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Part IV: Sharing the Pain

To start at the beginning of the 4-part article, go to Sharing the Pain: Drilling Beneath the 5th Why… and finding a tangled surprise.

The 3rd Root Cause: The Gap-Causing Gap

What I like about that metaphoric Sistine Chapel picture in Part II (The 1st Root Cause: The Quantum Paradox) is that while it illustrates two critical, and related, conditions that independently drive the nature and structure of the work of people-serving organizations… it also includes a third – an almost unnoticed disconnecting gap between them.

And it’s this gap that turns out to be largely responsible for today’s more familiar “gaps” in student achievement and organizational results that we hear so much about… and whose “closing” has become the primary strategic focus of most major reform efforts.

Critics often seem to expect that somehow policies will miraculously flow smoothly through a system to emerge as practices at the other end. (The late John Gardner termed this a “Penny Gumball Machine” belief — i.e., a coin inserted at the top produces gumballs at the bottom.) That they don’t may be attributed to this disconnecting gap between the purposes driving the daily actions of those at the system’s two ends. Some are accountable for what happens to all, others to each.

Usually we don’t have opportunities to think much about this each or all nature of the purposes to which daily decisions in school systems respond, especially when those who have to deal with the needs of each child and those who have to deal with needs of all of them work in relative isolation from each other.

As a result, the two fingers often seem to end up pointing at, and blaming, each other for limiting their ability to make a difference for “all” or for “each.” Listen to the battles over control of urban school systems today, or about the consequences of No Child Left Behind and note how system-fixing prescriptions usually seem to start with a blame-fixing blame diagnosis.

As a consequence, many of today’s arguments seem to meet the definition of an “autoimmune disease” where “either/or” battles between the parts of a system eventually destroy its actual “both/and” nature. For those committed to systemic reform, that’s the most serious consequence of this unnoticed gap.

Its unthinking acceptance as an unbridgeable divide with adversaries on each “side” means that, regardless of attempts to develop “systems thinking,” it effectively frustrates thought and action that can address the reality that the Sufi’s elephant is a pre-existing “given.” The both/and “system” that generates “results” is already there. It’s not a hoped-for “end,” but the only starting point for development.

• But, as I’ve noted, the negative consequences of that condition weren’t as evident in the district I was observing. There, the two hands might be perceived as reaching out for each other, “somehow” knowing the integral connection of their two purposes. (Deming once described the relationship as the answer to “Who do I need, and who needs me?”) As an example, while its neighbor, the DC Public Schools framed its reform battle as one between a teacher’s union and a superintendent who, alone, wanted what’s “best for children,” the three employee unions in MCPS were voting to give back some of their negotiated benefits to help the district survive the current economic crises that threatened all children.

• To better understand the 5th why of how this was happening, I returned to the Sufi – the ancient people whose parable “ The Blind Men and the Elephant” captures so well the holistic nature of the problem of organization-fixing. It turns out they had another saying that goes to the nature of the “blindness” of those whose understanding of the whole is comprised of the sum of its parts.

You think you understand one.
You think you understand two, because one and one make two.
But, you must also understand “and“.

Century’s later management researcher Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” would frustratingly discover the same thing.

“I’ll tell you the one thing I have been incredibly frustrated with, though. Probably the thing that …I’ve had to most hammer into people, what people don’t get as easily — is that the BTL ideas are very much about the “And.”

One of the things that really has frustrated me has been peoples’ perception that BTL is about preservation, conservation, stasis, stability. To be built to last, you have to be built to change.

…you have to preserve the core and stimulate progress. This requires an institutional set of processes that map to a very, very deep primal human distinction: our need to believe and our need to create.

…So, if you were to say what I have learned since Built To Last, it’s that people didn’t get the “and.”

Bridging Schooling’s “AND” Gap

To better understand the significance of this third factor for the systemic transformation of the work of all schools, lets look more closely at the “AND” gap’s present consequences for the work of schooling.

Caught between the pressures for personal and organizational accountability — one intrinsic, the other extrinsic — and not recognizing the nature of the condition constraining them — school practitioners have been forced into a form of organizational schizophrenia.

They find themselves functioning in two seemingly disconnected “systems.” One (a school and its classrooms) intended to meet the needs of each child, the other (usually a central office) to meet the needs of all. And the scope of these separate accountabilities affects the nature of what people in each system think they can do.

The only thing manageable seems to be to take conditions on a one-at-a-time or an either-or basis. Why? Because, on a practical level, we “know” we have neither the time nor resources to deal with them both simultaneously. Even though at some level we feel they are inseparable sides of the same problem, we still have trouble figuring out what to do about it — e.g., what has to happen within the organization to convert the “all-ness” of curriculum to the “each-ness” of instruction?

And curriculum and instruction isn’t the only issue where we face this either-or dilemma. It seems evident that it also affects the “problems” of:

  • content and/or process,
  • accountability and/or responsibility,

and most important in the end…

  • equity and/or excellence.

(For a fuller illustration of how the “AND” gap” results in school districts operating as if they were two disconnected systems see New Understanding: The Complementarity of Policy and Practice)

Seeing the gap

This site’s approach to rethinking the complexities of schooling — and its observations of a major school district dealing with them — are predicated on a simple principle and a simple tool.

The principle: What we DO is driven by what we THINK,
…what we think is shaped by what we BELIEVE and
…what we believe is rooted in our EXPERIENCE.

