Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)

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Web 2.0′s “Broadcast” problem: The case for Meaningful Engagement

For the commercial web’s first decade, people communicated the old fashioned way: broadcasting their messages to anyone who would listen. It was a simple, easy extension of traditional advertising, public relations, politics and academic publishing. E-mail, also cutting edge at the time, modeled the same broadcast mentality. It was yet another easy way to lob messages to large audiences.

Prevalence of the “broadcast model” has limited people’s view of how the internet can be used to deliver messages. Many still don’t realize that the new internet (Web 2.0) offers a radically different proposition: collaborating with others via an open, multi-party exchange.

Engagement is communication at a different level

If communicating via email was passive and routine, the connections possible with engagement are active and dynamic. True engagement is more work. It requires time, energy and active listening. But the resulting flow of information brings rich rewards. Insights begin to accumulate and multiply. Ideas get validated and enhanced in several directions at once. And as the value of the idea exchange increases, personal relationships begin to form around them.

Meaningful, high-value connections like these are at the core of the Twitter chat phenomenon that’s spawned successful, ongoing communities like #smchat and #blogchat and social innovation teams like #ecosys.

And yet engagement rates among the masses remain critically low. Try to talk about social media with the average person, and you can see the resistance in their eyes, as if to say, “I know better, I’ve heard that one before, you can’t fool me.”

That makes building social teams and virtual communities much harder than it needs to be.

Why so much resistance?

I find the Web 1.0 mindset serves as a filter to the possibilities, reinforced by a culture that has grown cynical and distrusting. Unfortunately, those old habits and opinions die hard.

Thought leadership in this space goes back 50 years. Concepts like Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” (1962), Charles Handy’s “organizational culture” (1976), and Peter Senge’s “mental models” (1990) all build on the theme of the filters we use when we perceive the world around us. It seems we’ve advanced our understanding, but have moved too little to act on what we’ve learned.

The idea of “getting outside the box” was clearly spawned from this line of thinking. Far too many remain safely inside those boxes.

Here’s a key takeaway, unvarnished:

Mental filters (influenced by culture, formal education and our past life experiences) shape how we perceive the world around us, blinding us to new perspectives and blocking us from making deep connections with others.

Can we take this problem on, unlocking engagement in the virtual space? I say yes. Getting past our mental filters may be the first hurdle, but there are more. I’ve posted thoughts on the specifics of meaningful engagement over at Talent Culture.

There’s a world full of complex problems out there. Embracing broad, meaningful collaborative engagement on a much larger scale is critical if we hope to solve them.

A “Playbook” for Open Government: A Grass-roots Federal Community that’s focused on Collaboration

On Wednesday, April 28, agency and industry stakeholders gathered for the 4th workshop in the “Open Government Playbook” series. The session was held at USDA facilities in Washington.

With the vantage point of three consecutive Playbook Workshops (one virtually, two in person), I have become a regular. But reflecting on our last session, I’ve grown even more intrigued. The ideas are getting traction, and I’m starting to see momentum.

Workshop Highlights

From the last session’s outset, balloons filled the meeting room as Lucas Cioffi, conference organizer, put a demo of collaboration in action. It was a hands-on exercise showing how teamwork could drive value. Participants were learning that more interactions produced more value, as they “traded up” to the highest value balloons.

Our special guest, Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO from the White House, shared her vision for Open Government, focusing on the energy building in response to President Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive. She used a reference to Thomas Jefferson in the “lighting of a taper” as a metaphor for collaboration, with a powerful image: passing the flame to a new wick does not reduce the glow of the original.

As further framing, I offered insights on the need for active engagement in effective collaboration, and the need for a clear vision and a strong guiding coalition as a foundation for the required culture change.

Next came the main event: session breakouts.

For nearly 3 hours, roughly 60 participants engaged in intense conversation and brainstorming, with questions they had generated live, in real-time. Using a ‘self-organizing’ approach, topic suggestions went up on the board, and break-outs formed around topics of greatest interest. In groups of 12 to 30, the discussion around Open Government literally went full circle, as group members shared ideas and possible solutions.

