Monday, September 21, 2015

Tipping Point(s)?

       In some ways, at least 40 or so pages in, Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, doesn't offer anything particularly new. The basic premise is one that has been repeated in many places by many voices over the past 20-25 years: technology is forcing changes at an incredibly accelerating rate, and humans have to adapt. I've written and spoken about it over and over and over. The cries have accelerated right along with the technology...well, honestly, behind the technology. After all, most of us have better hindsight than foresight. I'm sure the book will become more interesting once Colvin starts to address the part of the title following the colon.
       One snippet, though, did jump out and give me some pause for thought. Colvin quotes economist Tyler Cowen from a 2013 book: "But it takes more and more time for you to improve on the computer each year. And then one day...poof! ZMP for you." Colvin explains that "'ZMP' means 'zero marginal product'--the economists' term for when you add no value at all." Maybe it was the bluntness of the line; maybe it was a person being reduced to a product. Whatever the reason--and it's not absolutely logical--it made me wonder if we've reached a key tipping point or two.
       I've always contended that we remain in control of our machines. In a simple example, we can decide how tethered we remain to our machines. Do we respond to every enticing ping from the phone no matter what? But when I think about some of the work machines are now doing and likely will be doing soon, I wonder if we've ceded a much higher degree of control that we realize. Actually, I don't wonder. I know. In large part this is because, while formerly humans and machines often complemented each other, that is less often the case. Consider chess. It was considered remarkable when a computer first beat a human. Then humans and computers could pair up and play chess most effectively. Now the computer alone has the edge. Studies also chow how computers analyzing data in abstract situations often reach better conclusions when analyzed over time. That's the first tipping point.
       If that sounds rather dire, the second one is more hopeful. Yes, we still put too much emphasis on standardized testing, too much faith in packaged curricula. Yes, in some ways we've simply repackaged tired pedagogy in new technology. Still, I hear more and more tales of change. Of different models. Of more student-driven, active learning centers. Of greater focus not on providing simply answers, but on posing complex questions. Of school becoming more clearly relevant, flexible, meaningful. Of educators more aware of the need to help our students become, to play off the title, the high achievers who know what brilliant machines never will.
       We're not nearly where we need to be yet, and we have many hurdles to overcome. But finally we seem to be not only hearing the message, but also listening and responding.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leadership Based on The Why

       During both our recent in-service week and our board retreat, I led everyone through an exercise based on the rather simple yet profoundly revealing idea that drives the thinking in Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.
(Here's a link to the book, and here's a link to his TED talk.) The basic premise is this: that those organizations which focus on the why are much more inspiring. As you might expect, Apple and Southwest Airlines are two primary examples. As Sinek repeats several times, people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. It's because these companies touch something very visceral in us. He captures this notion in what he calls the golden circle. It looks like a three-ring target. At the center is the why. As one moves outward, next comes the how and the what. Sinek argues that too many companies begin with the what and sometimes the how, but that they really aren't sure of the why. Well, at least not in any sense beyond wanting to make a profit, which he calls a result. Here is a set of graphic notes which capture the thinking:

       For the workshop I had small groups create a golden circle for St. John's Episcopal School. People went at it in different ways, but they ended up with a great deal of alignment in the center, albeit with some semantic differences.That, of course, was both affirming and gratifying. It explains quite a bit about our school. It also should help us as we embark on a very intentional marketing campaign. But the real power lay in the conversations. People looked both at our core and at our direction and the relationship between the two. I heard a great deal of important talk about personal and institutional behaviors in light of the why. People had to articulate ideals that they have but seldom express. Yesterday we followed this up with people pairing and sharing on what success looks like when guided by the why.
       The experience has prompted some reflection on leadership. In what I hope is some logical order, here are some of the insights and or confirmations:

  • A leader does not determine the why, at least not when it's truly inspiring. Otherwise, any success can become based on a cult of personality. Think about those institutions driven by a strong personality, which collapsed when that person was no longer there.
  • Instead, I think the leader discovers and believes passionately in the why and articulates it in many ways. The leader embodies it. The buy-in happens not because the leader convinces people, but because the leader has tapped into the why they already embrace.
  • Even when you have people who know the why on some level, they can lose sight of it in daily life. Thus, one of--maybe the--key role(s) of a leader is to keep the why in front of people, as part of both celebrating and correcting.
  • For that reason, leadership does not depend on position, on hierarchy. Anyone who plays the role of trumpeting the why can provide leadership from wherever, whenever, however. Therein lies the power of more distributed leadership.
  • That points to another key role of the leader, one tied to her or his articulating and embodying the way. It's hiring the right people. The people who hear/see/feel the why and clamor to join you.
     Finally, during our board retreat I noticed something which affirmed both Sinek's point and these last few thoughts. During other parts of the day, people often prefaced their comments with phrases such as "If we start with why..." and "When you consider why we..." It does strike something very primal. And it strengthens my belief that a major purpose of education should be to help young people find their meaning and purpose, their personal why. Then they can lead lives based on it. Think about the amazing implications of that for everyone, individually and collectively.