Orchestrating Conflict, Developing Experiments…and Carving Butter: Adaptive Leadership #PBL Ponderings

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern. (Michalko, 2011)

So, how do we get the water to flow in a different pattern on the surface of the butter? Perhaps we need to “orchestrate conflict and develop experiments.” (Creelman, 2009) [See “PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution“]

In the metaphor of the hot water and butter, perhaps a leader can use some prototype of dams and locks to re-channel the water into new patterns. Perhaps, the surface of the butter could be shaved smooth for a new pattern to form with the next cup of hot water. Regardless, conflict orchestrated on the system is necessary to affect the pattern and flow of the water on the butter.

Scientists used to believe that the brain became “hardwired” early in life and couldn’t change later on. Now researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, say that the brain’s ability to change — its “plasticity” — is lifelong. If we can change, then why don’t we?  [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

Merzenich starts by talking about rats. You can train a rat to have a new skill. The rat solves a puzzle, and you give it a food reward. After 100 times, the rat can solve the puzzle flawlessly. After 200 times, it can remember how to solve it for nearly its lifetime. The rat has developed a habit. [Also see William James Talks on Teaching re: habit] It can perform the task automatically because its brain has changed. Similarly, a person has thousands of habits — such as how to use a pen — that drive lasting changes in the brain. For highly trained specialists, such as professional musicians, the changes actually show up on MRI scans. Flute players, for instance, have especially large representations in their brains in the areas that control the fingers, tongue, and lips, Merzenich says. “They’ve distorted their brains.” [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

Businesspeople, like flutists, are highly trained specialists, and they’ve distorted their brains, too. An older executive “has powers that a young person walking in the door doesn’t have,” says Merzenich. He has lots of specialized skills and abilities. A specialist is a hard thing to create, and is valuable for a corporation, obviously, but specialization also instills an inherent “rigidity.” The cumulative weight of experience makes it harder to change.

How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain’s machinery for learning. (Deutchman, 2007)

Then, with the nature of change in the world today, adaptive leadership becomes a necessity, not a luxury. How might a school leader, working in earnest to guide the change happening in schools, orchestrate the conflict that could keep up a faculty’s collective brain machinery for learning?

If a school leader pays attention to the wider educational environment, then he or she would know that PBL (Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Place-Based Learning, etc.) is a powerful trend and force in schooling for the future. But what if the school leader does not possess the personal knowledge capacity for PBL? How might he or she expect to lead such an exploration and R&D effort at his or her school? She could turn to her orchestra and scientists – the creators that we call teachers and students.

Idea #1

In Creative Thinkering, Michalko related a story about Rite-Solutions:

Rite-Solutions combined the architecture of the stock exchange with the architecture of an in-house company stock market and created a stock market for ideas. The company’s internal exchange is called Mutual Fun [love the name!]. In this private exchange, any employee can offer a proposal to create a new product or spin-off, to solve a problem, to acquire new technologies or companies and so on. These proposals become stocks and are given ticker symbols identifying the proposals.

As reported in the New York Times, “Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description – called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus – and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in ‘opinion money’ to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock or volunteering to work on the project.”

The result has been a resounding success. (Michalko, 2011)

Schools could totally do this! I can completely imagine a faculty being empowered to select the most exciting projects through “price bidding” and implementing the experiments together. Could such an approach even resolve some of the issues with the current stick of butter…school system, I mean? Would the decisions about what PBL to implement feel less top-down and more grassroots? Would the mental framing of such a process cause a fun, game like psychology? Would it unify and thread the projects through the different disciplines and departments? Don’t you think it’s worth a try?

I can picture faculty meetings being fun debriefs of how the faculty-decided-upon projects are going. Teams could celebrate short-term successes, share bright spots, discuss conundrums and challenges, share failures and poor/early prototypes. Video could be used to capture the classroom experiences with students and the faculty debriefs. These videos could be integrated into presentation and conversations with parents and alums so that they could be a part of the transformations and experimentations [Hat tip to Bob Dillon in Missouri!]. Faculty leaders could exchange stories with other faculties engaging in similar experiments with various PBL developments. We could learn together and keep up our brain machinery and form new patterns with our water and butter.

