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Navigating through Troubled Waters… in Uncharted Territory

If you’ve already checked out the WHAT, WHY, and HOW of this site on the Homepage you’ve been forewarned about its reliance on metaphors as a jumping-off place for communicating. Here, I’m going to single out one in particular — The Leader as Convoy Commander — because of its significance not only for this site’s learning journey, but also for its short- and long- term significance in understanding the social and economic journey we’re all on today… and in particular the different leadership role President Obama appears to be playing.

• To first explore two dimensions of the metaphoric scope and nature of that role
1. Total System Management: The Leader as Convoy Commander – as re- written in 1994.
2. And then to bring it down-to-earth and up-to-date, The Convoy Revisited: How did it Steer and Develop its capacity at the same time? captures some of the learnings and questions generated by observing the actual 10 year journey of an 194 school “convoy” called the Montgomery County, MD Public School System.

• Then, using that Convoy leadership metaphor as a template, reflect on your current thoughts and feelings as you read and hear the news and commentary each day about the new administration’s actions.

Note how frequently you hear policymakers and others fearfully calling for caution because we’re heading into “uncharted territory” and navigating through “troubled waters.”  And praising the President after his 4/15/09 speech on the economy for clearly describing “where we are” and “where we want to go.”  While at the same time, others who want clear “plans” and “policies” don’t understand the underlying common “navigational” process being used to develop those outcomes. Or Conservative commentator and former Republican White House speech-writer Peggy Noonan who was wowed by his “in-the-moment thoughtfulness” as he responds to unanticipated questions

Does the Convoy leadership metaphor offer any clues to why Obama seems to be responding to systemic problems with strategies whose scope and nature seem to some as too large and too long? And actions that seem out-of-the box of conventional political practice?  If you are interested in what kind of mental map could support that type of thinking, then you might want to check out Mapping the Natural Territory.

Here is some background that may add helpful context for your reading and responses.

Before I was hired by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) as their Associate Executive Director for Instructional Leadership and Technology, its Director asked me to submit an essay on how I thought those two areas related. I framed what I wrote metaphorically as The Leader as Convoy Commander. It subsequently appeared as “The Superintendent as Convoy Commander: Through Stormy Seas with Trust and Technology” (The School Administrator, Dec. 1987.) And was presented to the Third National Governor’s Conference — PARTNERS for QUALITY — Minneapolis, MN, April 19, 1994.

That metaphoric way of understanding system leadership has stayed with me ever since and is particularly appropriate today as school and government leaders are being told they must “navigate through troubled waters.” And that’s not the only reason.

Over three decades ago, in 1972, Russell L. Ackoff suggested that we were entering into a new age of organizational management that would be as fundamentally different from the machine age as the Renaissance was from the Middle Ages.

In anticipating the everything-seems-to-influence-everything-else world of today, he noted that

“…all the apparent problems that management confronts are manifestations of these four (problems) or some combination of them.”

• First, how do you deal with sets of problems interactively, not independently?

• Second, how do you design organizations which will learn and adapt more effectively, under conditions of increasingly rapid change?

• Third, how do you manage organizations so as to better serve the purposes of their parts and, in so doing, serve the organization more effectively?

• Fourth, how do you better manage so as to serve the purposes of the society of which the organization is a part and, in so doing, better serve the purposes of the organization?

Russell L. Ackoff, April 20, 1972, Fordyce House

In the three decades since that statement, new management ideas from theorists such as Senge, Drucker, Deming, Wheatley and Covey have attempted to address each of those problems.

For example, Senge’s systems thinking aims at understanding the first; his concept of learning organizations as well as Wheatley’s ideas on dealing with chaos as a natural condition respond to the second.

Both Deming and Covey have attempted to deal with the third; and Drucker’s concept of public-private social partnerships relate to the fourth, and has become a focused concern under the flag of re-inventing society’s organizations and communities.

But this increased understanding has yet to crystallize into coherent approaches of a scope necessary to address the interrelatedness of today’s problems where it matters most — in today’s schools.

