“An overlong list of ‘really important priorities'”

“An overlong list of ‘really important priorities'” (see quote below).

From my experience in schools, an overlong list of really important priorities names a major struggle for many school leadership teams. Not enough time and effort and concentration are spent on creating clarity and shared understanding of the school’s differentiating organizational capabilities. Too many leaders and too many teams allow the time and effort and concentration needed for such identity work to be crowded out by other things.

Perhaps it’s that overlong list of really important priorities that keeps us from focusing more purposefully on our own identity within a school. Maybe we should make that investigation of identity and purpose the #1 really important priority and recreate the list once we have that critical foundation built of knowing who we really are and what we intend to concentrate on as a learning community.

I have no intent or desire to corporatize education. However, I think that schools can learn a lot by studying other sectors, industries, and organizations that have undergone periods of monumental change and transformation, particularly corporations.

The article cited below has been a recent piece of that study for me. I hope you school leaders find it helpful, too.

Therefore, it is crucial to be clear about the capabilities your organization most needs to stand apart. Too often we see functional leaders and staff struggling because this is not well defined. Imagine trying to use the objective of being “innovative” as a criterion for the multitude of investments a company must make around product launches and R&D.

Unfortunately, when the company isn’t coherent — when its strengths are not linked explicitly to its strategic focus — most functions end up trying to keep up with an overlong list of “really important priorities.” This is an unwinnable proposition.

from “Rethinking the Function of Business Functions,” Harvard Business Review, by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi  |  12:00 PM February 8, 2013

How do we define our system boundaries as teachers? What’s our identity?

If you are a teacher, how do you define the “boundaries of your system?” How do you define your aim and purpose within that system?

System Boundaries

When I started teaching, I defined the boundaries of my system as my subject and my classroom. I called myself a “math teacher.” I talked about my “algebra class” and my “pre-algebra class.” Later, when I moved schools, I referred to myself as an “economics teacher,” and I talked about my “5th period econ class,” my “7th period econ class,” etc. More often than not – MUCH MORE often than not – when I hear professional educators introduce themselves, they talk this way, too. They say, “Hi, I’m Martha. I teach U.S. History at Essex Middle School.” And, “Hi, I’m Frank. I teach 5th grade English and language arts.”

Do our self-imposed labels cause us to be competitors within our own schools?

I remember feeling pretty competitive as a teacher, now that I reflect on it. At the time, I didn’t realize I was being so competitive, but I’m realizing it more now. For instance, more than a few times, I can recall a student saying something like, “Mr. Adams, I didn’t do my math homework last night. I had a big English project due today.”

“Oh!” I said. “So you think English is more important than math?” I think I was mostly kidding, and I can remember many of my own teachers saying similar things to me when I was in grade school. I guess I was somewhat trying to continue the teacher joke. But, part of me was definitely not kidding.

Or I can remember another teacher or counselor “pulling out” a student from my class to finish a test or something similar. Thinking back, if I am entirely honest, I can feel some tension in how I viewed that teacher that was taking away from “my time” with that student. They were interfering with my aim to teach that student math.

W. Edwards Deming, Profound Knowledge, and Systems

Two things are critical in applying this part of the system of profound knowledge. First isdefining the boundaries of the system. For example, if you are a motor freight company, does the system include only your suppliers, your customers, and your company or does the system include all motor freight carriers, suppliers, and customers? This distinction is important because, if it includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.

from here

For a number of years, I’ve been studying “systems thinking.” I’m a long-time groupie of Peter Senge’s. I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. Lately, I’ve been studying W. Edward Deming and his work in Profound Knowledge. As I read and re-read the paragraph above, I cannot help but think about how I defined my system as a teacher. Unfortunately, for too much of my career as a teacher, I was in competition with the other teachers on the faculty. Some of that competition was fairly intentional. A lot of that competition was unintentional. But the competition existed nevertheless.

How might our definition of system boundaries affect our work as system enhancers?

In so many ways, I did not even know what was going on in my fellow teachers’ classrooms. I was a math teacher, or a U.S. history teacher, or an economics teacher. I had “my classes” and “my periods of students.” My aim was to teach math, or history, or economics. I would say that I was “on the faculty,” but most of my time and attention was really just spent in my small system as math teacher, history teacher, or economics teacher. To have a different systems mindset, I would have needed to know more about the other parts of the system. Maybe then, I would have seen the other parts as cooperatives, instead of as “competitors.”

“If [the boundary of your system] includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.”

About six years into my teaching career, I became a sixth-grade boys “grade chair.” The boundaries of my system changed – because my title and responsibilities changed. Now, my system continued to include my eighth-grade economics classes, but it also included all 85 of the sixth-grade boys in my care. Now, I had formalized reason to see myself as part of a bigger system. I could no longer afford to “compete” with my fellow teachers. I needed to know what happened in sixth-grade math, sixth-grade English, sixth-grade science, etc. Now, I had to talk to parents about the three hours of homework that their son was doing every night – the subjects added up! Before, I could really just lull myself (unintentionally) into thinking that I was only giving 20-30 minutes of econ homework. But now, as a grade chair, I could see the cumulative effect. Probably the best thing I did as grade chair was to shadow a student every year… and to do the homework that night. It was very empathy provoking, as well as system-boundary widening.

Two years later, I became an assistant principal of sorts. We called it “Director of Studies.” Now, I had to know the curriculum and instruction of all 86 faculty and all 560 children. My system was growing. My system boundaries included all of the departments and all of the grade levels, sixth through eighth. I had to see my system as a system of cooperation and collaboration, not as a system of independent contractors and competitors. But I began to wonder if my fellow teachers’ perspectives and points of view remained relatively constricted by closer boundaries on their systems.

Two years later, I became the middle school principal. Now, my system was even bigger in boundaries. But what about the definition of the system for the other teachers and educators? Were we in sync about the boundaries of our system? Or was my perspective only changed because of my formal title and responsibility changes? What if I had never changed roles? Would I have kept my more myopic view of the system?

It was really all about “identity.” 

The system self-organizes around its Identity. That includes its vision, purpose, guiding principles, values, history, theory of success and shared aspirations. A clearly designed, shared identity allows the organization to self-organize in alignment with the identity desired by leadership. All systems are complex adaptive systems which adapt around their identity. The identity may be designed by leadership or it may occur without design, more by accident. If it is allowed to occur accidentally it will lack clear, shared direction. Thus empowerments will not be fully successful.

from here

Hindsight has provided much clarity, but when I became principal, I began to work to affect the identity of the teachers. First, we began peer visits. At least twice a year – once each semester, and once in-department and once out-of-department – we would observe each other’s classes. Of course, these observations could help provide feedback, but they were more about tearing down walls and hypothesizing that such expanded vision might expand the boundaries of our relative systems. We would begin to see more of the overlaps, commonalities, effects of our “competitive” actions. We might identify with each other differently than we had before.

Next, we began to restructure as a professional learning community. We gathered together in teacher groups to become teams – to see our collective roles rather than our competitive roles. To be fair, the other teachers may never have seen themselves as competitors, like I realized that I had been. But maybe, just maybe, my silo experience was not dissimilar from most teachers’ experiences. In teams, though, we could design curriculum and instruction together. We could assess student work together. We could coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate. We could alter the boundaries of our system and reach a greater accord about our shared identity. Now I was a teacher in the PLC, not just an economics teacher. Now, I could see how my practice intersected with the practices of the math and science teachers. Now, we could be teachers of the entire set of children.

Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s business.

from here

If I had to do it all over again, I would have been much more intentional about our collective identity. There’s critical work to do there as a faculty.

Then, transformation could spring from shared understanding and profound collective knowledge.

To be continued…

Studying identity through structured serendipity. My start to #identity in 2013. #CuratingPurpose

This morning, while attending “Walking with Lucy School,” I studied identity. I didn’t pre-intend to do so, specifically, but the opportunity presented itself because of structured serendipity. I have structured my podcast app with about a dozen different podcasts. Each morning, while walking my dog Lucy, I listen to the somewhat serendipitous collection called the “unplayed” playlist offered by the app.

This morning, the playlist looked like this –

  • The Moth, “A Dish Best Served Cold.” A young man finds something of a true identity for himself – albeit temporary – by searching for the person who committed identity theft with his credit card. I love that he found his identity by doggedly pursuing something that mattered mightily to him.
  • Radiolab, “Solid as a Rock.” Trying to get to the bottom of what makes stuff, the podcasters challenge the listener to consider that the most basic components of things are composed of mostly empty space. With physics, this short plays with our sense of what makes a thing a thing – it’s reality, perception, and identity. It reminded me of two blog posts that I had written, so I went back and read them – here and here.
  • 99% Invisible, “Episode 69- The Brief and Tumultuous Life of the New UC Logo.” Roman Mars and crew examine a metaphorical anecdote about resistance to change by exploring the visual-identity debacle that the University of California system has undergone recently. Among other lessons, I appreciate that there are levels of design investigated in this piece. Maybe most importantly, the transformation itself was poorly designed, and I learned a great deal relative to the work that I now do with educational change and transformation design.

