Dunbar’s Number, Shared Experiences, and the Rift Between Campuses and Central Office

A disconnect or rift exists between campuses and central office in many school districts.  In systems with acknowledged rifts we can easily see the damaging results  and the resultant bureaucratic inertia that continues to widen the disconnect.  Any effort to fix this rift and eliminate the disconnect should begin with an understanding of the underlying biological and social causes of these rifts.

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Dunbar’s Number

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, while analyzing the relationship between neocortical size and social group sizes in primates suggested that humans as well have a limit on the amount of certain types of relationships that we are able to maintain. The maximum group size numbers vary based on the depth and complexity of the relationship. Generally speaking, we can maintain around  five intimate friends, 150 casual friends, and put a name to a face for about 1500 people.

The limits of Dunbar’s number represent an underlying biological cause for the rift between campuses and central office.  Employees at central office and the campuses, though required to regularly interact with each other, may not have room for each other at a deep enough relationship level to facilitate efficient interaction.

At each group level, once we are saturated with relationships, everyone else is considered out of the group.  As you might expect we tend to treat people who are out of the group differently and less favorably than people who are in the group.  Even though we may think our groups can be larger than Dunbar’s limitations, evidenced perhaps by our ever-expanding social media circles, the amount of stable relationships we can manage has remained constant. Social media may keep us from forgetting people who are no longer in our groups, but cannot substitute for the power of group shared experiences that prevent disconnects and rifts from forming between individuals (or the campus and central office).

The Importance of Shared Experiences

Shared experiences connect and define groups and the lack of shared experiences is an underlying social cause for existing rifts between campuses and central office.  The shared experiences of central office staff are collectively different from the shared experiences of campus staff. They each have different perspectives, deal with different restraints, are located in different physical environments, and interact with different stakeholders.

A disconnect will eventually develop even for campus staff who move to central office.  Over time their connections to their former campus colleagues, which was strengthened by their daily shared experiences, will begin to reduce in intensity. At the same time their connections with the central office staff will increase because of their new shared experiences.  It is likely that every campus staff member who is moved to central office once believes that they will be different and not ever somewhat disconnected from their campus co-workers but this commitment becomes more difficult without the power of shared experiences.

Overcoming the limitations of Dunbar’s number and the lack of shared experiences

It is possible to work to overcome the limitations of Dunbar’s number and to mitigate the lack of shared experiences between campus and central office staff.  A central office and campus commitment to a Solutions Center vs. a Bureaucratic mindset, adopting an intimate client-service model, creating opportunities for developing shared experiences, and increasing the opportunities for face to face meetings are all good practices for reducing the disconnect between campuses and central office.

I will explore these solutions in future posts, but until then what are some other best practices you have seen to ensure great working relationships between the campuses and central office in your district?  Share your best practices with me on twitter.

Just Start! Your idea is going to be obsolete before it is perfect.

I am a fan of the book, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. The quote at the start of chapter 2 endeared the book to me, ” You’re ready.  Start making stuff.”  Like many of you I have no problem procrastinating on an idea under the deception of thinking it has to be perfect before sharing.

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After reading the book and reflecting on why I was hesitant to develop, publish, or share some of my ideas, I  discovered the following truth that has freed me to get started creating:

The moment you create something it is obsolete.

It is obsolete because you are subtly changed just from the creative process and would make it differently if you started over.  Think of how you continuously revise, edit, modify, delete, or change your creations until you finally negotiate an agreement with yourself that you are satisfied. Are you satisfied because your effort is now perfect or more likely are you satisfied because you are tired of making changes?

Your creations quickly become obsolete because as you share them you learn more and adjust your thinking based on feedback and new experiences.  This new learning means your thoughts about your own creation have changed and your prior work is no longer what you would make again.

You might rightfully believe that If you had only waited another day, month, or year, your creation probably would be better.  Though better, it still would not be perfect, and by waiting you deprive yourself of the growth that comes through the creative process.

Once you accept that  your creations will become obsolete then you are freed to get started. If it will never be perfect then why wait to publish or share?

