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Part II: Sharing the Pain

The 1st Root Cause: The Quantum Paradox

(see New Understanding: The Complementarity of Policy and Practice),

While the characterization of the paradox’s nature as “Quantum” comes from science, the situation, as the modified Sistine Chapel metaphor, below, suggests shows up earlier.


It’s a tension that, over the ages, has been “felt” more than understood. That may be why we find it more easily expressed through metaphors and art such as the story of the “Blind Men and the Elephant;” or the Forest and Trees metaphor. In more recent times, Quantum Physicists introduced us to another example — the “wave-particle” duality of matter.

Light, for example, has properties of both particles and waves, which can lead to use of two different models to study and make sense of it as one or the other. Which one is used to frame understanding usually depends on the purposes and tools of the observer. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to get a handle on its actual both-at-the-same-time nature.

Nevertheless, if the task is to harness the power of light, that actual both/and nature has to be tapped. To do that, however, it first has to be acknowledged, and this can be difficult for those of us accustomed to the benefits of simple answers found within either/or mindsets.

  • As the above Sistine ceiling metaphorically suggests, organizational behavior, too, has this Quantum dual property condition. Tangibly, we find the effects of this perceptual disability surfacing regularly in the pendulum swings between “centralization” and “decentralization” in organizations. And in education today it is at the root of the battles for “control” of urban schools districts, and the drive for curriculum standards and testing for All without dealing with their effects on instructional processes for Each.
  • To find out whether we may be like physicists before Quantum theory, we might ask:

Do our “models” for understanding schooling focus either on the organizational “wave” or on actions of individual people – “particles?”

Do we see a school system’s behavior as a “sum” of individual actions, or a “product” that is the systemic consequence of all of them together?

Do we have a way to think about them together in terms of their both/and condition in reality? (See New Understanding: A needed Role map) That needed way-of-thinking is addressed on this site by the “lens” we’ve called Alice’s Looking Glass. (Welcome Alice!) One relevant leadership insight offered by its both/and dual perspective is the “simple rule:”

The success of the “wave” is a product of the natural “potentials” already embedded in each “particle.”

Actually I like the Forest and Trees metaphor for this condition better than quantum physics’ particles and waves because it deals with a living system of living systems. (Maybe that’s why I’m personally enamored with the Sufi Elephant fable that captures so well the parts/whole organization-seeing dilemma in its final lines –

“…And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long.
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right…
they all were in the wrong.”

Peter Senge grasped the nature of this perceptual paradox when he noted that “when we try to ‘step back far enough to ‘see the forest for the trees”’…most of us unfortunately just see “lots of trees.” But then, in “The Art of Seeing the Forest and the Trees,” he suggested how to deal with the condition in ways that also might be used to characterize this site’s approach to what’s been called the seeming everything’s-connected-to-everything-else nature of schooling:

“…the art lies in seeing through the complexity to the underlying structures generating change.

…it means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the cause of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways. …

What we most need are ways to know what is important and what is not important, what variables to focus on and which to pay less attention to.”

That’s why this site’s approach to untangling and “organizing complexity” offers a core level of knowledge that focuses on the forests’ and trees’ common “root”…an X-Factor – the common “underlying structures generating change” that are already embedded in the brain. (see Part III: Sharing the Pain)

Sharing the Pain

Drilling beneath the 5th Why?
…and finding a tangled surprise

When things don’t work out the way we expect them to, a natural response is to ask WHY? Answers that seem to make sense then usually determine what we decide to do about it.

But today there seems to be a fundamental problem with the commonsense answers offered for why American schools need to be fixed. Among the most popular seem to be: There are no “standards.” Teachers aren’t well-prepared. Educators don’t want to change. Administrators are too controlling. There isn’t enough research about “What Works,” There isn’t enough time in the school day/year. Classes are too large. Unions don’t care about the kids,” etc.

Yet after decades of concerted foundation and government actions aimed at fixing these logical “causes” for why effective learning and teaching was not happening in every classroom… nothing is significantly different. What can be proven to work for some, apparently can’t be supported and sustained for all. WHY? How can that be? Educators, corporate, foundation and government executives aren’t dumb. They’re probably more familiar with schools than any other organization in society because, like most of us, their understanding is based on personal experiences as its veterans and/or victims.

Asking Why?
One of this site’s premises is that the way we ask a question affects the answers. Therefore, to take the focus off initially-assumed answers, we’ve often turned to Japanese management’s 5 Why? questioning approach to problem-solving. Its intriguing promise was that it could lead us through tangled layers of a problem’s “effects” to its actual “root cause.” Then, with a better sense of the connections between a problem’s visible “symptoms” and the “disease” itself, we might better understand why attempts to scale up solutions to “symptoms” in the end fail to cure the core systemic problem.

