Cut it to your core and concentrate on clarity

Rob Evans spoke of taking things off of our plates before adding more on. Gary Hamel introduced the notion of core competencies. And Greg McKeown gave us the clarity paradox.

“the clarity paradox,” … can be summed up in four predictable phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success. 
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities. 
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts. 
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

– from “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” Harvard Business Review, August 8, 2012.

It’s a fundamental principal of design, too. Take away all that is non-essential. Reduce until you cannot reduce any more. Then, the best will remain. When I think of this principal, I think of a sculptor reducing a block of marble to the essential remains – I see something like Michelangelo’s David. In fact, now that I think of it, the content of the statue points strongly to the lesson, as well – a small boy with only a sling defeating an enormous giant.

One way in which a school can achieve systemic unity and cohesive pedagogical architecture – don’t add so much to your plate…know your core competency…maintain your clarity of purpose…strip away the stone to reveal the statue…master the sling and know your creator instead of carrying too many weapons and weighing yourself down with too much proudly worn armor.

4 thoughts on “Cut it to your core and concentrate on clarity

  1. I dig it, Bo.

    I just wish more school leaders did, too.

    For whatever reason, we continue to add layers and layers of crap onto our core missions and visions — which results in stretching ourselves to the point where we do nothing well.

    As a teacher, I feel that acutely because I’m charged with trying to implement everyone else’s crazy plans — and criticized for not working hard enough when those plans fail.

    Essentially, there’s a HUGE gap between the dreamers and doers in schools — and unfortunately, the dreamers have the organizational juice. That leaves us with impossible settings that struggle.


    Anyway…thanks for making me think…

    • Bill,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree completely. I am not intending to say that we have to strip things to the minimalistic bones. I do believe that a school has a sweet spot relative to what it offers and what it does. This sweet spot should be mutually determined in a Web 2.0 and 3.0 world. This is why I am exploring thought and writing about practices that empower more of an organization to determine the work done. I am fascinated by such examples as Rite Solutions, Gore-Tex, Morningstar, etc. I am not advocating for schools to run just like corporations. Instead, I am looking for examples from which we can learn – examples like the “mutual fun” of Rite Solutions in which the employees determine the core projects on which the company will work. From what I am reading and researching, this creates more of a WE, instead of an US and THEM. The dreamers and the doers can be a part of one unified team, if we attend carefully to the practices and cultures that will nurture and nourish such.

      Thanks for making me think.


  2. Enjoyed this, Bo: It immediately called to mind that critical moment in Isaccson’s Steve Jobs, when Jobs returns to Apple after his years in the wilderness, and put up a simple four box grid on the white-board: laptop/desktop, consumer/professional. We are only going to make/sell four computers, he explained, and while at first they thought he was crazy, it proved entirely successful.

    That said, and maybe this is my weakness (one of many): I just don’t always want to accept the Evans “take something off when you put something on,” or Basset’s sunset every time you sunrise recommendations. It may be more disciplined to practice a better either/or decision-making, but often I don’t want to be boxed in or narrowed down: I want the both/and, I want it all.

    I love the play on the word “principle:” as a school-leader, I too aspire to be a “principal of design.” But I’m never going to want to reduce until I can’t reduce any more. I think we need to improve the value proposition for kids, offering them more opportunities and more programs, while helping them make great choices and exercise good decision-making discipline.

    • Jonathan,

      I want the “both/and” too. I love both/and thinking and solutions. However, I do NOT want it ALL at one school. The unintended consequences are too great. The theory sounds nice, but the reality whittles away at doing good work. I don’t think a single school can be all things to all people. Too many diverse interests. There are other places to satisfy certain interests. For instance, using sports literally and metaphorically, I think a school that has 60 sports teams, in 12 sorts, might not be able to support 70 teams in 15 sports. I don’t mean that the school should strip it down to 10 teams in 2 sports. That would be crazy. However, when we add too much to the margins, we get less able to support each add with the same excellence and core competencies.

      And, ironically, many schools are more purposeful about this dynamic in athletics than we are in academics. The economic concepts of comparative advantage and absolute advantage have bearing in schools. Yet, we often find ourselves in conflict – our hearts want to provide the perfect niches for each and every student. But we stretch the “market” to breaking when we try to have absolute advantage in all things. In this New Culture of Learning, I believe we must pay even more attention to this issue. Because people can access their interests in virtual form, through distance learning, schools may have to be even more careful not to add, add, add.

      Where is the balance? By reducing until I cannot reduce any more, I mean to find the balance…NOT to be minimalistic and scarcity seeking. Just balance.

      Thanks for helping me think through this.

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