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Catching them doing something right

You can see an awful lot by watching” – Yogi Berra

A “Worker-Lurker” Learner

Through the confluence of a number of disconnected [1] events in 1998 I had a unique opportunity to play a role as an embedded learner in a major US school system as it began an unique journey of inside-out transformation.

In 1998 the Montgomery County MD Public Schools (MCPS) hired a new superintendent. (I reside in that community.)  Among his first major actions was the convening of a multi-dimensional planning group involving both internal and external stakeholders who were charged to develop a Call to Action that would subsequently serve as the framework for the next twelve years of strategic and operational planning.

I had recently retired the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) but my work with the National Alliance for Business’ Baldrige-in-Education project and the AASA’s Quality Schools Network led to a role for me on the planning team.  Here, the values of the embedded “lens” I brought to the task began to surface in my contributions to the thinking that began to shape the work.  Afterwards, I was asked to continue to capture what I was “seeing”’ through it in 20,000 ft. Memos to some of the senior staff.

I didn’t immediately realize at the time that I was taking on a feedback role that was different from anything I had ever seen or personally experienced in education or research.  We sometimes would refer to it as a worker/lurker, but more accurately it was as thinking partner.  It was a role that depended upon trust, and some degree of confidentiality, to maintain it and which as I discovered, because it was atypical was hard to explain to others.

Soon, the superintendent invited me to sit in on his executive and leadership team meetings as well as any others I found relevant. Since that time, my 20,000 ft. thinking partner role has occasionally extended to Board members, union presidents, Business Roundtable members, and staff throughout the central office.  The continuing value of my thoughts, I believe, came from their roots a different way-of-seeing and understanding what was happening as the district did its “business.”  Generated by the picture it offered of how the common principles underlying both the individual’s and the systems work, it added new meaning to the “white spaces” between the boxes on the organization chart.  For me, it offered a way to catch them doing something right…systemically. For them, it seemed to offer an opportunity to think about the critical issues they were working on from a different perspective.

Many of those 20,000 ft. products are embedded throughout this website.

In that role, I soon found that the lens offered a way for me to watch simultaneously what they were learning and how they were learning it as individuals and as a system. Then to use it as a criterion to back map or dig down to ask why it was happening here, and how other school systems could generate the same types of learning?

Of most value, I found, was that it enabled me to “catch them doing something right.” [2]

And although I started out thinking I was catching them doing something “right” in terms of the perspective my “lens” offered, I found it more important to recognize that I was “catching them doing something natural.”  These were things that the individually-embedded OS (Operating System) of the brain were driving.  Things that people “wanted” to do because of a potential to have an “effect” and/or “make a difference.” And which tapped their capacity to continually self-adjust based on the degree of their success.

Then I began to notice that when these natural inclinations were aligned organizationally, the system was demonstrating the same characteristics.  It was a natural “whole — an organization that “wanted” to have its intended “effects/results” — to make a difference for all children.  And which was developing ways to continually improve its capacity to do it.

Understanding the “Territory” backwards

John Dewey wrote:

“really great theory should always be embedded in practice. It should focus on the most challenging difficulties that people are encountering in practical settings. And it has to be tested by the extent to which it actually offers people’s effectiveness in those practical settings.”

Throughout my career working for foundation and government-supported  educational improvement initiatives focusing on research, development and dissemination, I sought to understand practices through theories that seem to explain them and answer “why” they should work.  Instead, I now found myself using the different way-of-thinking the lens supported to turn that learning process around and use practice to understand better the “why?” of theories.  Specifically to explore through this different lens a twelve-year base of on-the-ground, increasingly effective systemic practices whose effects knowledgeable outside observers had deemed “miraculous” in their scope, nature, and capacity to improve achievement for all children. [3]

These outside groups with a common interest in systemic reform had recognized that something unexpected was happening in this district and soon engaged in documenting MCPS’ what’s and how’s with the intention of distilling the principles that have made these possible so this “knowledge” could be transferred to others with similar and even more pressing needs.

For that purpose, they have produced significant case studies, and benchmark reports that have effectively captured the what’s and how’s (several of these can be found under “Resources) … but when recommending what others needed to do, something seemed to be missing.  They had yet to find a “Why” — a theory that made coherent sense of those “What’s” and “How’s.” They were “benchmarking” everything except how they think…and why they think that way…and then how they were embedding that way-of-thinking in the culture of their work from classroom to boardroom.

I wondered what also might be found about leadership’s role  by “understanding backwards” – back-mapping from the acknowledged “new and better individual and  organizational behaviors” to the thinking that supported them? Then, to  the experiences from which that different thinking developed? Who or what was providing those experiences… and why?  What then might we learn about what’s different about the system leader’s role?

