Travel Knowingly: The journey towards discovering your organization’s Element

In November a group from the Ottawa Carleton District School Board attended the Creativity World Forum (#cwf2010) in Oklahoma.  The OCDSB’s “Lead the Way” initiative is concerned with rethinking notions leadership in order to recognize, celebrate and encourage creativity and leadership on a grass-roots level, thus creating the conditions for greater creativity and innovation across our District.  While in Oklahoma, we heard from Sir Ken Robinson (a livescribe recording of one session is here). I wanted to share a recent @sirkenrobinson response to a question posed using the hashtag #askSKR on twitter because it made me reflect on the “Lead the Way” project and the most enduring and sustaining connections made during our trip to Oklahoma — those made amongst the OCDSB group members as we got to know each other better during the forum.  Have a view (4 minutes well-spent):

In this short video, Sir Ken offers us plenty to ponder with respect to our own journey to finding our element, and I also found myself thinking about “Lead the Way” as a collective journey to finding our District’s element.

A District Wide Element – Some Navigational Tools

Its really a two-way journey, as I see it.  The first is, its an inward journey.  If you are interested in finding your element, you have to spend time with yourself.  You have to reflect, you have to look inward ….  You have to spend time with your own dreams ….  Whatever process aids your reflection, that’s a key part of this journey to your element — it is to look inward and to be with yourself and to find time to reflect on your own interests, your own passions… the times when perhaps you felt most centred…         – Sir Ken Robinson, askSKR#6

In some earlier posts, I reflected on my experiences at the Creativity World Forum — “the future is unwritten” , Creativity World Forum and Sitting on the edge of a paradigm shift.  All of these are examples of my own inward journey.  In many ways, the “Lead the Way” initiative at the OCDSB began as an inward journey, and continues to have that quality too.  Five years ago a survey was conducted to determine a new leadership narrative for the District.  The survey revealed that there were many employee groups within the District who felt that their experiences were not reflected in our old articulation of leadership.  Clearly it was time to “change the conversation” in order to uncover the conditions within which our District might find its element.  Our new leadership narrative followed the survey:
Leadership is exemplified by people who are able to impact those around them in a positive way.  Our leaders are energetic, empathetic, motivated, trustworthy, knowledgeable and good communicators.  Our leaders share a common vision in their commitment to all students.  Our leaders understand that their role is one of support.  They lead by example, they seek input, and they listen.  As an organization, we encourage and foster these qualities.  In challenging and prosperous times, we are defined by the relationships we build.

Last spring the OCDSB hosted an appreciative inquiry event — “Make a Positive Impact” — another part of our inward journey.  We sent individuals, including parents, community partners, and staff from a variety of employee groups from across the District out on buses to visit sites and schools looking for what it is that we are already doing really well to support learning.  I truly believe that adopting an appreciative inquiry lens enables us to get to know the best of what we are as a District, especially as it pertains to discovering our District’s element.
In his short video, Sir Ken also discusses the other side of the journey towards finding your element:

The second part of the journey is an outward journey.  I don’t mean this is sequential … but the second part of the journey is outward.  It is to try things that you didn’t try before.  If there are things you always wanted to do, then what are they and what would prevent you from doing that?  And its not just to try things at random, but to travel knowingly — to try new experiences, but to evaluate them and to reflect on them at the same time.     — Sir Ken Robinson, askSRK#6

I am really excited by some of the “outward journey” things happening within the OCDSB recently.  Each “Lead the Way” event evolves slightly so that we are constantly experimenting with format, space, content and participants.  The most recent event last night, designed to celebrate Administration and Support Staff (Office Administrators, Educational Assistants, Custodians, Library Technicians, etc…) was a huge success with over 200 participants coming together in a festive atmosphere to share stories, learn about creative initiatives from across the District, and to catch up with old friends.  Above all, the evening was about relationships — the foundational piece of our organization.

The “Lead the Way” events are also an integral part of our outward journey as an organization because the key components of the events are the displays and presentations highlighting creative and innovative practices from all across the District.  They reveal individuals and groups moving us forward by trying new things — new approaches to encourage learning at its very best.  As participants in the events hear about these practices, a field of possibilities is opened up and we are asked to consider, (to echo Sir Ken’s words) “what would prevent you from doing that?”

And that process of looking outward and looking inward, I believe, has the elements that are needed to discover your element.  — Sir Ken Robinson, askSKR#6

Creativity World Forum #cwf2010

cwf2010This week I am fortunate to be part of an 11-member delegation from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) attending the Creativity World Forum (#cwf2010) in Oklahoma City.  The story of why we are here and the journey thus far is an interesting one.  You can read a bit about that journey and the Lead the Way campaign here.  At the heart of the Lead the Way project is the understanding that all individuals within our organization has creative and unique capacities and ideas that need to be recognized, valued and tapped into.  By encouraging individuals and groups to explore and expand those creative capacities, we create a culture of engagement where people feel valued and engaged in ongoing learning.  The benefits to the organization are myriad and, although Lead the Way is now in its’ fifth year, we are really only at the beginning stages of realizing the potential for this approach.

What about Student Achievement?

