Good Days

5 Dec 17 - Good Days

I don’t really see my work life in terms of good or bad days.  On the whole, I genuinely enjoy the purpose and challenge of my work.   I feel deeply satisfied with the idea that I’m giving my best energy, thinking, and labor on a day to day basis to the task of creating powerful learning environments and experiences for kids.  Of course I’m still a human being who feels disappointment with setbacks, and I’m no stranger to frustration when confronting organizational inertia or unnecessary obstacles.  But across the board, I feel a persistent satisfaction in my work.

And then, sometimes, I really do have a distinctively good day.

Like yesterday, for example.  It’s hard to explain, but every so often I have a day that surprises me in terms of both the actual work I accomplish and my emotional state as I pass through that work.  I don’t think you can precisely engineer good days – often there is some luck involved – but my experiences yesterday got me thinking about some of the common elements of a good day at work for me.


The most defining characteristic of a notably “good” day, is when I experience some degree of culmination, hit a major milestone, or enjoy some closure.  My definition of culmination is when we experience some palpable sense of progress or success.  Yesterday, for example, I had an advisory council meeting for one of the projects I lead.  For months, we had talked about adding key strategic partners to our team.  We had discussed launching a redesigned website.  On multiple occasions we had planned to formally file for incorporated status with the state of California.  Each subgoal brought with it countless tasks, from making calls to potential partners to drafting agendas to reviewing bylaws to sitting down to actually create a website.  It’s a project that in many ways never has real closure.

But yesterday, over the course of our monthly 90 minute meeting, I felt an incredible sense of culmination.  We sat with an expanded team.  We received the draft of our fledgling organization’s website (which I had created).  We finalized our intention to incorporate – and we paused as necessary to send the reminder emails, calendar the follow-ups, and ensure we were locking in our progress.

Of course there are moments when we hit clear milestones that bring concrete closure.  Graduation ceremonies.  A job promotion.  A birthday celebration.  Often, those events become some of our best days.  But even without a full stop or external recognition of success, we have those days where things come together and put a smile on our face.

Deliberate Connection 

Leadership is not primarily about writing strategic plans, reviewing documents and providing feedback, or even making data-driven decisions – as important as all of those tasks might be.  Leadership is about developing and shaping an organization’s culture and consistently pointing everyone towards excellence.  It’s about setting a vision and then reinforcing that vision through ongoing interactions and conversations.  Yes, there is important technical work inherent to moving the organization forward, but transformational leadership implies moving people towards heightened levels of engagement, skill, and commitment.

On my good days, I take time to connect with the people I have the responsibility to lead.  I have the opportunity to learn about the work happening at all levels of the organization, and reinforce my vision through the corresponding conversations.  Yesterday, for example, I started the morning by informally seeking out members of my team, connecting briefly about the weekend, and then learning about the tasks and potential obstacles they were facing at the outset of the week.  I tried to provide encouragement, redirection, reinforcement, and sometimes tangible support.  These conversations were short, and within 45 minutes I felt like I had a good pulse on our collective trajectory for the day and week.

Of course sometimes I have pressing tasks that bring me straight to my desk.  That turns the tables where my team members have to come to me when they get stuck or need clarification.  I feel much more in control and purposeful when I’m initiating the interactions and offering support before others feel the need to come ask it of me.

Successful Prioritization

I am somewhat religious about a daily checklist – it’s a practice that has persisted across both digital and handwritten platforms for me.  And almost without fail, I put more on that list than I could possibly hope to accomplish given the time and commitments of the day.  You would think that after so many years as a working professional, I would have disrupted my own counterproductive tendency to over plan my time, but I haven’t.  In my defense, I have developed a useful practice of identifying what I call my “big 3” – the three most important tasks of the day that I try to knock out before moving on to other things.  But still, I experience daily, unnecessary emotional tension when I haven’t checked off everything on my list.