Additionally, a fourth “class” became a part of my structured serendipity on identity this morning. During our walk, I decided to take a detour to my parents’ house. After all, my own identity was initially and powerfully formed by these incredible people. So, Lucy and I changed course and walked to my parents’ house. They were very surprised to see us, but I think they were incredibly pleased. In many ways, I was thanking them for my identity which they helped create. And I started the New Year by telling them Happy New Year in person. A great detour for identity.

All in all, I’d say this was a great way to start January 1, 2013. Now I feel well primed for my identity work in the New Year.

What “classes” and structured serendipity are you pursuing this year about your own identity? How might you help the learners at your school(s) explore their own identities? After all, as Sir Ken Robinson says, it’s about “How are you smart? Not – How smart are you?”


Bonus (and paradoxically the real meat)! A few reads archived on my Diigo that this walk made me re-read … and a TED talk:


[Note for further investigation: I thought my “class” this morning was pretty great. I learned a lot. I am inspired and motivated to learn further. Much of my motivation comes from the fact that I curated my own learning here. I collected the podcasts; I pursued the follow-up, related readings; I returned to a TED talk connected to what I was thinking relative to identity (to me Zander is talking more about identity and purpose than classical music).

In fact, part of my identity is defined by what I have chosen to open myself to this morning … by what to include here. How often do we use school to facilitate students pursuing their own identities? Not within the peripherals of school, but among the core functions and operations of school.

I am developing a new hypothesis – there is actually an 8th C of 21st C. Learning, namely “curation.” Perhaps the other 7 Cs largely depend on the practices of curation. Developing communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, etc. may all be connected through curatorial endeavors. And in school, the teachers typically do most of the curation. If When students are allowed to curate more of their school, then they will more likely develop the 7 Cs … as well as more of their own true identity. As they explore and discover “How am I smart? Not – How smart am I?”]

Breaking Bread – edu180atl: bo adams 9.5.12

“Okay, I’ll act it out. You guess the G-word.” I raised my arm above my head and made my hand a mouth.


“That’s an E-word.”


“Yes! Whose turn is it now?”

Breakfast is my new favorite time during the workweek. Dinner is a close second. For years, as a school administrator, I advised parents to eat as many family meals together as possible during the workweek. Folks like Ned Hallowell, Dan Kindlon, and Wendy Mogel have written about the close correlation between number of family meals and good children. Yet, I must admit that as a school administrator I ate only 3-5 meals a workweek with my wife and two sons, ages 7 and 5. All of these meals were dinners.

For breakfast, I usually ate a banana and a Clif Bar while I traveled to work or as I started my first meeting. Most mornings, I would kiss my family goodbye as they were still wiping sleep from their eyes.

Now, we eat breakfast together everyday. Since starting a new chapter in my educational career, I have doubled the frequency of family meals during the workweek. We’re growing into stronger sharers of stories, values, and play. This morning, we played a game to help Jackson, my kindergartener, with his G-words.

Identity is fascinating. Years ago, during a conference, we had to make a list of ten words that described our identities. Then, we had to strip away all but two. One of my words that survived was “Dad.”

I’m grateful to have heard my own advice…finally.


Bo Adams (@boadams1) is a learner, husband, and dad. He strives for school transformation and serves as Director of Educational Innovation at Unboundary.

[This post was originally published as “edu180atl: bo adams 9.5.12“]

CHANGEd: What if we really examined our identity as schools? 60-60-60 #16

Please make 23 minutes and 41 seconds to watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk: “We need to talk about an injustice.”

The opposite of poverty is not wealth. … In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.

Stevenson’s talk has me thinking almost constantly about why we are not more purposefully, more systemically, more deliberately re-examining our identity as schools. What is school for? Why are we not re-organizing more curriculum and experiences around such grand challenges of justice, fairness, inclusion,…. Through these lenses, we could practice literacies of many types, numeracy in context, social science, communication for authentic purpose. Young people have a wonderful sense of fairness. We should harness and educate this sense and make a stronger impact on our world…now.

As schools, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. The real prize.

CHANGEd: What if…60-60-60 Project Explained

[Sorry about the word count today. I failed BIG with 2x the word goal.]