Takeaways

Notes from the Workshop breakouts are still being posted here, but several themes emerged from our conversations:

  1. Open Government (“OG”) is not an end in itself, but a means to better accomplish agency missions
  2. Silos are everywhere; guidelines for navigating them must evolve
  3. Collaborative approaches are key and must evolve as well, eventually becoming ubiquitous
  4. Focus on OGD compliance should not overshadow the objective of driving change in how government engages with stakeholders (internally, across agencies, and externally, with citizens)
  5. A core OG community is forming, based on shared objectives

Several noted that Open Government has been tried before.

Al Gore led the “reinventing government” charge (aka “NPR”) in the mid 1990’s, an effort that stalled. The reasons for that are still debated, with cultural resistance often high on the list.

What seems different now is the level of interplay among diverse stakeholders. There is growing energy around OG innovation that runs wide (across agencies) and deep (spanning both political and civil service hierarchies). But the OGD Playbook conversation is not limited to Federal employees. In this forum, thought leaders from all quarters are encouraged to participate, adding much needed insight from industry.

The magic is happening in the middle.

It’s a place where change can be envisioned, articulated, and given the chance to take root.

At the end of the Workshop, as participants summarized what they’d learned, there was energy on quality of inputs and progress. Many said they’d received a level of insight that exceeded their expectations, and said they planned to return.

Can OG innovations of this magnitude be sustained?

That’s a critical question, and the focus on the next OG Playbook event, targeted for May/June. We hope you’ll come out and join us. Watch the OGD Playbook Wiki front page for the latest.

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Kotter’s 8-Steps: Leading Change in the 21st Century Organization

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2010, by

Is there a good way to attack change in organizations? To influence (and maybe even ‘fix’) the complex org cultures that drive the collective behavior of their members?

That’s the focus of this post, the 5th in my series on culture change.

John Kotter gave us perhaps the best-circulated approach for change in his HBR paper that turned into the classic: Leading Change (1996). With the caveat that there are no silver bullets I believe Kotter provides a strong, intuitive and timeless approach to grappling with change.

Unfortunately, too many have given up along the way.

Organization change and, more specifically, changing an organization’s culture, share a common scope and scale. They are, in many ways, intertwined. That means Kotter can take us in the right direction. Let me recap his 8-point outline here, providing some 21st century insight and ‘solution language’ of my own to update his framing.

  1. Urgency. Per Kotter, one of the biggest enemies is complacency. Why change? Keeping things the way they are is easier. That may be. But the path to major improvements of any kind will be held hostage with this mindset. Low standards or segmented (silo’d) accountabilities can create a false sense that eveything is okay. Change requires everyone to get beyond that comfort zone, to “step up” for something new, different, and better.
  2. Coalition. Inspiring and sponsoring change is the work of leaders, so it’s critical that they engage. That means an oversight group that includes respected leaders is key. Without it, the organization will sense management’s lack of investment and will fail to participate.
  3. Vision. The organization needs to know where it is being asked to go. Having a strong, unambiguous statement that frames the future state is the only way for the organization to focus on it. A well-written vision is motivating, inspiring the organization to come together.
  4. Communication. Many change efforts fail because they don’t reach far enough into the organization. An effective communication program makes the work of the change initiative part of the organization’s daily affairs, embedding messages in as many artifacts and venues as possible. Think ‘saturation’ and you’ll be on the right track. But it needs to be simple and actionable, to retain people’s attention.
  5. Empowerment. Employees often don’t feel they can influence the vision. If they feel disconnected and removed from the issues, they will feel ineffective and powerless, and will not to want to waste their time. The key is to establish a link between how specific employee and departmental actions can realize the vision. Barriers must be removed. And management must start letting go of their unilateral decisions, trusting larger cross-functional teams to work things out. There is less control and predictability in this mode, but empowerment creates the conditions where new ideas can spark and flourish.
  6. Momentum. Major change takes time, and there will be detractors. Kotter notes that posting interim gains drives credibility when it is most needed – on the long road toward implementation. Focus here also puts energy to fine tuning the vision, applying lessons learned along the way.
  7. Integration. I love Kotter’s quote “resistance always waits to reassert itself,” so ‘consolidating gains’ is important. If change initiatives have structures that sit outside of daily operations, we must weave the new programs, policies, people and structures back in. If change remains outside the mainstream for too long, it can seem foreign to the rest of the organization.
  8. Anchoring. The organizations culture must reflect the new changes if they are to survive long-term. Organizations tend to have long memories, and if the leadership changes or the initiative is called into question, there will be many who offer the “old way” as an alternative solution to all the change. That is why bringing the culture forward to align with the change is critical.