On a good day, like yesterday, I was courageous about removing commitments that simply weren’t moving my work forward.  I cancelled participation in a webinar.  I was honest with some colleagues about a project I had committed to that was drawing on my attention and time but that I felt was not adding adequate value to the organization.  In other words, I said ‘no’ a few times.  I took things off the to do list – to be forever unchecked.  Of course any truly good day has to feel deeply productive at its core, it’s not just about saying no.  But to a large degree my ability to focus on the most important, high-leverage projects is dependent on my willingness to walk away from less important work.


A lot is said about the food courts, lounge rooms, and flex schedules of Silicon Valley startups and tech companies.  As with anything, I think reality might not exactly match up with the sometimes exaggerated picture that is painted in the media about the work cultures of some of the best places to work.  Yet I do think that some companies have learned to harness the best thinking and creative energy of their people by building flexibility and adaptability into their schedules.

For the most part, schools have incredibly inflexible schedules. While most work places did away with punchcards and whistles a long time ago, schools still use bells to signal start and stop times.  Kids cycle in and out of classrooms on highly routinized schedules, and there typically is not much room for flexibility.  As educators, our  lives are dictated by the master schedule.  Part of my core work is focused on helping teachers and administrators rethink some of these traditional constraints, but even in the tightly managed work day on a school campus, I think there are ways to find space to re-energize.

Some of my best teachers had firm commitments to lunch time spent on a basketball court or walking the campus.   Whether it’s a spin class immediately after school with colleagues, or a long run when the final bell rings, a lot of educators find that they have better energy when they find ways to get moving and sweat a little throughout the day.  Similarly, I wasn’t afraid to use 20 minutes of my lunch for a quick nap when I felt my energy waning.

Yesterday, I used my lunchtime to squeeze in a short workout in the small staff gym.  It was by no means a full strength or cardio circuit, but it was enough to energize my afternoon.  In addition to the physical stimulation, I enjoyed the psychological boost of knowing that by mid-day I had already knocked out some major tasks AND done a little exercise as well.  It started to free up some of my mental space for planning out my evening, knowing that instead of needing to find time to exercise after putting the kids to bed, I could choose to work on a home project or just relax.  Add just for good measure, since it was a good day, I put that evening time to use cleaning out in the garage.



Adventures in Bullet Journaling

It has been about 5 months since I started using a bullet journal with regularity.  I already filled up my first notebook and am on to my second.  Back in September, I shared some of my favorite page types for boosting my focus and productivity.  Specifically, I shared my Daily Log – my daily to-do list, and the notes I take during meetings to keep me engaged and to facilitate easy sharing with others.  I’m still using both of those pages with regularity, but now in month #6 I’ve added a number of page types that have been helpful.

I think it is important to note that I still have some mixed feelings about my bullet journal.  On some levels, it is deeply cathartic to break out my colored markers in the middle of the day to mark progress on my daily goals and summarize the major points of meetings and other interactions.  It’s like an adult coloring book.  I can attest to the fact that the journal helps me stay on target with daily, weekly, and monthly goals and priorities.  It is definitely a boost to my productivity.

At times, however, I find my bullet journal getting in the way of my focus and creativity.  Sometimes the aesthetics of the thing don’t allow me to be as free-flowing with ideas as I would like.  A notebook should be a space that encourages experimentation, sketching, and drafty diagramming.  But I can’t seem to bring myself to include a first draft of something I know is going to be ugly or awkward.  So I leave it out.

So while there are definitely some things I’m still working out in terms of my expectations and practices with the bullet journal, I definitely have some go-to uses for the journal beyond what I was doing when I first got started.  Here are a few of those:

The Month At-A-Glance

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling

In my first journal, I experimented with a few different formats for the month at-a-glance page, and didn’t really like any of them.  I finally settled on a style that combines a month calendar with the big goals in different areas of my life.      It’s working – at least for now.

The Gratitude Log

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling 1

I’ve seen different takes on this on a number of bullet journal websites.  Often, the gratitudes are integrated into the daily log.  I tried that, but it didn’t seem to work for me.  So I switched to try to dedicated one page for the month where I record one thing I’m grateful for for each day.

The Fitness Tracker

22 Nov 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling 2

This is a carry over from my first journal.  It’s worked really well, especially since I’ve finally gotten into the regular habit of counting my calories every day.  Some people might argue that counting calories every day is no way to live life.  I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but for me at least, there is no way for me to maintain or lose weight without being mindful every day – at almost every meal – about what I am eating.  When I slip into mindless eating, which is very easy for me to do, I simply overeat.

Site Visit Summaries 

A big part of my responsibilities at work involves visiting the principals I supervise and their schools.  I’ve experimented with different systems for capturing notes about our discussions and my observations.  Now I’ve been created a visit summary to help me document what I am learning about the principals I am supervising, and so that I have an easy reference later on when discussing each principal’s goals and areas for improvement.

Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Mapping


If you are having a conversation with an Improvement Science aficionado, it won’t be long before the conversation shifts to a discussion of specific practices and tools that are closely associated with helping organizations or individuals improve.  The common mantra is that Improvement Science helps us “get better at getting better,” and the mechanism for continuous improvement can be found in the application of a set of tools and practices Improvement Scientists have identified and tested.  Empathy interviews.  Journey Maps.  Systems Mapping.  PDSA cycles.  Fishbone diagrams.  There are actually quite a few of these tools, and each one is designed to illuminate a different aspect of the improvement journey.

My personal favorite is system mapping.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a visual learner.  Systems mapping is an attempt to create a visual overview of a process, outlining explicitly the relationships and sequences that we assume are the part of any given system.  In essence, we are lifting the hood to take a look at how things work together (or as is sometimes the case, are not working together) and then represent those relationships in a visual map.  A systems map takes a flow chart one step further as it seeks to identify the weak points in the system that are leading to underperformance.  The map then serves as a launching point for determining potential interventions that we want to test to improve the system.

I find systems mapping to be incredibly illustrative.  It can become apparent very quickly that a room full of organizational leaders who thought they had a common understanding about how something gets done actually possess very nuanced and incomplete views of what happens in practice.  It’s like putting together a puzzle where everyone has a different piece to contribute.

At work, for example, I’ve recently been using systems mapping to help improve our process for approving substitute teachers for professional development.  You might think the process would be fairly straight-forward.  You need subs.  You ask for permission to get subs.  Permission is either granted or denied.

You would be very wrong.

For starters, we are in the midst of a serious, if not severe, substitute shortage.  There simply are not enough quality substitute teachers to fill our vacant positions on a daily basis.  Despite efforts to continuously recruit and hire good people, attrition is high and the best substitutes get snatched up – as they should be – for long term gigs or as full-time classroom teachers.  That puts a daily cap on how many subs we have available.  To add to the challenge, we have a lot of competing interests for professional development.  Of course that is a good problem since we want our classroom teachers to have opportunities for quality professional learning.

That all adds up to a simple equation of supply and demand, which means there are ALWAYS more requests for subs than we have the capacity to meet.  That drives a scarcity mindset, and when people start hearing “no” with regularity, it puts increasing pressure on a system that only worked moderately well even in the best of times.  Admittedly, my leadership responsibilities have little to do with substitute requests, but when everyone I am working with and trying to support is constantly referencing a system that is causing distraction and even spreading mistrust, it’s hard for me not to get involved.

Where do you start when you are trying to improve a system that you don’t know a tremendous amount about?  You start asking a lot of questions of the people who are closest to the work – and you begin to develop a map of the system.  So that’s what I did.  I started by putting my initial assumptions on paper, and then learning more by investigating the details of the system.  Committing those details to a visual map allows us to make our assumptions explicit, and develop shared meaning and understanding about the system.

Fast forward several weeks to today, and we’re still very much in the process of working through our new system.  One of my tasks today is to update our system map to reflect where things stand as of today.  The intention is to not only use the map to help us continuously improve the system, but to make that system transparent to its users.


On Being Principal – Defining Moments

2 Nov 17 - Defining Moments

Most of the time, I emphasize the importance of consistency and alignment over time as the primary strategy for realizing an organizational vision.  In other words, you have to play the long game, accumulating small wins over time.  I’m a big fan of continuous improvement, and that defines my core practice as an administrator.  But sometimes, principals face moments that present special opportunities to define themselves as a leader and truly impact the culture of the organization.  Often, those opportunities come in moments of crisis.

