When a group of schools and/or early childhood leaders get together to collaborate, they bring their existing experiences and beliefs about collaboration with them into the kaupapa and mahi. As a result, there are some common issues that can emerge, or re-emerge, for a cluster or Community of Learning (CoL) over time. For example:
- How does a Community of Learning work in partnership with whānau, iwi, and communities towards desired outcomes?
- What does it look like if we genuinely collaborate so that ECE and/or Māori medium/bilingual settings are genuinely involved in working towards the desired outcomes with schools?
- If we decide to collaborate towards a common goal, how do we make room for that?
- Everyone tries to protect their staff from more work. How do we move CoL actions and ownership beyond the leadership group?
- Why do I get that feeling when I come to CoL meetings that I have to protect the status quo back at my school, kura, or ECE?
- The same people volunteer to do things. How do we decide fairly on who does what in the CoL?
You’re on the right track to addressing the above issues if your CoL is explicitly working on the following four key areas for effective collaboration:
- a clear, inclusive vision and related aspirational goals
- a robust layer of teaching as inquiry informing your progress and next steps
- a culture where everyone can safely challenge and critique each other’s practices
- role clarity and trust between all members.
There are two challenges not included in the above list that often frustrate CoL leaders more than others. They are:
- Sometimes, it feels like we are getting nowhere, going around in circles, or doing too much. What is the right pace for this work?
- It feels like we are doing the same old stuff. We talk the talk but we don’t walk the walk.
- We have a large CoL plan with too many projects and activities, but there’s no room for new, innovative ideas to be seeded.
If those issues are still real for you as a CoL, in addition to the four key areas, you could also look at ways to slow things down, or get things moving. A large, unwieldy plan can be an indicator that you are moving too fast. Many leaders are focused on actions at the expense of clarity of purpose. A slower pace is important while building a CoL vision and implementing any change, but, sometimes, things can get too slow! This is where Safe-Fail Experiments might come in.
A number of Aotearoa-New Zealand educators recently took part in the #edchatnz MOOC. This was a free online course developed and facilitated by Danielle Myburgh, the founder of #edchatnz, which has grown from an energetic hashtag on Twitter into a dynamic, energising group of educationists who self-organise conferences and online events for themselves to empower educators through knowledge and connection. The MOOC introduced me to Dave Snowden and his thinking and experiences in relation to Complexity Theory. Snowden talks about the Cynefin (pronounced Kunevin) Framework. This is a sense-making model that enables exploration to help groups to work through complex problems.
Snowden talks about three domains or systems:
- ORDERED (complicated and simple): simple — cause and effect exists — sense, categorise, response = best practice | complicated — cause and effect exists but is not self-evident — sense, analyse, respond or call in experts = good practice
- COMPLEX: cause and effect only visible in hindsight, unpredictable, emergent outcomes — probe, sense, respond — conduct safe to fail experiments: define amplification and dampening strategies up front for success and failure = emergent practice — a new way of doing things
- CHAOTIC: act, sense, respond — move fast to stabilise
(adapted from Dave Snowden)
Which domain would you say your CoL is in?
Snowden points out that you could be in a state of disorder if you don’t know which of the domains you are in. Perhaps you are acting on a plan that is full of activity but has no overarching vision. Perhaps you keep adding to that plan in response to stated needs as they emerge from the voices of many different CoL members.
A CoL could sit in the Ordered domain; if it were a group of schools and/or services that have some clear cause and effect issues to address or that need to bring in some experts to address some more complicated issues, where cause and effect are not so obvious. In that case, you probably already have robust inquiry processes showing the cause and effect of the challenges that you have identified.
If your CoL is in the Chaotic domain, Snowden points out that you should ask…what actions do we take now to stabilize the situation? Are we going to impose order (shift the problem to simple) or create enough stability so we have time for experiments (shift the problem to complex)?
Your CoL may be in the Complex domain, having built a robust vision and, perhaps, now working on a related and coherent plan that is aligned to that vision. You can’t yet see the cause and effect of your challenges, and it is getting difficult to maintain momentum with your vision because you don’t yet have the inquiry practices that can support you to identify clear next steps. While you build your inquiry capability across the CoL… How might you move forward and manage the tension between taking time to build a clear vision while sensing the urgency that something must be done now about your challenges?
Safe to fail experiments can’t rely on the well-worn grooves in your reasoning; if these complex challenges could be solved using conventional methods, they’d be fixed already. Instead, we have to force new ways of thinking about old problems. This is the promise—and the peril—of complexity
– Jennifer Garvey Berger
There are some key parts to designing safe-to-fail experiments that leaders must follow in order to find a path forward in relation to a complex challenge:
- Probe: know your CoL and how it works. Map it and all the things around it.
- Sense: play with your map — understand how things and people connect, identify what you’d like to see more or less of (link to your challenges).
- Respond: design some simple safe-to-fail experiments or probes, encourage the creation of experiments to address the challenges.
What does this mean for leadership in CoLs?
For leaders, Snowden and Boone explain that this involves:
- letting a solution emerge from the materials at hand
- taking on a more experimental mode of leadership and management
- resisting the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control actions of leadership
- tolerating failure
- sitting back, allowing patterns to emerge, then determining which ones are desirable.
All of this allows for innovation, creativity, and new ways of working (Snowden and Boone).
Tools for leading in a complex context:
- Open up discussion: enable more interactive communication.
- Set barriers: enable others to self-regulate within boundaries.
- Stimulate attractors: find out what resonates with people and try using these to gain momentum — see what takes off.
- Encourage dissent and diversity: foster critique of ideas between teams.
- Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence: support the conditions for people to innovate, then get out of their way.
(adapted from Snowden and Boone)
Want to find out more?
Read & Watch
Dave Snowden – video: How to organise a children’s party
Dave Snowden – video: The Cynefin Framework
Snowden & Boone – article: A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making
Dave Snowden: Safe-fail Probes blogpost
Jennifer Garvey-Berger: Why the best plan might not be a good one
Jennifer Garvey Berger: On not finding the heart of the matter blogpost
CORE Ten Trend: Networked Communities
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