One of the most magical experiences our little family has shared together was a vacation where we spent 3 days exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. My wife and daughters were already raving fans of the Harry Potter books & subsequent movies, and the enchantment of the park experience made me a fan. It was on this trip that I learned about the Sorting Hat at a special school for training young witches & wizards called Hogwarts. This Sorting Hat divided the students at the school into different Houses based both on what it could sense from a student, and what the student wanted.
These Houses can most quickly be named and described as:
Brave & Adventurous
Loyal & Kind
Intelligent & Introspective
Cunning. (Most “bad” characters are Slytherins, but not all Slytherins are “bad” people).
It was during some silly familial disagreement on that trip that one of our daughters explained to us that if we knew what each other’s Hogwarts Houses were, that maybe we could understand why we were bickering. It was a brilliant insight from an 8 year old, and immediately a light went off in my head about an issue I was dealing with 3,000 miles away, back home in San Diego.
The reality of the modern world, especially in schools, is that we work in teams. Teachers may work in grade level teams, PLC’s, vertical teams, cross-collaborative teams, and a million other configurations. Administrators also have teams - perhaps at the site level, but also typically across a district. Sometimes these teams gel and they are off to the races moving forward on the work. Sometimes these teams struggle more. Sometimes the beliefs, the personalities, or behaviors within a team can cause strife, frustration, discontent, mistrust, and otherwise slow or derail the work.
A few years ago, I was on a team (not at our school, and the team has since gone away). That team was for the most part dysfunctional. There were five of us, and we had very different views of the world, we had very different views about our work, we had very different understandings about our roles in the work -- we even had different outlooks on what the work actually was. This, sadly, as in many organizations, led to discussions by a few behind the backs of others to air frustrations, discontent, and otherwise unproductive behavior. I was as guilty as anyone else in all of the mess.
In reflection, at the root of the team’s issues was that we were unable to have any real discourse with each other. We talked, but there was no understanding amongst us. We lacked perspective. Perhaps we didn’t like each other. Perhaps our viewpoints of the world were too different. Perhaps our purposes for doing the work were not aligned. Perhaps the ways we went about any & everything were all totally off from one another.
So, building off the advice of our 8 year old daughter for how to figure out our familial bickering, I did what any well-seasoned & mature person in management would do: I sorted everyone on the team into Hogwarts Houses!
It turns out we had 2 Gryffindors, 1 Ravenclaw, me the Hufflepuff, and a Slytherin. Standing there in line, this insight began to sink in.
Just as in the books & movies the audience was able to expect something from the characters based on the House that they were sorted; so the puzzle of dysfunction was beginning to make sense to me. What if we knew what to expect from someone because of how they are predisposed, or wired, and you allowed that knowledge to provide context for things? What if that context made you more patient? What if that patience allowed you the time & space to be more empathetic? What type of perspectives might be gleaned from that empathy and how might that then change the interactions and functionality of a team? And how would you do all that at scale in an organization?
Sorting us into Hogwarts Houses immediately helped provide me context clues for why our team was in fact dysfunctional. When we returned to work, I let the Gryffindors in on this wild insight of sorting, and eventually everyone knew. It immediately made a huge impact. Suddenly in our interactions: the way we spoke to each other, the framing of questions, the patience to imagine the origin of behaviors, dispositions, and mindsets began to take root. By the time the team disbanded a few years later we had grown in our work and we had actually all become genuine friends. In that time, no one changed who they were. No one caved in on what they stood for. Rather, context led to patience. Patience led to hearing. Hearing led to empathy. Empathy led to grace. Grace led to a willingness to grow from the perspectives of others, and it allowed for the team’s thinking to be expanded.
It may seem like a silly scenario, but it was one of the most profound moments and realizations I had had as a leader. Perspective. Before you knew it, I was sorting everyone into Houses: my bosses, our teachers, the students -- it was radical -- and I wondered: How might we purposefully design for perspective-building in our own school culture?
In Part 2 of this post, we will explore the answer to that question, along with our theory about the elements that make up organizational culture.
When we opened our school, we knew that there was a lot we wanted to do to re-imagine the learning experience for modern learners. This meant assessing what schools “do” and what made sense to continue to do.
One of the issues we wanted to address was “traditional” parent-teacher conferences. What our collective experience as school employees and parents informed us that Parent Conferences essentially meant 1 of 4 main things:
Yet, as a new school, we found ourselves still working within an established and larger system that set aside specific dates for “Parent Conferences” with attached Minimum Day bell schedules and Teacher Contract language associated with them.
So we began to ideate. How might we make a more meaningful experience out of Parent Conferences? We started by researching options such as “Student Led Conferences” (SLC’s) made popular by different progressive education outlets.
While intrigued by SLC’s, we were hesitant because while the onus shifted from teacher to student-talk, it still seemed like an isolated event. Students, instead of their teachers, reported about their successes, struggles and other issues -- but all still in private.
Since Project Based Learning (PBL) is important to us, and an essential element of PBL is “public audience,” we prototyped a riff off of SLC’s where a student would prepare a presentation about their learning and give this presentation publicly to their family and invited friends, a teacher, and three other families. Students are given a template to help structure their 5-7 minute presentation, but allowed the latitude to tell their story in their way. Students talk about how they are doing academically, where they are exceeding and show evidence for it. Where are they struggling, and what is their plan for improving. Students also talk about their relationship with the core values (GILLS) of the school. What core value have they been challenged by and what is their plan to improve. What core value are they best exemplifying and what is the evidence to prove it? Students also discuss in general about what their challenges are and where they have grown over their time at the school.
These experiences are called “Celebrations of Learning” and we began doing them in the Spring of 2015 (our first year).
When we opened our 4th year of the school, we thought about authenticity a lot. Both in the projects & prototypes students made, but also in what we were asking the students to reach and do. We agreed that it would be meaningful if the adults stepped up and engaged in their own Celebrations of Learning (COL’s) in front of our peers. On November 6th, 2017, we did just that. Four members of our Staffulty took about 25 minutes during a meeting and presented to their peers. There were tears, there was vulnerability, there was open-honesty, there was humor; but most of all there was love and appreciation. The Staffulty who gave their COL’s gained empathy for what we ask our students to go through on four occasions during their time at our school. The audience gained respect and appreciation for their colleagues stepping well out of the comfort zone. Some of the email comments that followed summed up the experience well:
“I just wanted to thank the brave souls that shared their COL this morning with the staff. Thank you for showing us a side of you that we don't always get to see and being VULNERABLE. I was so impressed. I feel more and more like family here and I'm so grateful to be a part of this great work that we do. I was again inspired by the power of a Celebration of Learning. I can't wait to see what the kids come up with this week.”
“This morning's Adult COLs profoundly touched me. The personal reflections were courageous, humorous, and touching. I was also moved by those in the room that listened attentively and supported our colleagues as they shared about themselves.”
Image Credit: http://www.shmula.com/about-peter-abilla/what-is-andon-in-the-toyota-production-system
When my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, we moved into my parents’ spare bedroom. We had just rented out our house, and we were six weeks away from closing escrow on our new home where we would go on to raise our little family. While we were living in the spare bedroom, we had to quickly adopt some survival skills. This was a great adventure, mainly because of me. I am not only a super-sensitive person, but I also think that I am funnier than I actually am...
To survive this six week adventure, my wife and I quickly realized that we needed a special “stop” signal that either of us could invoke without angering the other. We needed an alert system that, without words or sensationalism, indicated "feelings are about to be hurt." Living in such a small space with so much external stress, we needed to ensure that effective communication and systems were in place to end teasing, nagging, questioning, or eye-rolling before the point of no return. The signal? If one of us were about to experience hurt feelings, we were to extend our arms and close them shut, like the jaws of an alligator. This signal means, without question, hesitation, sarcastic remark, or huffy sounds, that everything was to stop. Immediately.
Almost a decade later while reading the book The Lean StartUp (2011) by Eric Ries, I was fascinated to learn about a mechanism at Toyota that worked in radically the same way. It is called the "Andon Cord." The Andon Cord is a cord that any worker along the assembly line is expected to pull if a problem or concern is seen. Pulling the cord is not something determined by rank or seniority. Pulling the cord illuminates a series of immediate responses by supervisors that may or may not actually stop the entire line of production. Ries (2011) explains that it "allows any worker to ask for help as soon as they notice any problem, such as a defect in a physical part, stopping the entire production line if it cannot be corrected immediately" (p. 187). Without naming it, in How (2011) by Dov Seidman, he explains the power of this concept as "it (quality) became the responsibility of every employee at every level of the task. Power shifted from the top of the hierarchy down to its base; anyone, at any stage of the process, could stop the line" (pp. 211-212).
This is much like what my wife and I had developed to get through our in-between-houses-time, and in fact we still use the signal today. Frankly, much of the success of our marriage has been forged by this strategy that puts the responsibility on both of us for acting and responding appropriately in a predetermined and understood fashion.
I was speaking to a visitor touring our school in the spring of 2017, and he took the story of the Andon Cord as a quality control tool and superimposed it as a strategy for ferreting out instruction that didn't meet “his” standards. In fact, he quite-excitedly gleaned that this proven concept from industry empowered him to be more direct and quicker to make note of low-grade instruction at “his” school.
So bothered by his interpretation, I was inspired to write this post. I told him that I thought the transference of the concept of the Andon Cord from manufacturing to education was more to do about empowering all people in the organization and flattening the hierarchy, aka, culture. It was not immediately about quality control on instruction. I told him that, in fact, I thought the story taken in the context as he processed it was actually damaging. Whether he wanted to hear it or not, I continued that, 'from my perspective, the power of the Andon Cord idea speaks to...'
Travelling is one of my favorite things to do. I enjoy the adventures of a new journey - both the joys, stresses, memories and the learning that happens every time I venture out into something new.
On a recent journey, I stopped at the Concierge’s Desk to get advice on local eats. I was visiting New York City, and I was overwhelmed with the quantity of Yelp reviews, travel website suggestions, and other “noise” that was creating inner stress for where I should eat.
While standing in line, I listened to the Concierge help a couple that was in town for the first time. They only had one night free in their trip, and they were desperate to see a “terrific” show. The Concierge took the time to ask questions about the couple’s preferences. Did they want a musical, did they want more of a traditional play, did they know that there are a number of uniquely spirited “Off Broadway” productions that may be enjoyable. The couple left, with tickets in hand, with clear directions about how to get to the theatre, and even a recommendation for a coffee/gelato shop for after the show that will give a 10% discount by showing the ticket stubs from the show! Wow!
Next, was my turn. I love the theatre, but that wasn’t my concern at the time. I wanted the real story on where I should get some good food. I mentioned a few “celebrity chef” and “tourist joint” places that I had heard about. And on my own, I would have just gone to one. But the Concierge looked at me and said, “Those are good choices, but you only have so much time in New York, you should really get something authentic. Do you like Italian food?” I do, and I left with a suggestion for a great “Mom & Pop” restaurant out of Times Square, where the locals ate. I left the Concierge’s Desk with exactly what I wanted, even though it was unexpected, and with reservations made for me. I also had detailed directions of which subways would get me there in about 20 minutes. I was off on my journey for the night!
As I was wrapping up the conversation with the Concierge, a woman had stepped up next to me to a second Concierge. She had just gotten to the hotel after a long flight with weather delays, she had checked in, gone to her room, and realized she didn’t pack a toothbrush. She came to the Concierge’s Desk for help on where the nearest convenience store was. The Concierge, not only gave her explicit directions and explained that it was a 5 minute walk down the block, but he reached under his desk and pulled out a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste. He said, “Here, this will take care of you for now, how about you just stop at the convenience store on your way back into the hotel.”
What I realized in this moment is that the role of a Concierge is to meet the specific needs of individuals, for wherever they are at in their journey, because all travelers are on a continuum of need. The similarities of the travelers is that they are all away from home, they are all seeking temporary residence in the hotel, and each of them is on a journey. The role of the Concierge is to be empathetic, to listen, and to hear for and act on the things that a person doesn’t say as much as what they do say. The suggestion for an Off Broadway Show, the tip about ticket stubs getting 10% at a coffee/gelato shop close to the theatre. Providing tickets in hand for the show and detailed directions to get there. For myself, directing me away from what was known to something authentic - and providing directions, and reservations being handled. Then lastly the woman without a toothbrush. All she wanted was directions to a convenience store, but the Concierge knew he could do better than sending her back out into the city after a long day of travel.
Each of us who came to this desk in the short span of time were on a journey. We were at different points in the journey, and we had different needs & interests at that time. The Concierge’s job is to be human-centered, lead with his ear, and meet the stated needs of the users at the desk, as well as listen deeply to understand some unstated needs. Everyone who comes to a Concierge’s Desk is on a continuum in their journey. A Concierge is in a human-centered profession.
This makes me think about being a school leader in an era of drastic change and even uncertainty. There is much said about “leading innovation,” building culture, and change leadership. I also hear a lot of people talk about how they are “servant leaders,” which roots back to work by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.
As we lead in an era of uncertainty and change, this idea of the Concierge Continuum is useful for me to conceptualize theory to action. Good practice establishes that we use a theory of action when building more innovative, more personalized, or more creative learning experiences for students. But it is the theory to action that gets things done. We spend too much time “talking” and too much time sharing theories to explain behavior. Let’s be more biased towards action. Let’s be more human-centered, and let’s DO!
And to effectively do so, I contend that we need to work like a concierge, where we intentionally take the time to recognize that everyone on our team will always be at a different level of implementation - they exist on a continuum in their journey. Our job as a leader is to listen, to be mindful, and find out where each person lies, and what needs exist that we can meet, to help them advance up the continuum - towards progress of our intended outcomes.