my aversion to promoting busyness, “To me, busyness means becoming caught up in that complexity and losing sight of what’s important. Busyness equates to mindless rushing. For me, the antidote to busyness is remembering to be mindful and to practice being focused, engaged, and spacious.” Here’s what he means by focused, engaged, and spacious:

My final suggestion on this last practice of a mindful leader is to make seasonal assessments of where we can cut back. Cut back on programs, goals, initiatives, projects that aren’t moving, and anything else we can. This is easier said than done and also something I struggle with, but complexity relentlessly works its way into our lives everyday. And if we don’t stop at least four times a year and see where we can clean out and wash away some of the noise, we will drown as a leader. The easiest way to make things simpler is to do less. If you have thoughts on how to effectively work against the creep of complexity, please share them in the comments.


So there we have it. Over the last two months we dove deep into each of these practices of a mindful leader:

I hope you enjoyed the discussion and would love ideas on other books to take a closer look at in the comments. My key learning from spending a day with Marc Lesser back in September and his book is the value of making an appropriate and intentional response. Our ability to respond to any situation as a mindful leader is essential to provide the space for our teams and families to flourish.

And the way we cultivate our ability to make the mindful response is through practices such as these. The good news is that as a leader or family member we have countless opportunities to work on ourselves by practicing our thinking, listening, and ability to provide space.

Thanks for joining us on the journey. Did you miss a stop? Check out the whole series here.