As a public school board, the OCDSB is committed first and foremost to supporting student achievement across the District.  This is precisely the driving force behind the Lead the Way project.  As witnessed by the unanticipated interest — registration for the CWF is double what it was anticipated to be — people from across the globe and in a variety of industries are recognizing the critical role that creative and innovative thinking plays and will continue to play in this century.  Last spring, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto explored the necessity of adopting an artistic mind-set for business leaders today, as well as the importance of developing that mind-set in leaders of tomorrow.  In the opening article, Rotman Dean Roger Martin discusses the role of an ‘artistic alternative’ in response to today’s complex world:

Effectively dealing with the challenges of the modern world — rather than with the narrow sub-segments of them — demands artistic capacity.  Without the explicit development of qualititative thought, sophisticated mental operations like judgement in the face of uncertainty, coping with ambiguity, balancing consequences, and responding effectively to surprise will remain ellusive.  No matter what we do for a living, we need to go beyond using our knowledge as a recipe and aim higher than crunching quantitative data to produce single point answers. (Rotman Magazine, Spring 2010, p. 7)

The point is simple.  In a complex world, the approach Martin coins as the ‘artistic alternative’ enables individuals to tap into their own perhaps previously undervalued capacities to understand, process and respond using a fuller set of senses.  The creative response is critical in the complex world.  If we, as an educational organization, are meant to support student achievement, we must cultivate the learning environment that will foster the artistic mind-set.

Not a top-down strategy

Rather than seeing this as an urgent call for another top-down initiative, our project has been, and must continue to be, somewhat grassroots in its approach.  Instead of developing a creativity policy and an accompanying set of procedures, Lead the Way is constantly looking for avenues through which all individuals in our District — parents, teachers, educational assistants, custodians, principals, community partners, etc… — can tap into their own creative capacities.  Through recognizing current practices that model the creative approach, we hope that creative and innovative thinking will spread throughout the District, like a spark that catches and sets the whole place ablaze.  If individuals and groups across the District engage in creative approaches to the every day, our learning environments will be enriched and will provide the inspiration and motivation to keep the momentum going.  Students will benefit from seeing the adults with whom they work engaged in risk-taking through the use of innovative and unique approaches to learning.

Now, good morning, Oklahoma!  If I were Wayne Coyne, where would I be …

a new looking glass

There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

–Lewis Carol “Through the Looking Glass”

This morning I spent a few hours imagining new possibilities with a group that included parents, school administrators, teachers and our interim Director of Education.  The “Building Relationships” event, co-hosted by the Ottawa Carleton Assembly of School Councils and Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization, asked participants to focus their energy on identifying what is working really well to foster and recognize effective parent and community engagement in our public schools.  The approach, based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), assumes that every organization holds within itself the kernel of potential for positive change.  David Cooperider explains the generative and constructive nature of Appreciative Inquiry:

In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

Appreciative Inquiry stands in stark contrast to traditional strategic planning where the focus is on the problem and the search for solutions.  Instead, with AI, the focus is on what is working really well and how we can create the conditions that will foster more of the positive.  AI asks us to leave behind our preoccupation with all that is wrong and bad within the organization and to direct our efforts towards recognizing the very best of our organization’s activities.

I first began to think through the AI lens when I was planning an event last spring.  The approach really appeals to me because I have witnessed and experienced the stress that comes with zooming in on the negative.  The typical problem-solving approach has, in the past, left me feeling powerless to change a situation because it feels too big, it seems to be external to me, or it doesn’t seem to have a solution.  Since shifting to an appreciative approach, I have seen how it opens space for new possibilities and I have felt empowered to make changes for the better, both in working with students, staff and parents.

The event this morning saw approximately 40 individuals “give up” their Saturday morning to be together to generate the beginning narrative of greater community and parent involvement in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  Participants were self-directed in leading, joining and leaving several conversations happening throughout the room.  As I moved from one conversation to another, I heard examples of projects and events happening throughout the District where parents and the community play an integral role and where the students benefit from the partnerships.  One of the sometimes overlooked perks of an AI approach is that once we begin discovering the best of what we are as an organization, the experience becomes truly productive and infectious:  We begin to imagine new possibilities that we might otherwise have missed or dismissed.  A few of the ideas shared during discussions included:

  • approaching the Ottawa Citizen about running a regular column dedicated to highlighting positive events and projects occurring throughout the District.
  • compiling a database of ideas and examples of partnerships between the school and the community
  • principals using synrevoice to send out weekly or monthly announcements of upcoming events and / or recent successes
  • opening schools in the evening to more community use
  • providing opportunities for students to teach technology skills to parents and community members
  • increasing the use of Multicultural Liaison Officers to help break down barriers to immigrant parents

As a wrap-up, our facilitator brought us back together as a whole group to share what we had taken away from the morning.  To me, the AI approach itself fosters greater engagement because it shifts from a view where we are looking externally at problems and searching for solutions to the recognition that we have within ourselves the ability to make a positive impact and bring about change for the better.  In short, it asks us to look into the looking glass first.  The seeds for several new partnerships were sown this morning and it will be interesting to witness the ripple effect as participants go back to their spheres of influence with a renewed commitment and a fresh perspective.

image “sunflowers”  CC by marcomagrini
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