The 5 Why? process, in effect, backmaps cause & effect thinking.

  • It starts from evidence of the immediate problem condition and its effects. What we accept as their immediate causes becomes the answer to the 1st Why?
  • But those “causes” usually are the “effects” of other causes further upstream. What caused them is the answer to the 2nd Why?
  • This iterative questioning process continues until reaching the 5th Why? which usually reveals a “simple” condition (much like Complexity theory’s Simple Rules concept) whose rippling consequences eventually create the original downstream problems.

I’ve always liked the process because of the learning ah-ha’s it evoked. In fact the concept for this Sabusense website emerged from a “Thoughtpiece” developed for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne’s In2:InThinking Enterprise Thinking network. It was titled: “In Search of the 5th WHY?– A learning journey that started with a different map, …and ended up uncovering a territory that our “thinking maps” weren’t capturing.”

But his time it wasn’t that simple. At the 5th Why? I found an unexpected surprise….
When I got to what I felt was the “simple” root cause of the complex problems schools face today (see Why is Sense-Making so Hard?), I found instead two entangled roots — twisted and turned like the above DNA double helix — at once divided and connected, separate and in concert.

And then, to make it worse, the clue to their unraveling was concealed between them. It turned out to be a third factor that offered the potential to untwist and free up the natural power inherent in each “root.”

Unfortunately, their entanglement also seemed to be the source for much of the cognitive “pain” referred to in the Surgeon General’s Warning. I’m sharing some of that pain here because this condition creates a problem not only for understanding the work of schools but because, as with DNA., these “roots” actually are the only source for maintaining the system’s sustainable growth.

And apparently I wasn’t the first to uncover this. Separated by millennia, both current management guru Jim Collins and the ancient Sufi had discovered its unique power. And the school district I was observing seemed to be intuitively tapping its potentials to create a coherent, sustainable system.

That’s why I believe that, at the end of the day, the product of their “above-ground” experiences in governing, leading, managing and functioning as a connected system can offer significant lessons for those in policy, practice and research who struggle to get their mind’s and hands around the problems of sustainable systemic reform.

For me, what can be learned from this school system’s approach to reconnecting its work so it could function as an integrated learning management system can be the most important take-away learning. To support that belief I intend for this site to serve your needs to understand its meaning for you. So, operating from the belief of No pain/No gain, I’ll use the next several postings to attempt some initial untangling, open it for your thoughts, and then fill in details in response to what seems to make sense to you.

The first root cause I call the Quantum Paradox (see Part II: Sharing the Pain); the second, the X-Factor (see Part III: Sharing the Pain). The third root cause, which because of its nature I didn’t notice at first, I’ll refer to as: The Gap-Causing Gap (see Part IV: Sharing the Pain).

System Leadership

pushing-eleph002smIf you’re a Superintendent, CEO, or other system leader,  Sabu feels your pain.

Why  does “leading” a total system have to be so hard?

For a different way of thinking about it see “Kids, horses, teachers, …and other living things” at Monty Roberts and Natural Learning.
You may be familiar with Monty Roberts because of his revolutionary work with horses, but today he spends much his time doing teacher and leadership training for schools, and management training for business and industry.

Possibly because of the novel and movie by the name, many people refer to him as a “horse whisperer.”  But note that the actual title of this book refers to a Horse LISTENER — “The Man Who Listens to Horses.”

Some things to consider about the relevance of his way-of-thinking to your work :

•    The difference between “talking” and “listening”  is the real power of what Roberts’ work means for all of us who attempt to influence behaviors of living systems.  How much of teaching and leading is “talking” and how much is “listening?”  Think of the teachers who most influenced you.  Was it the content they delivered or what they seemed to understand about you?  And how are the two “teaching/leading skills” connected?

•    Note that the key to Roberts’ success as a “teacher” was that first he listened and found out what the horses could tell him about how they learned.  Roberts’ knew he was always dealing with a “whole horse” — that had a mind of its own.  And because he had figured out its learning process, he knew “what it wanted“or needed.

By going with the flow of the process already pre-wired in the brain he proved that changed behaviors can be effective, sustainable, and accomplished in far less time (from three-months down to 30 minutes) than any of the traditional way’s people have used to teach [or “break”] horses.

•    How does his Join-up process –(first engage, and establish trust; then use that trust to interact; and out of this interaction begin to develop an intrinsically-driven relationship that is the support of all “work” that may follow) — compare to what you know about effective teaching, coaching and leading?

•    How does his “simple” logic of starting with the learner you have (and its already embedded learning structure), reinforcing it, and using that capacity to develop what you don’t have relate to the beliefs and strategies underlying other effective approaches to individual and organizational improvement?