Kotter says “human beings are emotional creatures, and we ignore that at our peril.” I agree. I put it like this:

It is not enough to make the case in facts and figures. People have to believe in the change, own it, and live it. Ensuring organization culture incorporates the change elements is the only way to ensure long-term viability.

Again, it would be a mistake to simply follow these steps (or others like them) and expect change to result directly. As we’ve discussed at each post in this series, the many dimensions, structures, and complexities in organizations create challenges at every turn. Leaders recognize this, and adapt their approach over the life of the change effort.

At the core of it, is a commitment. They can’t ever lose faith. To lose forward momentum is to accept defeat.

We started talking in January on barriers to ‘2.0’, with the idea that ‘social media’ integration and, more broadly, ‘innovation’ itself faced many cultural barriers. Leading coordinated change initiatives (vs. traditional ‘change management’) appears to be the only truly viable path forward. It is truly ‘no small task’. But that’s not to say it’s impossible. It’s simply hard work.

Call me old fashioned, but the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be done. I say (again): let’s get going.

Culture Change in Government: No Small Task

Per our framing, we’ve spent the last several weeks exploring theories of culture change, ranging from Schein (dimensions) and Handy (structural forces) to Eoyang (complexity).

Now let’s move to a specific scenario, to tie this all together.

With focus on large organizations, the Federal Government is a good place to start. This is even more timely given the recent push by the Obama administration for “open government”. The President’s January 2009 “Open Government Directive” (OGD) mandated that agencies move to a more open, participatory, collaborative stance.

As I’ve said in my GovLoop posts, that’s no small task.

Let’s explore the cultural forces underlying the challenges ahead.

Bill Eggers and John O’Leary in their 2009 book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government” offer some excellent insights, especially when held up to my prior posts on Schein and Handy.

The Agency Dimension. Like Schein, Eggers/O’Leary recognize multiple dimensions. While they claim there is no overarching “government culture”, they identify several operating cultures for each agency, according to the mission of each. Without naming specific agencies, the authors categorize the space by role: enforcers, instructors, helpers, processors, builders/fixers, housekeepers and scientists. To each they assign a cultural mindset which drive behavioral biases. Their distinctions are useful, as they bring focus to diverse objectives of each agency. Semantics could be debated. But Eggers/O’Leary are pointed us in the right direction. This alone has value to OGD planners.

Culture Clash: The Great Divide. But they also focus on an even more critical dimension: the divide between political appointees and civil servants. This is where Handy’s framework of 4 structural forces is immensely helpful. The political appointees in agency leadership roles follow Handy’s central, power-based, shorter horizon mindset. The civil servants? Clearly aligned (if not defining) the role-based, bureaucratic model, embracing structure, continuity, and focused on long-term horizons.

That means a deep culture clash runs through the management chain of the Administrative branch of our Federal Government.

Casual observers and insiders alike will quickly see this as ineffective, with compounding inefficiencies due to distrust and delays. Doubtless this was never part of the design. The U.S. Constitution is silent on culture. But the effects are nonetheless pervasive. Government moves slowly, often at cross purposes.

Raising the Bar (Further). To make matters worse, our last post developed a very modern concept of effective collaboration that, when deployed into complex, highly structured organizations, favors adoption of still another cultural structure: Handy’s ‘task/network’ model.

“Open Government” must be adapted and applied to the cultures of seven operational delivery models (per Eggers/O’Leary), supporting three non-aligned, competing structural forces. And that’s not to mention generational divides: a critical dimension to be certain, with yet another set of change factors.

No small task, indeed.

Path Forward with “OGD”. For Open Government to succeed, culture change must be taken on aggressively. Political appointees and civil servants must learn to see and to bridge their long-standing cultural divide. And both must seek to understand and adopt a new culture of networked collaboration that is inherent in the OGD vision, extending the work of government beyond its borders, involving and engaging citizens.

