Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues -- or Is There?

At the risk of dating myself, I was first introduced to the song "Summertime Blues" on The Who's "Live at Leeds" album way back when (of course, the song was originally written by Eddie Cochran, but that's another story). You might recall the lyric "Sometimes I wonder what I'm gonna do, 'cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues."

Summer can be a challenging time for administrative teams as one year comes to an end and the countdown for the new one begins. A recent initiative by our administrative team identified 106 discrete tasks that must be performed in order to open school. That number does not include operations and support services for summer school and other curricular and co-curricular events that run pretty much all summer, nor does it acknowledge all the project management steps required to execute administrative projects with strict time constraints.

Other variables affect what happens in any given summer.  As Lab has expanded, so has the volume of recurring tasks that must get done. Vacations factor in as well; even the most dedicated employees need some time off over the summer; nearly half the current tech team was either at or close to their maximum vacation accruals as summer began, and that's not good for anyone. Another variable is the "unknown unknowns" that pop up - surprises, maybe good ones, but more likely not - that require shifting your priorities.

The truth is that summer is not long enough to do both everything we have to do and everything we'd like to do. Even with careful planning and the best of intentions, summer can feel like sprinting up a steep hill toting a backpack full of rocks, a recipe for a good case of the summertime blues.

But we needn't give in to the temptation of feeling overwhelmed. If we can remind ourselves to stop and take a moment each day to consider what benefits our students and families will enjoy from our collective efforts, it's a lot easier to dig in and get things done and leave the temporary discomfort and pressure behind.

The end of each summer finds Lab better than it was the year before. What can be bad about that?

Do you have particular strategies that work well for managing the demands of summer? By all means share them in comments.

Enjoy what summer remains. All of us on the tech team look forward to seeing everyone soon, especially our amazing students!

-- Curt Lieneck, Director of Technology

Friday, March 31, 2017

Beach Ball Reality

Following Abigail Wiebenson's excellent presentation on "Choreographing Leadership Conversations and Relationships" at NAIS last month, I've been re-reading Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations, an enormously helpful book in guiding leaders toward more productive, candid communication.

In an early section of the book, Scott talks about "Beach Ball Reality," in which the reader is encouraged to think of their organization as a beach ball. On that beach ball are several colors, and each color represents a different segment of the organization.

Let's say that I'm the blue part of the beach ball as an IT leader. My "blueness" inclines me to see things from a blue perspective. If the Operations team lives in the yellow part of the beach ball, they see things from the yellow perspective. Teachers may live in the red, while other administrators are in the green. Each group tends to see things from its own perspective.

Problems arise when we fail to recognize the need for seeking a deeper understanding of the realities of life in these different portions of the organizational beach ball when making decisions that affect others. Scott goes on to posit a method for "interrogating reality" across all segments of the beach ball meant to achieve an operational level of candor and clarity that enables the organization to make better decisions and avoid becoming enmeshed in defensive turf battles.

For positions like mine that deal with all the stakeholders in the organization, such discipline around encouraging cooperation and buy-in from as many portions of the beach ball as possible is essential to progress. Yet, even savvy leaders struggle with the often ponderous weight of institutional cultures in their organizations, whether in K-12, higher ed, or the business world. Few institutions are lean and agile enough to adapt quickly to changing reality.

At such times, it's wise for leaders to take a step back and take a look at each section of their beach ball and make the time to dig deeply into the realities they find by asking good questions, listening carefully to what others have to say, seeing things from others' perspective, and being as patient as it takes to build a level of shared trust and understanding as ideas become actions.

As Lab continues to grow and evolve, let's keep the beach ball in mind. I bought a few beach balls just to have around as reminders. If you'd like one, let me know!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Foresight Rules, Hindsight Drools

Many IT leaders have experienced the fallout that happens when their schools decide to make changes without adequately considering how those changes will affect the computing environment. 

The beginning of spring quarter is a good time for IT leaders to be on the lookout for imminent problems other administrators may not have seen as changes for the next academic year grow closer to being etched in stone.

A typical example is when schools, particularly multi-divisional schools, want to overhaul schedules. Often, schedule changes will alter those temporal "match points" where the schedule for one division lines up with another. Changing the length and/or frequency of instructional periods can throw these match points out of alignment, thus creating a new level of contention for computing resources -- unless, of course, proactive measures are taken to prevent it.

Another example is when students, counselors, and department chairs are all working on scheduling students for the next academic year. Original course requests made in winter quarter are fluid in many schools, with changes taking place even right up to (and even beyond) the first weeks of school. If there are courses that require specific computing hardware, enrollment numbers in those classes must acknowledge those limitations, or, again, proactively plan to address them if enrollment is to be increased.

