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.