Some of the answers to those questions can be found in the story of the Montgomery County MD Public Schools woven throughout this site.  It is purposefully a case-story, not a case-study — an approach dictated by what I’ve learned about why “What-Work”s case studies are seldom replicated and scaled up, as well as by the role that stories can play in transferring knowledge.

(A general story of what I was “seeing” and learning as a consequence of asking those questions can be found in an article “Systemic Learning and Acting: An up-close observer finds a Maryland school district behaving as if were a system.”   Interestingly, its working title was “If the organization is the learner, who is the teacher?)

The “Products” of Understanding Backwards

As new understandings began to develop they brought with them new questions.  Some of then were “old” question’s that always made theoretical sense but were seldom asked because of beliefs that there were few practical answers.  Now these question could be raised again informed by the knowledge that practical systemic answers were emerging from the 12-year journey of the school system.

They are presented in several forms that support the purpose of this website.  –

  • WHAT CAN BE SEEN…AND LEARNED? – focuses on specific insights  and learnings from that process that may make new “sense” of those mind-numbing paradoxes that currently serve as the oppressive context for school leadership and management.
  • WHAT WOULD ____ SEE? – compares the “doing something systemically right” picture as filtered through the simple rules or principles  ground into the lens, with the body of principles developed by observers of effective organizations such as Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Peter Senge, Russell Ackoff, Deming, Michael Fullan,  and others.  We will explore how this school district’s on-the-ground practices fit the theories of those whose thinking is grounded in a common belief — they “know” that organizations already are systems  of purposeful people.
  • WHAT HAVE OTHERS SEEN? – Documents and reports from formal research organizations, outside observers and others.

These formats are proposed as seeds for re-thinking.  The learning and thinking products accessible here are intended to be the catalysts for the continued thinking and learning dialogues that the website will support through blogged discussions.

Some caveats about this approach and format.
•  I’ve tried to de-personalize the MCPS story as much as possible. For example, in some of the 20,000 Ft. Memos names have been blanked out.  And obviously, the superintendent we refer to here does have a name – Jerry Weast.

My rationale, however, was to avoid contributing to the “great man (or woman)” theory of leadership that has been one of the barriers to understanding the role of leadership in a system regardless of leader’s personal characteristics.  And, apart from cloning, makes it hard to find exact replacements that can sustain the system

But then how do you think about leadership without dealing with the person — the leader?  Especially when what a leader does is the primary “data” we have to judge his/her leadership?

The approach here, facilitated by the lens described in Making Sense through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens, has been to understand these actions as a product of his/her thinking, and that this type of thinking is a product of meaningful experiences that proved its value for their personal effectiveness..

This perspective also can lead to understanding new areas or requirements for leadership development.  For example, the nature of contexts for providing these meaningful experiences, and how you create and tap them.

•    Nevertheless, this district’s leadership at all levels obviously has produced results of a scale and nature that keeps attracting national attention… and most recently awards.  Within the same month it was a finalist for the Broad Prize in Urban Education, and national winner of the Baldrige Award for Performance Excellence in Education.

Before that they were studied and reported on by foundations such as Gates, Stupski, Panasonic.  Several of their effective processes have been benchmarked by APQC; and documented in Baldrige feedback Reports.  And they have been called upon to share information about them at state and national conferences of Boards, administrators, teachers, and researchers. In this site’s Resource area you can find links to several of these foundation reports.

Clearly, what they’ve been doing is significant, and, as a case-story, its impossible for the information this site attempts to provide to be complete.  But there are solid “icebergs” beneath the “tips” exposed here that can offer that illumination.

The richest information, however can be found in the artifacts and communication vehicles developed by the district itself.  Some are linked here, and much more may be accessible through the district’s website. <>

Using this as a portal you can find:
•    webcasts of Board meetings, press conferences and other significant public events where many of the strategies, processes, and initiatives are described and discussed.
•    cable television programs that regularly portray the work of the schools:
Our Schools Today,
Take Ten,

•    In-house publications about specific research or programs
•    Artifacts and training materials developed for their own use.

Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.” – Einstein


[1] Unless one believes in synchronicity

[2] In “child” development there’s a core principle of “catching them doing something right” …and then using these positive assets as the natural base from which to launch engaged learning.  When applied to “organizational” development it’s called appreciative inquiry, and similarly uses an organization’s strengths as the intrinsic base for change.  Unfortunately, until now society has had trouble figuring out how to translate this assets-based approach to natural growth and development of individuals and organizations into the everyday operational processes that become the ways-we-do-business.

[3] Among them, the Gates, Stupski, and Panasonic foundations, APQC and the Harvard Schools of Business and Education.

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