Idea #2

Posit Science has a “fifth-day strategy,” meaning that everyone spends one day a week working in a different discipline. Software engineers try their hand at marketing. Designers get involved in business functions. “Everyone needs a new project instead of always being in a bin,” Merzenich says. “A fifth-day strategy doesn’t sacrifice your core ability but keeps you rejuvenated. In a company, you have to worry about rejuvenation at every level. So ideally you deliberately construct new challenges. For every individual, you need complex new learning. Innovation comes about when people are enabled to use their full brains and intelligence instead of being put in boxes and controlled.” (Deutchman, 2007) [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

To test new channels in the butter of departmentalized subject delivery, every fifth class rotation, subjects could be combined into double periods. If there were an art class 3rd period and a science class 4th period, they could meet as one, double-class. Teachers could serve as facilitators of the student-generated projects that exist at the intersections of art and science. In the doing, the art teacher could stretch himself in the domains of science, co-teaching, class management, etc. The science teacher could enhance her knowledge and understanding of art, performance-based assessment, design thinking, etc. If another set of schedules revealed that a math section and a history section met 3rd and 4th periods, those could be combined for the fifth-day strategy, and students might explore such topics as historical cryptography and code breaking [hat tip to Fred Young, Laurel Bleich, Angela Jones, and Jen Lalley in Atlanta].

Thomas Edison’s lab was a big barn with worktables set up side by side that held separate projects in progress. He would work on one project for awhile and then another. His workshop was designed to allow one project to infect a neighboring one, so that moves made here might also be tried there. This method of working allowed him to constantly rethink the way he saw his projects. (Michalko, 2011)

As we sidled our “worktables” together, continuous support and scaffolding could be offered and provided to faculty because this is a very disruptive conflict to the schedule and conventions of school, as it has traditionally and habitually been administrated. Communications schema could be re-designed to invite parents and other constituents into the experiments. Partnerships might emerge with alumni business and professionals working on similar projects in their own places of work.

Imagine what we could learn from these orchestrated conflicts and developing experiments. Imagine how admin and faculty could grow to be less “us-them” and more “we” by working in such collaborative, R&D-lab experimental ways.

Imagine the never-before-thought-possible channels in the surface of the butter we could discover.

Works Cited:

Creelman, David. “Ron Heifitz: Adaptive Leadership.” Creelman Research. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 July 2012. <http://creelmanresearchlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/creelman-2009-vol-2-5-heifetz-on-adaptive-leadership.pdf&gt;.

Deutchman, Alan. “Change or Die.” Change or Die. Fast Company, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 18 July 2012. <http://www.fastcompany.com/node/52717/print&gt;.

Michalko, Michael. Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2011. Print.

Related Work:

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print.

[Cross-posted at Connected Principals]

PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution

The job of leadership is to orchestrate the conflict that arises in those discussions and develop experiments to find out how to push the frontier forward in an evolutionary way.

These words came from Ron Heifetz in an interview with David Creelman for the Creelman Research Library on thought leaders. The entire article (2009 vol. 2.5) is worth a read for all leaders. For school leaders embracing the changing landscapes of schools and education, I thought the piece was a #MustRead. [Hat tip to Tod Martin for sharing it with me.]

While I might spend hours examining the components of the article and Heifitz’s book that sparked the interview (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, co-authored by Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky), what struck me most at this time is the idea of ORCHESTRATING CONFLICT and DEVELOPING EXPERIMENTS. And I use the singular intentionally because I think the two parts are an essential pair of one, complex idea.

As educational leaders and school administrators, how are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments? What a glorious verb “orchestrating” is. I picture a faculty as an orchestra (and I have pondered before if a principal is a conductor or principal violinist). With the current practice of subdividing a faculty into sections – English, math, science, etc. – like we subdivide an orchestra into instrumental sections, I hope we are orchestrating playing from the same sheets of music. I hope we are not merely gathered together in our orchestral round playing disjointedly from different sheets of music titled, “English,” “math,” “science,” etc. For these are just notes and lines from a symphony which is our world, not separate pieces altogether. But now, in this changing environment of education, it is no longer enough for leaders to orchestrate a faculty playing from the same sheets of music. Now, we must orchestrate conflict, too…so that we  might create new music and innovative ways of playing.

In the interview, Heifitz talked of zooming in and zooming out so that “one moves between high levels of abstraction and low levels of concrete action to discover where people start disagreeing.” Then, Heifitz explained that one would “identify the parties who have a stake in that situation and bring the tough questions to the centre of their attention.” Mind you, these are questions that don’t have easily discernible, textbook answers. These are questions for which the leader does not have current capacity to address. Such is the nature of adaptive leadership. “Adaptive context is a situation that demands a response outside your current toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.” Where will education and schooling be in 2020? 2030? 2050? Because we don’t know what education might look like in 3-5 years, we will need more and more adaptive leadership to orchestrate and navigate this evolution, revolution, or re-evolution. And we will need teams.

So, we must gather a room – an orchestra – that is smarter than any one person in the room. In a room full of people, the room is the smartest one in the room, right? (David Weinberger, Too Big to Know) From the orchestration of conflict, we must design, prototype, and implement experiments in the schoolhouse. We need R&D labs in schools. Of course, many schools have them, but very few are more than loosely organized, if organized at all. We must put forth these experiments so that we can learn by doing and grow developmentally from our experiments and iterative prototypes. In my opinion, a wave of the future for schooling will involve organizing and orchestrating these experiments more deliberately (and communicating clearly about these efforts with various constituencies including parents, alums, other schools, etc.).

As it stands, existing schools are likely to have schools within their school. Depending on the collection of teachers that a student has, one can experience a very different school than another student – even at the same school. So there is something like a startup within a school, if the school has a collection of teachers who are innovating practice and taking risks and implementing experiments. But are these players harmonizing together to create systemic change and coordinated enhancement? Such is a job of an adaptive leader who functions as part of the team as well as an orchestrator of the gap-closing between current capacity and aspirations.

About two weeks ago, sitting by the pool, I was re-reading Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko. While reading page 63, I scrawled the following sketch on the inside book cover:

As Michalko described  a CEO using an idea drawer to juxtapose DNA and his business organization, I could see how school innovators could change the DNA of a school – slowly, over time…if loosely organized. But I could also see how this process could be sped up, more closely matching the rate of change in the world, if the innovators were orchestrated and systemically connected with purposeful R&D efforts. Then, in the interview with Heifitz, I read:

Leaders need to accept that adaptive contexts are not simply win-win games. A lot of the organization’s DNA can be conserved but some will need to be discarded. It’s a painful process….But because there are ways of engaging people so that they tolerate and accept losses on behalf of thriving in a changing world we can be positive in facing adaptive contexts. You can do it if you are compassionate about the strains of transition you are asking people to go through. Once you recognize this then you are far more likely to be successful in helping your organization find its way toward a greater adaptability to thrive in challenging times.

How are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments in schools and education? How are systematizing and organizing these efforts into synergistic wholes? How are we taking leadership of the DNA changes that will happen regardless of us if we don’t lead them intentionally?


Creelman, David. “Ron Heifitz: Adaptive Leadership.” Creelman Research. 2009 vol. 2.5

[NOTE: In the past week, several people have asked me, “Bo, what’s a ‘process post?'” To me a process post is a place to think and not worry about getting all the pieces to fit together or all of the conventions right. It’s like a journal. I usually use a process post as I am working out some thinking in my mind. I generally set a time limit – like 30 minutes to an hour – and just write. Then, I publish what I have without feeling pressure to re-read and polish at that time. Whereas many of my posts are just waypoints on my paths of thinking, the process posts feel even rougher and more draft-y than a post not marked with “PROCESS POST.”]