Al Gore and his “NPR” team ran into these obstacles in the mid-1990s, when “Reinventing Government” took a run at these topics, but the challenges (or politics) of the day seem to have won out over lasting change.

Will history repeat itself?

Perhaps not. Obama’s “Open Government” mandate appears to have a vital combination of leadership backing and increasing momentum.

Beth Noveck has not only helped to shape the vision for this, she has been asked to lead it, as Deputy CTO for Open Government. In her 2009 “Wiki Government”, she lays out the challenge in the context of fundamental transformation:

“The entire agenda for change cannot rest on any one CIO or CTO .. collaborative governance depends on having people through the agencies with the skills, ability, and willingness to innovate .. taking risks, and implementing collaborative strategies.”

What does this mean to our concept of Government? Noveck continues:

“Citizens are no longer talking about the process; they are the process. The future of public institutions demands that we create a collaborative ecosystem with numerous opportunities for those with expertise to engage.”

The Open Government vision is as strong as it is ambitious.

Significant work lies ahead. But in corners of the world and even in Washington, that work is underway.

What’s Ahead? Next post, I’ll make an updated pass at John Kotter’s well-circulated “8 Steps” toward cultural intervention. I’ll argue that all of his ideas still apply, but that they’ll need to be amended, at a minimum, to cope with complexity. Your input would be valued.

In the special case of Government (which I’ll keep on radar) those updates will need to focus on the impact of 3 divergent cultures: political, civil servant, and collaborative .. as well as the many operational dimensions that compound those differences.

Complexity in Organizations: Finding Patterns that Work

As our series on org culture continues, its time to raise the bar in our thinking.

Imagine an overlay of the many cultural dimensions of Edgar Schein onto the four primary cultural forces of Charles Handy. The plot thickens: these are conditions present in virtually all organizations. Large orgs have many, diverse subcultures, making cause and effect of broader organization behaviors elusive. The many variables drive an unpredictable dynamic. Traditional OD interventions often take on issues or interventions one by one, in an effort to simplify. But this simply leaves prevailing forces intact.

It’s a complex but common situation, and for most, it’s hard to imagine how to deal with it. As we said in our framing post, that’s why org and culture change efforts often struggle or fail.

The key focus: complexity, and how it impacts culture change in large organizations.

A modern, more holistic perspective for grappling with complexity in organizations comes from the Human Systems Dynamics Insititute (HSDI). Glenda Eoyang w/ Ed Olson, in “Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science” (2001) introduce some new thinking. Let’s take look at how their model creates focus on specific group interactions amid a sea of variables:

    What, Where and When (defining: the “containers”). Must focus on the problem scope or domain that bring a group of people together at a point in time. Many contexts are possible and potentially meaningful, but to achieve a result, one must be picked for focus, to produce a tangible result. More simply, if its a “box within a box” world, which box are we working on right now?
    Who (defining: the “differences”). Ideally, members of a group will be diverse in their thinking. This brings strong creative energy via opposing viewpoints. Each member can be a catalyst. Bringing members in contact helps them to see alternatives and challenge the status quo. This is essential, and often impossible in Handy’s ‘role/silo’ culture.
    How (defining: the “exchanges”). Ensuring an efficient means for interaction is key, including face to face conversation and electronic connections. How and why will people in this problem space connect? What is the currency of their interaction? Again, difficult in a ‘role/silo’ world.

I see these as the critical building blocks for framing (and ultimately, teaching) collaborative behaviors. And from this conceptual framework, some useful and practical insights have already emerged.

To advance these ideas, let’s tap the perspectives of additional HSDI thought leaders Royce Halladay, Christine Quade, and Mary Nations:

    Patterns are outcomes that result from adaptive group collaboration. It is important to reinforce (and thus, reproduce) the positive patterns, and stop the negative ones.
    Simple Rules are the basis for guiding behavior, which can be done by selecting valuable patterns and reinforcing them (eg. corporate “guiding principles”). These must be actions, starting with a verb.
    Generative Engagement (aka “productive outcomes”) may be the holy grail in this thought process for OD. It is the way to tap value from the theory, as teams model desired behaviors from the organization, and adopt simple rules.

Over time, the theories go, the organization adopts the best, most valuable behaviors, learning to follow useful patterns. There is more engagement. Good things happen. The organization learns, adapts, and becomes more effective.