One of those moments came for me at the end of my first year as principal.  Our leadership team, and entire staff, had battled throughout the year to strengthen the school culture as one that embodied mutual respect and pro-social behavior amongst our students.  We latched on to the idea of the Warm Demander, a conceptual framework for building strong, respectful relationships between students and teachers.  In essence, being a Warm Demander means your students know you genuinely love and care for them, and that you will kick their butt if they don’t live up to their potential.  Our instructional leadership team embraced the opportunity to engage staff in conversations about what high expectations of student learning looked like in classrooms, hallways and shared spaces.

Over the course of the year, we moved from system to system, constantly improving along the way.  In some cases, we tinkered.  In others, we made a complete overhaul.  We moved our referral system to a digital system that allowed us to more easily track and analyze discipline data.  We implemented random tardy sweeps to encourage more on-time behavior.  We designed a system of positive behavior intervention and supports.  We deliberately highlighted and celebrated our students who had made significant growth – both academically and socially.

Obviously, I’m biased.  I was the principal and felt tremendous efficacy about our collective improvement work.  Of course we had setbacks and moments of tremendous disappointment – both in ourselves as leaders and in some of the decisions made by our students.  We weren’t always successful.  But we persisted.  As we approached the end of the school year, it felt like we had made significant progress.

As graduation neared, several staff members approached me out of concern for certain student behaviors that had historically disrupted graduation festivities at the end of the school year.  I ensured my staff that we had permanently committed to high expectations and wouldn’t settle just because the school year was coming to a close.

I had made a deliberate point to communicate with my seniors that they needed to attend graduation rehearsal in order to walk across the stage at graduation.  Of course there might be reasonable conflicts due to illness, but this wasn’t going to be something to sluff off.

On the morning of the rehearsal, all but three of our students were present.  While I intended to be true to my stated expectations, I had my own heightened sense of concern for my three missing students – I certainly wanted them to participate in graduation, and so I encouraged classmates to reach out directly at the same time that I was calling home and trying to track down the students to get them to rehearsal.

When the three young men finally arrived, nearly an hour late, all three were clearly under the influence of marijuana.  In some contexts, this might seem like an easy decision, but this is San Francisco we are talking about, and recreational marijuana use amongst 17 and 18 year old adolescent young men was hardly a criminal or serious offense.

With the support of my admin team, I made the decision to bar the three young men from the graduation ceremony.  My calls home to family informing them of my decision brought immediate reaction and anger.  How could I deny these young men the culminating moment of a hard fought education?  Parents and family members packed into my office, pleading, and then demanding, that I change my decision and allow the young men to walk.  As the pressure mounted, teachers began to take opposite sides – with teachers openly advocating on both sides of the decision.  I was threatened with lawsuits and physical violence.  One of the young men was so incensed that he shattered the glass entry door to the school as he stormed out.  What was supposed to be the culminating moment of celebration for the school year descended into a deeply contested crisis.

As the final day of school came and went, opposition to my decision stiffened.  I received several phone calls from former staff members and the previous principal asking me to reconsider.  Students hinted at a walk out.  I couldn’t imagine anything more awful as a first-year principal than a student walkout at graduation in protest of my leadership.

Internally, I wanted nothing more than to relent and allow the young men to walk.  I’m a people-pleaser, and I don’t like to see people uncomfortable or experiencing difficulty when I have power to assist.  But I’m also deeply committed to exercising the leadership necessary to move schools and organizations to the next level of performance and shared values.  This decision very much felt like a critical inflection point in driving home the message that above all, I was committed to holding high expectations as the principal – regardless of the consequences.

I should note that my supervisor and superintendent Gia Truong supported my decision.  As was her approach to developing principals, Gia refused to overrule me and make the decision herself and instead engaged me in a serious of questions to ensure that I understood and could articulate my own thinking on the matter.  I think she knew this was a decision that was killing me – and sometimes I wonder whether she herself was curious what I would do in the end.

In the end, three young men didn’t walk at graduation.  There was no walkout – although I had to sweat it out the entire ceremony as I was unsure what might happen.  I clearly remember crafting a statement for my staff – making it clear that I too was struggling with the decision, and that I was not entirely sure that it was the best outcome for the three young men involved.  I was, however, certain that given our struggles and history as a school, that it was the right decision for our collective community.

Over the days, weeks, and months that followed graduation, and with the benefit of time, many of my staff came forward to express their appreciation of my commitment to act with integrity in a difficult situation and for being transparent with my decision-making process.  Even some of those who were most vocal in their opposition approached me to share their feelings of respect for my decision.  Years later, that first graduation came up with some frequency when staff members shared stories about me.

In the end, I truly do believe that we made the right decision for our school.  Of course I’m not entirely closed to the idea that things could have played out differently and still have had a positive outcome.  I certainly still ache a bit on behalf of the young men involved.  But seeing a tough decision through in a crucible moment provided me with a resolve later down the road that made it easier to make difficult decisions when the pressure mounted.  It wasn’t just a defining moment for the students and staff for whom I had stewardship – it has shaped how I perceive myself as a leader.  It’s a decision that stays with me.

Thoughts on the Breakthrough Coach

18 Oct 17 Breakthrough Coach blue

Have you ever attended a professional seminar that got people visibly agitated?  That’s only happened twice to me.  The first time, it was an undersecretary for the Department of Education during the early years of No Child Left Behind under the George W. Bush presidency.  She really liked the metaphor of “don’t beat a dead horse” and used some actual images of a dying horse.  Not a happy audience.

The other time was a little more subtle.  It was when I attended  Breakthrough Coach training with Malachi Pancoast.  Malachi didn’t whip the audience into an angry frenzy – but he definitely stirred some emotions with his unapologetic thesis for why school leaders are not as effective as they could be.

Here’s the general thesis.  The primary role of the school leader is to observe the system at play in the school he or she leads and then provide ongoing and actionable feedback to make it work better.  This applies to every aspect of a school’s functioning – from instruction in the classroom to how parents are greeted in the front office.  In essence, the principal is the coach, constantly making adjustments to ensure the increasingly optimal functioning of the system.  Malachi encourages principals to get out of their offices regularly and spend as much time as they can where the game is being played – in classrooms.

None of this seems particularly controversial.  Indeed, most school leaders know intuitively that improving instructional practice is the holy grail of their leadership legacy.  Principals know that spending time with teachers and students in classrooms is what they should be doing.  Of course, this leads most well-intentioned principals to feel some guilt about the disconnect between what they know they should be doing and what they actually do with their time.  It brings about a self-consciousness that is baked into the psyche of most school leaders.

The beauty of the Breakthrough Coach is that Malachi doesn’t sugarcoat this disconnect.  In fact, he emphasizes it.  He is explicit about the fact that he expects the principals in the room to be defensive.  He knows the retorts to expect.  “You don’t know what my job is like!”  “I would be in classrooms, but the district bombards me with meetings and paperwork!”

I won’t go into all the details of the training.  It would ruin the fun and surprise of it all.  Nor am I suggesting that every school leader should adopt every aspect of Malachi’s refreshingly practical tools and approach to leading a school or organization.  But there are a few general design principals from the breakthrough coach that I have found to be essential.

Observe the System

You can’t lead from an office.  You have to be out there where the work is happening, watching and talking to kids and adults about how they experience the system.  You have to ask questions and suspend your own assumptions and biases.  You have to really try to understand what is going on around you.

I once sat in a meeting where the Chief Academic Officer wore a safari hat – her plea to teachers and principals in the system was to consider themselves data collectors.  From a leadership perspective, you need good data to make good decisions.  Sometimes, you have to go get that good data yourself in the form of observations and conversations.

Have the Hard Conversations

Learning to see the system is primarily an analytical task.  The leadership component comes from the emotional toll associated with constantly asking people to change.  Sometimes you are asking people to change routines or processes.  Sometimes you are asking people to change their attitudes and beliefs.