For instance, what seems to be similar about “developmentally-appropriate education” for children,  “Appreciative Inquiry” for organizations,” and Assets-based Community Development?

•    How does this approach to intrinsically-driven change relate to the “change”  goal of continual improvement?

Right Clothes, Wrong Emperor!

A week doesn’t go by that I don’t read or hear a criticism about schools that, to its originator, makes sense. I’m sure the writer or speaker is as frustrated as I am about the conditions that education must respond to today, but more frustrating to me is the nature of their frustration.

In fact, I sometimes feel as the boy must have in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who was ignored when he told the truth about what he saw — specifically that there was no “there” there.

As I recall the fable, the Emperor was provided with imaginary clothes and, through peer pressure, made to believe that they were real. Other people went along with it because the Emperor was not necessarily a fool. After all, vivid descriptions of the clothes had been provided by “expert” tailors. They wouldn’t lie. And, moreover, the Emperor had seen pictures or read descriptions of how they looked on others in “What Works” catalogues.

But for me, here’s where that metaphor stops, and my frustration increases. Today, we have many new practices intended to clothe our “barren” schools. The “clothes” are real. They work, and many who have tried on the separate pieces have recognized their value. But this time, there’s no Emperor!

More exactly, the scope and nature of the connected, whole “body” the clothes are designed to fit is not the structure most of the clothing designers have assumed it is.

Beliefs about the school system, the presumed structure serving as the mannequin for effective practices, are proving to be false as we learn more about how people learn and work.

We’ve been using a picture drawn from assumptions of why and how organization’s work [or should work].  From these assumptions we’ve drawn the “body” in pyramid-shaped charts that seem useful for deploying resources, but which strangely never portray how the organization’s work gets done.

If you’re interested in how this could have happened check out Right Clothes, Wrong Emperor (2000), and for deeper understanding Mapping the Natural Territory.

And if you are concerned more with reality than metaphors, check out Making Sense Through a Systemic leadership and Management Lens. Then think about today’s frustrated “tailors” of new practices — foundations, policymakers, corporate CEO’s. Note how they have continued to hit the wall of non-sustainability and downshifted from “system” change to fixing its parts. Could they be applying the “clothes” of sound learning practices to an assumed structure that exists only on paper organizational charts?

What would it look like if their change strategies were driven by schools’ natural systems of work? Catching them doing something right.

This site’s purpose is to help question these assumptions so that school systems can support the work of natural learners — both children and adults. In future postings we will specifically address how this can be applied to

(1) President Obama’s strategy for “rethinking education” to produce a “New Vision for a 21st Century Educational System.” And

(2) a unique role certain corporate CEO’s can play in facilitating it.

Copernicus’ Curse and Galileo’s Pain

For years I’ve admired Copernicus, history’s most important paradigm-shifter.  In fact I put him on the cover of the video I developed for AASA in 1995, and felt pleased when Meg Wheatley commented that it “gets people to start their thinking at a deeper level. So they don’t end up tinkering.”


At the time, I chose to ignore “the rest of his story” dealing with how hard it had been for his mathematical proof that the maps were not the territory to standup against the common sense view of a sun, stars and planets circling the earth that everyone could see every day.  And I soon resonated with what I thought of as the Copernican Curse –having to live with a world that denied what he “knew” to be true because he had a theory to prove it.

GalileoBut today I find Galileo’s grief more familiar.

With his telescope as lens, he offered a direct way of seeing the truth of Copernicus’ theory.

And in words Brecht provides him, he bemoans:

“What has been seen, cannot be unseen.”

Over time, I’ve found out what “Cannot be unseen” really means when it becomes your default mental model – one that’s now embedded as fact not theory.

The good news was that as Alice’s Looking Glass became my natural way-of-seeing and understanding, it enabled me to ask “different questions,” and also to see, first why some schools “different answers” were working; and then, how many of those answers were interdependent and connected.

But, as I learned, those who could not “see” those sense-making connections had trouble understanding how these “answers” related to the “larger” (and inter-connected) problems they were dealing with.

That’s why if any of the ideas on this site evoke any of the “head-hurting” pain referred to in the Surgeon General’s Warning on the right side of the Home page, you may find comfort in knowing that you are in the good company of Copernicus and Galileo.

…But also will experience the discomforting awareness that we don’t have 400-500 years for the “truth” of the simple rules that we are suggesting drive education’s seeming-complexities to be accepted.

That’s why I’m hoping I can use this site to “share the pain” – and then together through our interaction we might think of ways to stop triaging its symptoms, and begin to address its root causes.

So in the postings that will follow, expect some “head-hurting” as we begin to explore the

•    Quantum Paradox that leaders face as they try to address simultaneously the needs of all (the whole) and each (the parts) in their singular decisions.