This is the intrinsic cycle that creates and sustains the “culture” we accept as just-the-way-it-is.

This principle changed the direction and nature of our why-asking search to understand the work the school system exists to support. The result: a back-mapping process that began with the regular experiences they’ve been building into the structure of work that appeared to have changed beliefs in ways that were leading to different ways of thinking …and then doing as a system. And, in particular, it provided a way to understand the value of new structures they developed to bridge the disconnecting, and disempowering, “gaps” in their work.

The tool: It’s hard to “believe” what we can’t “see.”

Alice’s Looking Glass” addresses the perceptual problem that creates gaps in understanding. We “see” people and not the areas between them that separate them in time and space. (That’s why we draw organization and flow charts as attempts to get our leadership minds and management hands around them.)

1. It offers a way to see the “ands” in terms of the common information-exchange nature of the work relationships they encompass. This way-of-seeing reframes and realigns the work of those individuals, and offers opportunities to rethink the relationships and roles that presently fill the gaps between them.

2. It can serve as a plot board for identifying where needed gap-spanning bridges need to be built

3. As a tool for understanding, it offers a simple theory of practice that seems to address an observation that has been attributed to both Einstein and Yogi Berra:

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.”

(See Making Sense Through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens and New Understanding: A needed Role map)

Spanning the gap

The most divisive effect of the “gap”-gap is its impact on the flow of continual information that needs to be exchanged in the work of managing learning (individual and organizational). “Bridging” it, however, is not simple. A new information system won’t do it, because ways to “construct” or “develop” connections from both its ends is required.

Permanently spanning the gap between the two “fingers” of Policy and Practice requires an organizational commitment that often depends upon “leaps” of faith by its leaders. Unfortunately, these seldom translate into sustainable structures for a school district’s work when the leaders change. To overcome that, regular structures are required that can engage and support everyone involved in the “work,” (including those of little faith.)

The lesson drawn from this district is that the needed “faith” develops from a shifting of trust in “leaders” to a trust in processes whose personal value people have experienced for themselves.

That’s why I’ve found “Scaffolding” to be a more appropriate term for understanding the structural significance of how this school system has been addressing this condition because it fit seems to fit both definitions of “Scaffold:”

1. a temporary structure for holding workman and materials during the repair of a permanent structure

2. In learning, a temporary support shoring up a new behavior that fades out as the new ways of acting become internalized and natural. For example, training wheels, or an adult running alongside, as a child learns to balance and ride a two-wheel bicycle.

This scaffolding infrastructure provides

  • a work setting where old beliefs can be challenged and the value of new beliefs experienced.
  • operational experiences from which new beliefs can be tested operationally, reinforced and develop into sustainable structures
  • Questions/problems that already engage people’s intrinsic problem-solving capacities can be built into the work process.
  • Development of their capacity to answer them in their own contexts within the system that can be supported through embedded training, access to information, and peer support.
  • means to address the requirement that one’s role in the system often may require skills and knowledge different from job skills.

Metaphorically, the “scaffolding” underlying this district’s work today adds a “method” to the previously-noted leadership insight and “simple rule” that “The success of the “wave” is a product of the natural “potentials” already embedded in each “particle.”

Their experiences demonstrate how mutual “success” of the “particles” and the “wave” can be a product of the manageable, sustainable structures built across this gap that release those potentials.

In future blog postings I’ll offer examples of what I’ve learned from how they are doing it. Among them:

  • How bridges between the Quantum nature of “Policies for ALL” and “Practices for EACH” accountabilities can be developed from collaborative problem-solving processes which create interactions that tap the powers of the embedded X-Factors.

In the meantime some of the ideas are more fully explored in the Scaffolding Strategy Memo (pdf) and at “Work as Knowledge-Creation and Management, …and the Mind as the Workplace” in Mapping the Natural Territory.

…“At the End of the Day”

The concept “At the End of the day….” has become a popular catch phrase for describing results that ultimately will make current efforts worthwhile. It hopefully answers why they are worth doing.

At the end of Sabu’s day these postings digging down to the 5th Why will have little value if they can’t contribute needed understanding back up on the surface where daily battles that are the consequences of the quantum “particle and wave” condition continue to be fought on top of the bodies (and minds) of children, teachers, principals and superintendents in today’s schools.

And where major national plans to do something about them appear headed for the same non-sustainable fate as four decades of their predecessors.

Hopefully, some may find insights useful for their own rethinking of their “part” of the school system ”elephant” and its current survival needs. But the most critical re-thinkers are those who have already made “end-of-the-day” commitments to visions that offer promises…but without realistic pathways.

The most important is President Obama. At the end of the day he has promised that the short and long term results of the needed $100 billion Stimulus Package will stimulate a “rethinking of education” out of which can emerge a “New Vision for a 21st Century Educational System.”

But apparently, the re-thinking he is calling for will come only after stimulus funds are spent supporting, scaling up, and better understanding what works “innovations.” Good ideas that in the past – because of the Quantum Paradox – may have worked… but not for long.

But does that rethinking really to wait?

The learnings captured on this site suggest a counter-inter-intuitive alternative. A strategy for rethinking What Works Systemically that can produce meaningful initial products that can enable the Obama/Duncan” “Rethinking 21st Century Educational System” strategy to run in parallel with the initial roll-out of the stimulus funding, and produce mutual learning exchanges as they go.

If you are interested in what that looks like and then may have ideas to add to it, let me know and I’ll post it on the Sabusense blog.

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