Regardless of the change, providing feedback can be uncomfortable.  As my mentor and supervisor Gia Truong often told me – leadership is essentially a series of hard conversations.  Malachi’s perspective is that as leaders, we are avoiding far too many of those hard conversations.

Your Value Isn’t Measured in Hours

Working long hours doesn’t guarantee an impact on student learning.  Malachi drives this point home – asserting that most school leaders often sacrifice their personal interests, their health, and their personal relationships on the altar of their professional identities.  He points out how we’ve allowed the principal’s office to become our de facto home – with couches and fridges and all the accouterments of home.

Malachi’s invitation is to get out of the office, to go home, to be present for the people in our personal lives who also need our attention and love and support.  The truth is that balancing school and home life for a school leader is a genuine challenge.  Perhaps some of the initial discontent amongst participants of the Breakthrough Coach is due to this perceived oversimplification of the time demands placed on principals.  It’s a fair critique.

Yet deep down most principals know Malachi is right.  Our years roll by, our children grow older, and all the time we privately fret about the tradeoffs we make in order to run our schools.  In a labor-oriented field like education, and where time spent with children does have intrinsic value, there are only so many ways to achieve balance.  Efficiency helps.  Talented staff helps.   I’ve reflected on this element of Malachi’s sessions more than perhaps any other.  Our potency, our energy, and our visionary clarity is often fed by a centered and balanced life.

On the whole – I’m a big fan of the Breakthrough Coach.  In my mind, it is a training well worth the time and money.  It’s a fresh, somewhat unconventional take on management, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking about your purpose, your role, and your efficacy as a principal.

On Being Principal – Rough Beginnings


Imagine it’s the first day of the school year.  As the new principal, I position myself on the front stair steps that lead up to our high school, perched on a hill atop the solidly working class Excelsior neighborhood in San Francisco.  I happily greet every student who passes by.  Some students are warm and eager to introduce themselves, others seem indifferent to my presence.  For my part, I am full of optimism and excitement about my new job.  As students are streaming past me, I vaguely notice a commotion off to my right, followed by a girl’s surprised scream.  Soon a young man is standing in front of me with blood running down the side of his face.  I quickly shift gears from enthusiastic greeter to crisis manager as I usher the young man and several onlookers into the front office.  Within the first five minutes of my first day as principal, I’m already conducting an investigation into a fight that had occurred between two of my students who decided to settle old debts on their way to school.

As those first days turned into weeks, I found myself digging deeply into my emotional, physical, and intellectual reserves in an effort to stay above water and actually lead.  I had perhaps underestimated how the expectations to play so many roles each day would weigh on me.  In addition to building relationships with students and staff, managing crisis, and recruiting students to the school, my days (and nights) were spent dealing with an unimaginable array of responsibilities and challenges.  Even then I considered myself lucky, as I had a caring and patient wife, a network of equally overworked but committed school leader friends, and an unusually supportive superintendent.  In many ways I received both personal and professional support that many new principals may never experience.

“Being a principal is an impossible job.”  That’s the best and most honest advice I ever received as a principal.  It came from a principal colleague as we stood on a street corner two blocks from my school, watching students leaving school for the day.  I was just a few months into the job, but it felt much longer.  I had aged.  I had spent more than one evening on my living room couch, in something of a daze.  It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a brief encounter on a street corner with a fellow principal quickly found me confiding about the immensity of the leadership challenge I was facing.

“Daniel, just remember that everyone wants something from you.  Everyone has a problem, and it wasn’t until I reconciled myself to the reality that I couldn’t fix everything or meet everyone’s needs that I was able to start thinking about the most important things I should be doing.”

It was advice that made me think back to a statement that Richard Elmore made to my cohort of 42 aspiring principals as part of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  He was blunt and to the point.  “The very characteristics that likely got you into Harvard will keep you from being a transformative school leader.”  He was speaking to our potential tendency to be perfectionists, to avoid conflict, and to mitigate risks and go by the book.