•    The difference between “Teachers” and the “Teaching Process.

And particularly in terms of present attempts to — “in the end” — have a “Quality Teacher” in every classroom.  Is it possible that a district can ensure a “Quality Teaching Process” in every classroom from which quality teachers can develop? (see also Teachers As Teaching:  Person or Process?)

The “Job”/”Role” paradox – in which a teacher who is being held accountable for doing his/her “job” cannot perform the “roles” that the system must have in every classroom.   What happens when a non-systemic understanding of “job” requirements creates conditions that erode the time, trust and information a role requires?  And how it can be addressed.

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.”

Welcome Alice!

Alice in Wonderland

Possibly forgotten by many who only know Alice from her “Adventures in Wonderland” is that her learning adventures didn’t end there.

Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll in 1871 wrote a sequel — Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

This time, instead of falling through a rabbit hole to find a world where many of the truths of the real world took on different forms, Carroll used a mirror as a portal through which he could present a different view of reality – one that also could expose truths that weren’t obvious before.

Carroll wasn’t the only one to recognize that the way we see profoundly influences the way we think because it directly shapes what we believe.  Others have addressed the same thinking problem… in the same way.

“To raise new questions, new possibilities,
to regard old problems from a new angle
… marks real advances in science.” –
Albert Einstein

“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” – Henry Miller

“Opportunities to do new exciting, rewarding things are all around us
… but if we don’t look for them we don’t see them
…and if we don’t see them then its as if they never existed.
They only come into being when we see them.”

– David Gurteen, Knowledge Educator

“…America already knows enough to fundamentally change the ways schools function.
The problem, instead, … is that our society needs to look at its schools through a different lens.  …Without a sense of the whole, we end up with what has become a familiar cycle of patchwork improvement and disappointmen
Using What We Have to Get the Schools We Need:
A Productivity Focus for American Education,
The Consortium on Productivity in the Schools, 1996.

“And today that “familiar cycle of patchwork improvement and disappointment” seems to have become part of the accepted culture.  Even President Obama’s principal education advisor, Linda Darling-Hammond,  sees it as

“a kind of Alice in Wonderland world in which people ultimately begin to nod blithely at the inevitability of incompatible events — a world in which educators cease to try to make sense of their environment for themselves as professionals or for their students.
They have to explain the procedures and policies that students encounter only in terms of what some faceless, external, and presumably non-rational “they” say we have to do.”

This is why this site is purposefully structured around a different portal or window (referred to here as a “lens”) that, like Alice’s Looking Glass, surfaces and reveals a level of system-connectedness that can raise different questions and then point to potential answers already “in the room.”

In particular, it will be used to observe a specific “room” – a 140,000-student school district – producing systemic “results” that researchers and foundations can “see”, and continue to label “unexpected” and “miracles.”  Through it you may see unfold a story of how the learning community that is today producing those results required first a way to deal with another reality — they already were a community of learners.  Individuals, at all levels, whose work had lacked ways to continually, feed and tap into that natural process.

The context, nature and scientific grounding of that lens can be found embedded beneath the “buttons” on the Home page. For shorthand purposes in future blog postings, the specific tool at– Making Sense Through a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens — we will just call “Alice’s Looking Glass.

As the Surgeon General’s Warning semi-humorously suggests, thinking about what we may not usually think about isn’t always easy… and may make one’s “head hurt.”  Because the nature of this website’s content may appear to challenge prevailing assumptions and beliefs, we’ve addressed that condition in two ways:  through use of metaphors and analogies, and application of the principle of “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” (See Making Sense through Metaphors)

Furthermore, the information included at this site is based on two beliefs:

(1) That it is at this level where we’ll find the already embedded roots of natural “dot-connecting” answers to the complex problems that schools face today.[2] and

(2) Our belief is that the “answers” that grow from those natural roots will be the products of asking different questions.

In structuring this website’s question-asking purpose and approach we’ve chosen a Blog format to support the mutual learning interactions required to make this a true thinking partnership.

…and we look forward to your participation.

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Einstein


[1]   Actually I had described it in a US Dept. of Education report – The Communication of Experience: A Guidebook for the Management of Information in the 1980’s and used it as part of training for the Teacher Corps.

[2] And while this may seem to be a helpful way to address a perceptual condition, its scientific base can be found in the biology of cognition as articulated by Humberto Maturana.  To better understand its value, see: “An Introduction to Maturana’s Biology” by Lloyd Fell and David Russell and “Maturana’s Biology and Some Possible Implications for Education” by Joy Murray. Both in Seized by Agreement, Swamped by Understanding, Lloyd Fell, David Russell & Alan Stewart (eds)