As an IT leader, one cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and wait for the inevitable "aha!" moment when others realize in hindsight they've created a problem and come to you to solve it at the last minute. Even a well-resourced IT budget cannot take a large, unplanned hit because there wasn't appropriate foresight; technology has been in schools for a long time and should be part of any administrative change management strategy, regardless of the kind of change being planned. It may be up to you as an IT leader to make sure that happens until such time as others' foresight grows. Ideally, you will be invited to share input on these kinds of changes early on in the planning process. 

If you haven't already done so, take a moment now to take a look at things at your school. If you see any upcoming changes that may affect your budget for the next fiscal year, you'd be wise to investigate them now, and thoroughly so. Otherwise you may be in for one of those surprises no one wants. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Wrights Got It Right

Don’t you just hate airport delays? I was headed back to Chicago last week after visiting family out east when a mechanical issue kept my flight on the ground for an extra three hours. Happily, I’d downloaded David McCullough’s wonderful recounting of the Wright brothers’ quest to fly.

I like non-fiction because I generally find real life more interesting than anything else I can read, and this book did not let me down. As a long-time teacher steeped in the progressive tradition, it thrilled me to see how these talented and driven individuals took command of their own learning in a way that would change the world. Here are some of the traits and habits that led to their eventual success:

They read like crazy and didn’t put much stock in school. Their family loved books and had many of them in the house. When the brothers wanted to learn something, they started reading. 

They were only inspired to work harder when they failed.  And they failed, thousands of times, but they never let their failures discourage them. They were meticulous in documenting what they did so they could better analyze their progress over time. 

They watched birds for hours. They understood that nature could be a powerful teacher. Who knows more about flying than birds? Their ability to observe the different ways birds used their wings opened the door for improvements in their designs. 

They argued passionately for their ideas, but conceded when it was clear one of them made a better case than the other.  They were able to set their ideas aside when convinced to do so; had they let their pride get the better of them, they may never have succeeded. 

They actively sought the best thinkers in their field. Whether writing to Octave Chanute in France, or contacting the head of the Smithsonian to get information about the history of flying machines, they valued what others had done and learned from it. 

I’m not quite done with the book yet, but the kind of powerful affirmation of what makes good learning not only helped me pass the time in the airport but renewed my vigor to keep Lab focused on the traits and habits that develop learners who can change the world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Talking with "New" Teachers

It was my pleasure to spend an hour talking with our "new" teachers earlier this week. Of course, these highly experienced teachers are only new to Lab, but it is always an enjoyable exercise to find out what they think of Lab and learn more about the remarkable skills and talents they bring to the Schools.

The topic I was assigned -- sharing what I see as the "big picture" at Lab -- was not technology specific, so I took the opportunity to talk about the many hats I've worn here and the kind of work I've done with kids and grown ups in many different places and roles dating back to 1977.

I never much cared for complacency and don't like doing the same thing over and over again, as my resume clearly indicates; no doubt some audience members think I'm a little nuts for changing roles so often. A career like that is not everyone's cup of tea.

My intention was to give one example of the freedom Lab offers for professionally restless people like me to reinvent themselves, their teaching practices, and the relationship they have with the Schools.  It's one of the very best things about Lab, and as we grow, there will only be more such opportunities for finding new, creative ways to keep things fresh and challenging ourselves to reach higher and take more risks. It's an exciting time.

I had no idea if this would be of any help to my audience or not. The good news is that I've gotten some positive feedback on the session and made some personal connections with teachers I don't get to see as often as I'd like. I hope I have a similar opportunity next year!

Of course, I couldn't help sneaking in a few pieces of advice. Some of them may be obvious (I have been told by people who love me that I've redefined the art of stating the obvious), but I couldn't resist having a bully pulpit for a few minutes.  Here's what I ended with:

  • Lab needs people who have the chops to say when the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Don't hesitate to be one, because sometimes we need a constructive kick in the pants. Challenge the status quo and bring your best thinking to it; lean into discomfort, have no fear of being direct and challenge each other to be better no matter how good you are. 
  • Keep a focus outside Lab to fuel your teaching. A certain insularity can creep up on you here, and you have to watch out for it. 
  • Let the kids lead. You get great kids to work with here. The unplanned things that happen are often the best.
  • We tend to think things to death before acting, and occasionally get more caught up in adult process issues than is good for kids. You'll know it's happening when you feel like you are swimming upstream, or riding a tricycle through a pool of molasses.  It's OK to call shenanigans when we are overthinking things. Bringing clarity and candor to our conversations is always a good thing.
  • Administrators are here to help. We really do care and work hard to be responsive to all. We often have to swim upstream to get things done, too, and the current is usually stronger for us than it is for you. That's because we are responsible for all parts of the school and have to consider the bigger picture. We're also more directly accountable to the University. Don’t assume we don’t care if it takes longer than you would like to address your concerns or meet your expectations. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015: The IS Year in Review

It’s hard to know where to begin in reflecting on this tumultuous year for IS.  The Schools accomplished many great things, but none of them was easy or simple. The year was an extraordinary test of flexibility, teamwork, patience, and grit. I’m proud to say that the IS team performed like the thoroughbreds they are. 

So many tasks and projects took place over the course of the year that it would take time I don’t have to note them all, so I’ll keep the list to only the most significant milestones, which included:
  • opening the Gordon Parks Arts Hall, a new 95,000 square foot facility with an assembly hall, the Sherry Lansing Theater, the Markovitz Family Drama Studio, and many spacious and beautiful classrooms for music, art, and drama programs.  
  • preparing for the renovation of Judd Hall, which meant relocating 83 people (including the IS team) from administrative offices and classroom spaces to either temporary or new locations elsewhere on the Historic Campus. Renovation is currently in progress and is slated to be complete for the opening of school next fall, at which time we’ll have an additional 38,000 square feet of space. 
  • event support in these new spaces, which posed a plethora of challenges; while we are all thrilled to have these kinds of facilities available, there is a lot to do in managing space reservations, sophisticated audiovisual systems, and developing policies and practices for their use. 
  • IS’ hiring excellent candidates to replace two departing team members. An additional tech support specialist joined the team. 
  • Schoology’s selection as a the Schools’ learning management system in October. A soft launch was prepared as the fall quarter ended. 
Keeping a team (and myself) focused and steady when the workload is 200-300% of normal was challenging, to be sure. But it’s a good example of what can happen if you’ve developed a high level of trust and candor among your team members over time. A team with those attributes and skills prevails in a pressure-packed situation; a team that doesn’t just implodes. 

We take pride in looking back on the year and at the scope and scale of what we accomplished together. There are many more challenges ahead as construction continues through next fall, but we know after the events of 2015 that we can handle pretty much anything the Schools throw our way. 

More soon…in the meantime, Semper Gumby!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Leadership 101: Avoiding the Bermuda Triangle

One of the most basic skills any leader with any hope of success needs to master is avoiding triangulation. You know the scenario: an issue arises between Party A and Party B. Party A goes to a third party to complain about Party B.

The third party intervenes and talks to Party B, often with good intentions, or because they think it's their job, or they don't realize what's about to happen. Party B then complains about Party A to the third party, and things deteriorate rapidly as all three parties enter the Bermuda Triangle where effective communication goes to die.

The only way to avoid triangulation is to ask a simple question when Party A wants to involve you as the third party: "Have you talked with Party B about these concerns? I suggest you do so, honestly and candidly, and then let me know how that turns out." Then you smile, turn, and walk away.

That's it. So simple, yet over and over again, I see smart, talented people walk right into the Bermuda Triangle time and again, and I really can't understand why. My best guess is that they are just not comfortable thinking about the potentially uncomfortable conversation Party A and Party B might have when they sit down together, so they try to grease the wheels so the uncomfortable conversation never happens. That's a shame, for it's most often the case that getting to the bottom of an issue requires people to be uncomfortable while they figure things out.

if you are party A, don't go to a third party. Go the source. Stop the game before it starts, and begin with a "help me understand" approach. You may have to do this a couple of times before you start to get results. If your repeated efforts are ignored or otherwise unsuccessful, then you may need to engage a third party (more on this below).

If you are party B, and a third party tries to engage you on behalf of Party A, refuse to play the game. Simply say, "I'm sorry to hear Party A is having a problem that may involve me. I would like to speak with them directly and will contact them promptly to address this. Would you like me to let you know how that turned out?"

Are there times when a third party should get involved in resolving an issue? Of course. If Parties A and B have made a genuine effort to resolve an issue but haven't been successful, then by all means intervene, but only to facilitate, preferably with both parties in the same room. Don't get caught running back and forth between the two parties; it implies an adversarial relationship between the parties that isn't healthy for the institution.

You may also find recurring patterns of poor performance, unclear expectations, or institutional constraints that create conditions conducive to conflict. The right third party can bring a different perspective to such situations and help both parties understand the larger context that may be making communication difficult.

Ultimately, what we want is for people to develop sufficient trust to enjoy healthy working relationships. That's not possible without a commitment to candor in our conversations with one another, even when it means agreeing to disagree or being uncomfortable while we work together to solve problems and clarify expectations. Most of the time, you can't and shouldn't outsource these conversations. We should all know by now what happens when you do.