Now I was in the principal chair, and the immensity of the leadership challenge was humbling.  Everything felt urgent.  It was hard to decipher between putting out fires and doing work to encourage more long-term strategic shifts.  Sometimes I was actually putting out fires.

Frankly, the daily rigor of being the principal was intense in a way I hadn’t entirely anticipated.  It required the very best of my thinking and virtually all of my energy, and even then I felt like I was falling woefully short.  In many ways, it was precisely the type of professional experience I wanted and had aspired to.  I just hadn’t completely realized the degree to which the role would immediately push and challenge me.

Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Thinking

27 Sept 17 - Improvement Science Systems Thinking

Mechanistic controls.  Tight interdependence.  Centralized authority and clear hierarchy. These are concepts we often associate with bureaucratic organizations.  Perhaps the most common visual metaphor for such systems is the picture of interlocking cogs and wheels.  “You’re just a cog in the machine,” is a phrase that has crystalized into a euphemism for a lack of agency or power to create change or exercise independent thought within a bureaucratic system.

While I do think that many of the bureaucratic controls alive and well in our organizations have outlived their usefulness in the context of our dynamic, information ubiquitous and fast-paced society, my purpose is not necessarily to bemoan bureaucracies.  To the contrary, my purpose is to point out that even in traditional bureaucracies – such as a large public school district – the metaphor of the cogs and gears simply doesn’t hold up.

In Santa Ana, for example, we’re engaged in a partnership with the CORE Districts and the Carnegie Foundation to use the tools of Improvement Science to better understand our current systems of operation and make deliberate, strategic decisions to improve those systems.  At the center of this work is learning to think with a systems perspective.

To help our district and school leaders adopt a more systemic perspective on their work improving outcomes, our improvement coaches Juli Coleman and Amanda Meyer from CORE designed a game they called the “Butterfly Game.”  Taking cues from the idea of the Butterfly Effect, the game is designed to help participants experience the interdependence of working within a system, and how small changes can sometimes cause large perceptible shifts.  However, unlike in the metaphor of cogs and gears where causes and effects are predictable, the game reflected the much more unpredictable nature of improvement work.

We started off standing in a circle.  The only rule we were given was to identify two other people in the circle, and then when we heard “go,” position ourselves equidistant from those two people without making it obvious who we were tracking.  Immediately on “go,” everyone in the circle started moving, trying to make physical adjustments to stay equally distant between their two human guideposts.  To the outside observer, this impromptu system was little more than chaos.  To participants, there were clear, if unseen, relationships influencing our every move.  Of course we all had chosen different people to track, and that interdependence spread messiness everywhere.  People were crashing into tables and nearby trees – paying such close attention to the the people they were positioning against that they failed to spot stationary obstacles.  When a participant came late to the circle from the bathroom, nobody really paused to clue her in to what was happening, so she did the best she could to figure it out without looking and feeling confused.

At some point, the movement slowed down to a trickle, and the system seemingly came into equilibrium.  Then the game designers decided to make a few structural changes, moving just a few participants from one location to another – citing the promise of greater efficiency and effectiveness as the motivation for the move.   When we heard “go” a second time, the system immediately started moving in response to the structural shifts imposed on the system.  I myself had difficulty avoiding a collision with both tables and other participants as they adjusted their positions.

Again, the system eventually settled into a tenuous equilibrium.

The debrief of this experience was rich in drawing out metaphors and parallels with our work as systems leaders.  Relationships are deep and often unseen.  We can’t always define the rules of the system but often can see and measure their impact.  Small changes can cause unpredictable outcomes.  We sometimes neglect newcomers to the system or allow others to sustain contact or injury without taking much notice.

Yes, we have to work together to get the work done – but the systems within which we are working are much less linear and predictable than we like to admit.  Often, our solutions offer technical, linear fixes to systems where human intuition and human error are in constant play.  The tools of improvement science are meant to equip us as leaders with analytical practices that slow down our shortcut-seeking, solution oriented administrator brains.  Instead, we apply methodical, analytical processes that help us get better at getting better.