A desk is a dangerous place to view the world. John Le Carre
In previous posts, I discussed how culture and an Innovator’s Mindset are two of the Essential Conditions for Sustainable
Innovation. The last Essential Condition is Opportunity. Opportunity? In order for sustainable innovation to live, leaders and staff need to have a rich understanding of one another’s perspective that can only occur through collaborative opportunities. How? Flattening the hierarchy allows ideas to flow steadily through the organization, regardless of position.
Leadership should be horizontal, not vertical. – Lee Cockerell
Why flat? Let’s discuss the world we live in: LinkedIn reports how many hops away you are from a given individual, Twitter connects you to any person or topic imaginable in real-time, Facebook connects 1.6 billion people across the globe, and YouTube offers 300 hours of new content every minute. That’s our world. Finding information, sharing opinions and ideas takes seconds. However, in education, we tend to cascade communication, meet by position, and lean on the hierarchy.
Hierarchies prove useful for budgeting, evaluating and managing but when it comes to innovating and exchanging ideas horizontal leadership can be more effective. Positional leaders in education have more time to research, visit other sites, and seek out inspiration. Teachers spend their time grading, planning, and instructing yet they long to hear about new and creative ideas to help their students. Initiating opportunities where positional leaders spend valuable time understanding and empathizing opens up the conversation for sharing ideas positional leaders may have found. The two-way conversation creates a springboard for innovation where both the positional leader and teacher feel empowered and inspired. Consider bringing inspiration to teachers. Bring in a guest speaker to inspire teachers. Cover a teacher’s class and allow them to spend the time looking for creative ideas! Do a book study. How can you involve and gain perspective from students?
Do you have perspective?
In Daniel Pink’s blog, A 30-second test to determine whether your boss is a gem or a jerk and in his book, To Sell is Human, he describes this simple test to determine whether or not someone has perspective. Most leaders tend not to have perspective. Try this with your team.
Have each team member turn to a partner and with their right forefinger, draw a capital E on their forehead. Is the E facing so the partner can read it or so the scribe can read it? If the E is written so the partner can read it, this person is said to have perspective according to social psychologist Adam Galinsky and his team at Northwest University.
Flatten the Hierarchy to create OPPORTUNITY
Perhaps you failed the test above. It doesn’t matter. You have the power to change and gain perspective. Sustainable Innovation’s 3rd Essential Condition is Opportunity. I’ve spent many years sitting at my desk, solving problems and participating in meeting after meeting creating well-intended initiatives undoubtedly impacting people absent from the table. I shamefully admit, I lacked perspective. In education, involving building staff in every meeting is impossible. Intentional, deliberate action can help us understand staff wants, needs, and tolerance for innovating. Below are a few ways you can increase opportunity for staff voices to be heard:
- Office Hours: As a central office employee, hold office hours in buildings to get a first-hand look at what’s happening in the building. Mobile technology allows you to work anywhere. Purchase an external monitor if that helps! Send an email to the staff announcing where you will be and encourage them to come and see you. Bringing snacks might help. If you are a building principal, suggest it to your central office team! Feeling overwhelmed by the thought of office hours? Rethink your schedule. Is your calendar filled with color and back-to-back appointments? Which ones are essential? Can the work be accomplished any other way? Is the value of the meeting greater than the cost of the meeting? Use this Meeting Cost Calculator to understand the actual cost of a meeting. A two-hour meeting with twelve attendees ranging in salary from $90,000-$130,000 cost $1,750. Does that meeting yield a value greater than $1,750? When meetings are essential, stay on schedule, have an agenda with goals for the meeting, and set norms to keep behavior on track. Assign a timekeeper to assist and keep things rolling. If a topic can be covered through email, a virtual meeting, video, or intranet posting, don’t hold a face-to-face meeting.
- Bring teachers to the table. When topics are important and have a significant impact on teachers/staff, invite teachers/staff along with administrators to discuss it. A good cross-section allows innovation to emerge and there’s no greater litmus test than teacher/staff feedback. Tip: Go to them. Teachers feel more comfortable in their own building and conversation will feel more personal. Value their feedback; listen first, talk second. Build on their ideas and encourage new ideas by asking open-ended questions. If teachers cannot be present, try the empty chair Amazon strategy. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, puts an empty chair in meetings representing the customer. He attests that decisions should never be made without keeping the customer in mind. Teachers, board members, parents, students, and even community members can be represented using this strategy.
- Talk to students: How are students feeling? Ask them what they are working on that excites them. Highlight their achievements with staff and other central office employees. If students positively mention a teacher, connect with the teacher to learn more about the lesson. Look for opportunities to celebrate what’s working.
- Get into classrooms and highlight greatness! Principals do this regularly but for central office staff, getting into classrooms can be a shift in practice. Time happens. However, nothing is more powerful than to show a teacher/staff member that you want to see their greatness. One of my favorite sayings is “what you focus on is what you will see.” Focusing on the teacher’s strengths enhances their confidence, validating their sense of purpose and inspiring them to continue working hard to refine their craft. What Yong Zhao professes through an academic achievement lens for students also applies to employees:
We need a completely different paradigm, a paradigm that shifts from focusing on fixing deficits to enhancing individual strengths. – Yong Zhao
Walking alongside our staff instead of in front of them brings a sense of loyalty, commitment, and collaboration. Co-creating together will undoubtedly create the conditions for sustainable innovation and the best result for our students.
The chant “We Are Marshall,” holds such reverence as it represents solidarity and overcoming very difficult circumstances. Our journey ahead isn’t easy. Technology is forcing us to change how we work, teach, learn, and live. By opening our minds and hearts and using our time wisely to coalesce around one idea: preparing our students for their future in a fun, engaging, innovative way everyone wins.
My Experience Flattening the Hierarchy
Recently, I went into a building to hold office hours. The principal said, “You need to go see our 6th-grade teachers; they are doing amazing things.” The conversation with the teachers, simply incredible, and I left feeling completely exhilarated. Over the next week, I intend to blog about the experience to highlight some awesome ideas I saw in practice. However, what impacted me the most, is how these teachers were involved in a grassroots movement called Meraki. Meraki, a greek term meaning doing something with love, creativity, or soul. Meraki was not a top-down group but a ground-up group. In this group, teachers get together at one of our teacher’s houses and talk about personalized learning. Over the next couple of days, I exchanged emails with a few of the teachers I visited and they’ve invited me back to show them what’s possible with virtual reality. Innovation inspiring innovation!
Next, I went into another teacher’s room. She and I engaged in a conversation about dyslexia and its prevalence. Wow! As an IT Director, I have to say, I didn’t know. Her passion about the topic inspired me to talk to our Student Services Director to get them connected. This teacher held such passion, she can help educate our staff about this topic! I left wanting to learn more and to understand how personalized and mastery-based learning can help students with dyslexia flourish in the classroom. Perspective…
Had I not been in the building visiting teachers, I wouldn’t have the understanding I now have about what inspired them and why it worked. I cannot wait to learn more.
Tech Hack: Blog about your experience when you see something amazing. This highlights and encourages innovation while valuing and honoring your staff in a globally connected way. Create your own blog with your own custom domain from Blue Host. This blog was built using WordPress (FREE) hosted by Blue Host for $60/year which included a custom domain name. Blogger is free from Google if you’d prefer to use the Google Platform.