“Trust comes from truth telling,” Hanh Cao Yu from the California Endowment said from the plenary stage at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Learning Conference last week in Seattle. Her words rang true from multiple perspectives.
As I’ve learned in my work with communities across the country applying StriveTogether’s collaborative improvement approach, one of the most underused steps in any improvement process is learning from what happened — good, bad or otherwise. In part, that’s because of our sector’s misplaced urgency to jump from symptoms to solutions instead of prioritizing time to reflect, analyze and dig into the root causes. It’s also in part because of the deeply entrenched elements of white supremacy culture that dominate our workplaces — patterns of perfectionism, defensiveness and either/or thinking. These behaviors are keeping the status quo in place.
Only if we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable with one another — to be truth tellers — will we be able to truly create a culture of learning that drives equity and results. The practice of emergent learning (or making thinking visible) can be a powerful way to create a learning culture on your team.
I was at the #GEOLearn conference to speak on a panel and share how StriveTogether has worked to embed principles of emergent learning in our work with cradle-to-career partnerships. This approach is meant to help combat human tendencies of leaping to solutionitis and instead test, learn, improve and repeat.
Emergent learning begins with asking powerful questions. Borrowing from the world of human-centered design, we start with broad, forward-focused “How might we …?” questions to unleash our full creativity in problem solving. In crafting a question, avoid fuzzy language — shorthand, overgeneralized words and phrases (e.g., effective leadership — What does effective mean? What about leadership?).
|Fuzzy Language||Clear Language|
|Community engagement||Students and parents have decision-making power to define and prioritize strategies and allocates resources|
|Bias/racism||Implicit bias of educators that leads to disproportionate rates of suspensions and extensions for African-American boys|
|Data use||Practitioners use student-level data on a daily/weekly basis to target support and improve how they work|
Fuzzy language can lead to weaker inquiry, overly global solutions and a false sense of alignment in partners. For example, people generally agree “community engagement” is a good thing, but you may not really have buy-in about sharing and ceding decision-making power to young people unless you are explicit about the goal. “De-fuzzify” your language so that your “How might we…?” question drives targeted inquiry, insight and action.
After hearing lessons and takeaways from my co-panelists — a consulting group (Ross Strategic Group) and a grantmaker (the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation) — I began to reflect on the evolving role that StriveTogether has played over the last decade.
When we work with communities in the early stage of this work, we operate somewhat like a consulting group, sharing the wisdom and expertise of communities that have built the civic infrastructure to get better results for children and youth at scale. When we work with Cradle to Career Network members that are more advanced in this work, we serve as a connector and a coach. And with the Accelerator Fund and other funds in the Cradle to Career Community Challenge, we have added the role of grantmaker.
As an organization, we are learning and continuously improving. Progress is one of our core values: We aspire to share learning and progress in real time, view professional development as personal growth and fix problems through continuous improvement. Because as Hanh Cao Yu said, “It’s not about beating the odds. It’s about changing the odds.”
If we are to collectively make progress on transforming systems to change the odds for every child across our country, we need to intentionally build a culture of equity and results — with a powerful learning engine.
So take time to reflect. Be brave enough to share your learning — particularly when your views diverge from the norm — and turn those insights into action with others. When we make thinking visible, we increase our ability to get things done.