What would it take to address Ackoff’s four problems through a singular, coherent, interdependent approach to schooling? And could it be in time? Can you imagine how long it would take for practitioners to gain sufficient experience with that process to bring it to accepted wisdom? Impossible?

But what if we already knew how to do it?

Then we might not need new theories, or extensive practice. If, under certain conditions, we already could and do operate that way, then all that would be necessary would be to determine whether those conditions now existed, and where… and then start there.

If you would like to consider the possibility that we may already know more than we think we do about managing complete school systems effectively as they face dynamically changing conditions, please join us on this site in exploring the meanings the Convoy leadership metaphor may have for the systemic leadership of schools and other organizations through today’s “troubled waters.”


Comment from admin
Time March 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

In a March 21, 2009 comment he appended to this site’s “
Why is Sense-Making So Hard,” Leon Lessinger said:

Lew, I found this site to be a most useful one for leaders (and citizens in general) interested in exploring the vital issues that must be examined if real improvement and progress is to occur in education. I know it must be a “labor of love” on your part. I have high hopes for the value of this effort.
Best Wishes,
Leon Lessinger

I was happy to see that Leon was literally and figuratively a “first responder” — not only because we go “way back,” but because of similarities between his thinking and that of this site’s metaphorical host – Sabu.

As his career took him from the Superintendency of the San Mateo CA schools to the US Commissioner of Education for Elementary and Secondary Schools, this meant he was always accountable for the actions of “whole systems.” Therefore he always had to deal with (what we call on this site) the system leader’s Quantum Paradox. How can you be accountable for the “Forest” and responsible for the “Trees” at the same time?

The concept comes from science. In their search for a Unified Field Theory that scientists hope someday can explain the “connectedness of everything,” physicists, in particular, have been thwarted by a Quantum Paradox. The composition of light, for example, can be understood in terms of “particles” or “waves” — – but usually not at the same time.

And, as discussed on this site, that same perceptual constraint turns out to be the barrier to coherent, systemic educational change. The decisions and actions of Superintendents always have to deal simultaneously with the needs of the “particles” and the “waves” — “Forests” and the “Trees” — but they’ve lacked a way to think about it that can lead to actions.

The way-of-understanding the connectedness of everything in schooling — used by this site – is not offered as a new “mad science” (actually as you can see in “Mapping the Natural Territory”, it’s based on cognitive biology) but only as a different way to frame your understanding of how we don’t have to continue addressing the needs of the forest and the needs of the trees as either-or issues addressed separately.

A more recent and relevant example of a product of this type of thinking can be found in Lessinger’s 2002 Education Week Commentary — “Ending Chance In Classroom Teaching: Reliability in the Achievement of the Basics.”
I recommend reading it, not just because he makes the case for why “Reliability must be a standard expectation in education” but, more importantly, to offer an opportunity to think about why it isn’t.

Then, you might consider exploring the District experience documented on this site to see how they have been effectively addressing it.

As Lessinger notes:

“Reliability is what we can count on getting every time and not just by chance. We expect our cars to start every time. We expect airline maintenance to be perfect every time. We expect the physician to prescribe the right treatment every time. We want the bank to give us the right balance every time. Our expectations about service and product dependability are not always met, of course, but when they aren’t, we are motivated—sometimes passionately— to try to do something about it. This can become a standard expectation in education.

Many parents now don’t expect good teaching every time, or even from time to time. From experience, they know, if only intuitively, that luck or chance can rule in the quality of classroom teaching. Their fear is obvious when parents are interviewed when school opens. Parents worry about the teacher their child will get this time. They know that what a teacher knows and is able to do is the decisive factor in their child’s success.

What they may not know is that the management system the teacher works in is the crucial underwriter of the quality of that classroom teaching.”

What you may find in this site’s “Catching Them Doing Something Right” is the story of how a whole school district can accept responsibility for the “teaching process” and become accountable for what is, in effect, the development of an integrated learning management system to support all the roles and relationships quality teaching requires.

(In the interest of full disclosure, at one time Leon and I worked together in an Education Audit Institute which proposed to provide for school districts the type of “whole body” scans that MRI’s do today for people.)

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