Others may benefit from your imperfect creation, and you certainly need to complete the creative process to continue your own personal growth.

Just Start.

Build Your Own Leadership Preparation Program

If you work anywhere or participate in any kind of organization, you need more formal and informal leaders.  You can either hire more ready-made leaders (expensive) or develop them on your own (less expensive plus they are already culturally integrated).

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I work in a school system.  You might not, but this is probably as true of your organization as it is of mine: Organizations need more effective leaders, authentically developed at a faster rate, and spread throughout all levels of their organization than most current leadership preparation programs are scaled to produce.  Executives must commit to creating an aligned, authentic, competency based system to recruit, select, develop, support, and evaluate leaders.

Life Schools and Primer hosted an Ed Leadership Preparation Summit, and this document represents a summary of many of the good ideas shared by the leaders we invited to the program.  I’ll develop the concepts in more detail in future posts, but wanted to give you the complete guide up front in case you are trying to get started.

The Primer Guide to  Leadership Preparation Programs

Connect with me on twitter to discuss the guide or to offer suggestions for building a successful Leadership Preparation program.

Further Reading:

Preparing School leaders for a Changing World.  Chapter 4 offers some excellent insight into characteristics of great programs.

Leading School Improvement   produced by SREB from 2001 but a great resource. Discusses what you need beyond a list of competencies or skills in a leadership program.

The #1 Characteristic of Admired Leaders since 1987

The # 1 characteristic of admired leaders since 1987 is Honest according to James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book  The Leadership Challenge.

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The next three top characteristics of admired leaders over the last 25 years were Forward-Looking, Competent, and Inspiring.  Those next 3 characteristics  have moved around in the rankings but Honest has always remained at the top since they began collecting information in 1987.  Honest defined as leaders living by the values they profess.

Being Honest trumps all other characteristics of admired leaders scoring around 18 percentage points higher than the next characteristic on the list

How does that knowledge affirm or challenge your previously held beliefs about which of your characteristics were endearing you to your staff?  Share your thoughts with me on Twitter.

Bottlenecks are Found Near the Tops of Bottles and Organizations

Things slow down, clog up, and stop at bottlenecks. In organizations, bottlenecks can lead to delays, low morale, and customer service failure. The thing about bottlenecks is that they are usually found both at the tops of bottles and organizations.

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Leaders failing to take action on projects, make decisions on approvals, or to complete necessary reports are all potential organizational bottlenecks.   Bottlenecks can also result from poor procedures or other legacy bureaucratic procedures. Bottlenecks diminish the organization by stacking unnecessary delays, increasing stress of subordinates, and reducing employee confidence. Leaders need to always be evaluating organizational processes and their own procrastinating behaviors to eliminate potential bottlenecks.

If you are the victim of a bottleneck, Edwin Bliss in his timeless book Getting Things Done recommends:

  • Continuing to respectfully remind, cajole, and give hints to your supervisor
  • Using positive reinforcement and thanking people when they do move into action
  • Searching for alternate ways to accomplish the task

If you are a leader then you have probably both caused bottlenecks and been the victim of them.  Awareness is the first step to reducing their harmful effects from the organization.

Share you other suggestions with me on Twitter for reducing organizational bottlenecks.

The world needs more Solutionists

At a recent strategies session one of our Life School Staff, Scott Thrush, shared with me that he viewed himself as a Solutionist because he was always looking for creative ways to solve problems and help others.  His accurate self-description inspired me to think about the kind of people I want to surround myself with at work and how I personally want others to view me.

Do you want to surround yourself with Solutionists or Obstructionists?

Do you want to be a Solutionist?

Your coworkers and your organization need more Solutionists and fewer obstructionists.

Share any new idea at a meeting for a quick headcount of obstructionists masquerading as helpful co-workers.

A common name for the obstructionist persona when it comes to developing creative solutions is “The Devil’s Advocate.”