If you’re an OD professional, this should be resonating a bit.

As a simple example, cross-functional problem-solving teams can accomplish much using this model. But an even more specific example is a special case: online social communities like #smchat and #ecosys. The diverse thinking of such a group tends to challenge established norms. There is no pre-existing structure to unwind. Innovation can commence as soon as the simple rules are established. The group creates its own situational context, and develops its own specialized, often highly productive method for exchange of ideas.

In complexity terms, we call this “self-organizing”. It is a powerful way for groups to spawn new, emergent results.

That’s a fancy name for innovation.

Seeking to Understand Optimal Conditions. Creating optimized, cross-functional discovery teams is a great way to demonstrate and model effective collaboration. They function best in Handy’s “task/network” model. They are designed to adapt, as members learn from interacting with others, tapping their collective base of experience. And they quickly grow adept at pursuing only patterns that produce desired results. Quite literally, they learn. Without such dynamics, the hardened status quo of the “role/silo” culture prevails, restricting exchange, and providing insufficient diversity of thinking to move beyond the status quo. Thus in traditional structured, top-down groups, innovation can easily be shut down. In groups that understand and build energy from complexity science and the HSDI framework, innovation can flourish.

The “Learning Organization” is a future state imagined by Peter Senge in Fifth Discipline (1990). His systems thinking concepts assumed more structure, but his vision of what is possible is congruent with what I’ve outlined here. We are working in the same direction.

Where Senge left open the “how”, Eoyang and others at HSDI are applying complexity science to get there.

The rest is up to us. When we’ve connected the dots on the core elements of organization and culture change (as we’re doing here) we can move more swiftly to pilot implementations.

Next, I’ll post on implications of Culture Change in Government and will update Kotter’s “8 interventions” to account for 21st century forces of increased complexity.

Meantime, your insights are, as always, greatly appreciated.

The Trouble w/ Silos: Lessons from Charles Handy

CHARLOTTE, NC. March, 2010, by

We’re continuing to unpack the forces of culture in organizations.

So far, we’ve framed the many challenges, and looked to Edgar Schein to help us understand the interplay among org culture’s multiple, overlapping dimensions.

Now let’s tap the insights of Charles Handy (Understanding Organizations, 4th ed. 1993) who defined four cultural structures that are alive and well today.

I’ve summarized key implications here:

Lot’s to absorb, but Handy is telling an important story. First, let’s update the semantics from Handy’s 4 models, with some 21st century terms.

  • Power (command)
  • Role (control, silo, bureaucracy)
  • Task (network, matrix)
  • Person (individual contributor, talent pool)

To me, its clear: Handy’s structural forces are as deeply ingrained in modern organizations as ever. But what else can we learn from these structural tendencies?

The Trouble with Silos. Humans are a resilient sort, even (especially?) in an organizational context. Perhaps it’s because orgs evolve toward the stability of role-based (or really, standards-based) hierarchy, in a drive to perpetuate past success. We tend to repeat what we know how to do. That sets the stage for trouble, but there’s more to it. The other 3 models, while valuable, also face a limiting factor of organization size. They just don’t work well in large organizations. That has a sobering implication:

Handy’s Role-focused (silo) model is the only one that scales, making it the de facto “end state” culture as our social and commercial infrastructures expand. The result is calcification. We see this in academia, public education, and large-scale commercial enterprises in virtually every industry.

In short, with scale, our silos are hardening. We need to find a way to break this cycle.

Taking On Complexity. In coming posts, I’ll argue that 21st century complexity demands more dynamic organizational frameworks, embracing objectives like discovery and learning. It’s not the first time we’ve posed such ideas. But with the help of Schein, Handy and others, I hope to push toward new, actionable insights.

We’ll want to talk further about the synthesis of models. Most OD veterans (including Schein and Handy) would assert that blending of models is essential.

But too often the organizational practice is “one size fits all”.

Next Up. In my next post, we’ll look at adaptation and simple rules: how patterns emerge within orgs (aka human systems), and how we might use them to harness complexity. This will let us bring 21st century perspectives to Handy’s original analysis.

It’s a complex world. Our organizations and cultures need to be redesigned to contend with it.

Stay tuned.