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Monday, March 28, 2016

Looking with New Eyes

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement from a manuscript I had been preparing for publication. They advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Making the Vision work 
     In order for a vision to work it must be clear to everyone and applicable to all members of the school staff. Remember years ago when your old elementary teacher insisted on showing a filmstrip or using an overhead transparency that was always blurry because it wasn’t focused? It didn’t matter how interesting the subject was, the fuzzy pictures were a problem. You can’t expect people to follow a vision that is not clear. The people will experience the same feeling of nausea and headache that you felt from the hazy images on filmstrip.  
     Everyone must feel some sense of involvement, responsibility, and accountability. The school leader should communicate the vision in a “stump speech” whenever appropriate at gatherings. The vision must be conveyed in a manner that each listener leaves the interaction with a clear understanding of the vision, why the vision is worthy of the listener’s investment and commitment, and how they can contribute to making the vision a reality 
     For purposes of illustration, think of a photograph and picture yourself giving the annual speech prior to the opening of the school year. Imagine that you took a picture of the vision and you cut it into pieces and distributed it so each person held a portion of the vision in their hand. If you fail to seize the day and triumph with an invigorating oration you end up with a group of people with such a small perspective on the vision that they could never understand the whole picture.  
     Now, if you’ve done your homework and prepared a speech using a recipe of ingredients as noted in Martin Luther King’s delivery, you’d have a product on the order of a hologram. A hologram is the three dimensional image created by a laser beam. If you could develop a hologram of the vision and then divide it into pieces each part contains the whole image intact rather than reflecting fragments of the original. No matter how many times you divide the hologram each part of the beam reveals the entire image. (Ray and Rinzler, p. 149) Communicate the vision like a hologram so each member of your audience departs that stump speech fully comprehending the vision and inspired to share it with others. 
     John P. Kotter, author of Leading Change, offers the following rule of thumb regarding the viability of a vision: “Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in trouble.” (p. 9) 
     The leader’s ability to express the vision and values of an organization is vital in shaping and sustaining the culture of the system. The daily, almost routine, face-to-face or small group interactions arising out of ordinary traffic in the workplace pose a positive platform for the leader to casually export ideas absent the formalities of a meeting, which can be influenced by what people bring into a planned get together, such as titles, motives, agendas. An effective stump speech can take varied forms as long as the message is consistent. An extemporaneous presentation delivered on the organization’s vision and mission within the construct of a story to a group of people outside of the conference room or faculty meeting setting has the potential to be more effective in persuading followers than a well polished brochure replete with facts and figures.  
     Patterson and colleagues collaborated on the book, Influencers: The Power to Change Anything. This work is a great resource. The authors contend that, “Concrete and vivid stories exert extraordinary influence because they transport people out of the role of critic and into the role of participant.” (p. 61) To demonstrate this point, the authors refer to a study (p. 60) in which students in a graduate program in business administration were split into three different groups and presented with exactly the same information, but in different styles of delivery. The first group was presented with a verbal description containing facts and figures. The second group was given the identical information, but in the form of charts and tables. The third group was offered the same details, but the information was conveyed through a story. Several weeks later the three groups were tested for recall of the information. The group who received the information via a story remembered much greater detail than the other two groups, and ascribed greater credibility to the information 
     Remember, these students were involved in a graduate program in business administration which is normally a bastion of facts and figures, columns of data, and cold, unwavering statistics, yet the story delivery prevailed in ability of listeners to recall important information! Fashion a story that communicates critical information and use the same descriptive terms, no matter the context, to buttress the message. These essential terms, heard over and over for emphasis each time the story is shared, can form the foundation supporting the values and beliefs shaping the organizational culture. Think of it as a commercial that is broadcast in varied venues but always promotes the service or product with references to the same three or four critical attributes. These characteristics, if delivered effectively, become the brand of the organization as the customer/consumer associates them with the service or product. That is, ideally when a person is presented with a service or product, let’s say a Mercedes Benz automobile, the person will describe it with the same few terms that they hear/read about it in advertisements. The message becomes forged in the minds of the customer. The leader of the school must manage meaning through communication.     
 Breathing Life into the Vision 
     Staff members must have the ability and responsibility to make the vision happen. Feedback and reward systems should reinforce the vision. Consistency becomes paramount. In his book, A Place Called School, author John Goodlad laments the discrepancy that exists when a school boasts a goal that proves to be in opposition to common practice within the school. He refers to a school that states in a written document listing goals it’s intent to “develop independent learners” while teachers in the same school willingly accept reports from students with content copied directly from a book. (Goodlad, p. 241) The dissonance between what we say and what we do resurrects Longfellow’s “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I can not hear what you say to the contrary.” (Waterman, p. 243) School leaders must live and preach the vision in a sincere and visible fashion each and every day. According to a study conducted by Collins and Porras in Built to Last, “Our research indicates that the authenticity of the ideology and the extent to which a company attains consistent alignment with the ideology counts more than the content of the ideology.” (Collins and Porras, p. 87) 
     Many years ago, while visiting a school in the Deep South, I observed an inconsistency of action and statement. The teachers knew that I was from New England. Perhaps because of this they harbored certain stereotypical assumptions. As I observed one class I noted the teacher, who was of a different race than the child, and aware of me watching, pat the child’s head after a correct response. However, I also spied the teacher immediately wiping her hand against the side of her dress as if there were some kind of cooties on it. There did not appear to be anything on the child’s head, like hair cream, that would warrant such a response.   
     One way to think about the effects of vision is to observe two magnets. By rotating the ends of the magnets so that opposite poles are adjacent you can definitely feel the powerful, invisible forces in action, pulling into each other. Hold that image of magnetic attraction in your head while preparing your next speech with the intent of pulling people of varied backgrounds, presents, and futures toward a concerted vision with common goals and shared meaning. 
     Make a conscious effort to diffuse the vision to anyone who will listen. Time invested in speaking to organized groups, senior citizens, Rotary, Kiwanis, and other civic or business groups, is time well spent. Share your vision so that it will enlist others in spreading it. 

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