Tom Kelley, writing in The Ten Faces of Innovation, describes the destructive power of this obstructionist persona. “The Devil’s Advocate [persona] encourages idea-wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that only sees the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting.  Once those floodgates open, they can drown any new initiative in negativity.”

Anything worth doing should be vetted by thoughtful discussion (Luke 14:28),but avoid destroying new ideas just because it is easier to see the clouds and harder to see the blue sky.

A Solutionist chooses to share their concerns from the more productive “can-if” rather than the “we can’t.”

Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, in their book  A Beautiful Constraint, suggest adopting a Can-if response when presented with new ideas to consider or problems to solve.  The Can-if approach keeps the creative energy flowing and creates the best possible conversational climate to resolve the issue.

The next time you are presented with a new idea practice your Can-if response.

The world needs more solutions.

Any experience working with a great Solutionist?  Connect with me on Twitter and share what they do.


Three Essential Questions to Answer When Planning Professional Development

I attended a professional development conference planned by Albert Thomas and Keynoted by Kasey Bell.  Everyone I observed had a great attitude about the scheduled activities. This is usually true of most people when you give them a chance to choose what they are learning.  Incorporating choice is a foundational piece of engaging professional development. Designing activities with the “who” in mind is another important consideration.

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There are also three other essential questions (at least) designers need to answer when planning professional development.

The first question to answer is: How can this professional development help attendees better prepare students for a world they cannot yet imagine?

Today’s Kindergarten students will graduate in 2028.  We are preparing them for a future that we cannot predict.  Think of what the world was like in 2004 when the current seniors were in kindergarten.  Don’t just focus on the obvious (but incredible) technology changes since 2004, but also think of other ways in which the world is now different.  Different ideas, thoughts, and different pathways of thinking.

The second question to answer during any PD is: How can this professional development help attendees deliver the customized and personalized instruction that students need?

I listened to an archived Freakonomics podcasts  titled How is the school system like a bad radio station?.  The premise was that a bad radio station is not customizable, it doesn’t adjust to your preferences, and it can’t predict what song you will want next.  Contrast that rigidity with an app like Pandora  which is able to do all of those things using a proprietary algorithm (Music Genome Project). Our students are used to customizing most of the aspects of their lives  and therefore we should, where possible, provide them with the most individually tailored learning experiences possible.

The third question to answer is: How can an attendee immediately implement this new knowledge for students?

Without application new training is soon forgotten.

What are some other essential questions to consider when designing professional development?  Connect with me on Twitter and share your ideas.

Three Needs of a Team

Patrick Lencioni offered excellent advice for employers about the needs of their employees in his work Three Signs of a Miserable JobHe reminds leaders that anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement cause employees to feel miserable about their job.

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Leaders also should be mindful of the Three Needs of a Team.  A team is a group that has come together for a common goal.  I remember sitting in on a meeting where the leader reminded everyone in the room that they were a team rather than a  family because they were gathered together for a common purpose. This presence of a shared goal is what makes a group of people a team.

What are the three needs of a team?

Leaders Learn: 30 Methods of Influence

It is easier to browse tweets and skim blog posts for personal growth, but returning to the classics such as Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey is a next level infusion of wisdom for any leader.

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Exercising influence on individuals, groups, and the processes of the organization is an essential function of leadership. Leaders have a wide variety of things they can influence including strategy, motivation, coordination, cooperation and design (Yukl, p.8). The power to influence requires an effective methodology. In chapter 11 of  Principle-Centered Leadership, Stephen Covey shares thirty methods of influence for leaders.  Here are a few excerpts from that list:

  1. Refrain from saying the unkind or negative thing
  2. Exercise patience with others
  3. Distinguish between the person and the behavior or performance
  4. Seek first to understand
  5. Renew your commitment to things you have in common
  6. Be influenced by them first
  7. Accept the person and the situation
  8. Prepare your mind and heart before you prepare your speech

Get the rest of the list of 30 here

Covey, S. (1990). Principle-Centered Leadership. New York, NY:Simon and Schuster

Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in Organizations, 8th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall