I recently received an RFP from an outstanding school that wants to truly engage their community in meaningful change. They are looking for a consultant to help on the work, and in discussing my thoughts with a colleague, she suggested I redact my response and post it for general interest. Here it is:
First let me say that the goals and directions of your proposed work are not only laudatory but leading, which in my lexicon is up there at or near the top. My concern is how we get there and how we build true sustainability of innovation within schools. A long time ago I decided that I was only interested in working on tough problems to develop elegant solutions, and I think this is where I might be outside of your comfort zone.I believe firmly that the “how we get there” is actually the most important element of “being there” in any kind of a sustainable fashion. When people ask me what I do, the best I can summarize is this: “I help school communities build a comfort and capacity for change”. At the core of this is the understanding that the community itself has to be deeply embedded in many or all aspects of the process. If not, we end up with a modified version of what schools have always had: teachers in the classroom, “leaders” making high level decisions, and largely non-educational professional board members taking responsibility for “strategic, long-term planning”. It is this process, preached and maintained by most (almost all?) school consultants, that preserves backward and inward looking, reactive, silo-ed, slow-to-change school systems and thinking.I am trying to break this system and align it much more closely with how we know other successful innovative organizations work. Those of us who have either intentionally or unknowingly practiced design thinking methods for a long time recognize that elegant solutions, and often ones that were least obvious at the outset, are achieved when stakeholders are involved deeply at the outset, and are also deeply involved in empathetic understanding of their users, design, prototyping, and implementation. I think this is what you want to do, and I know I am very good at helping schools do this. As I said to (NAME DELETED) I am afraid that the constraints of the fall board meeting may push you to truncate some of the most critical elements of the process. Summers are valuable time, but many of our stakeholders are not around in summer, so we either slow the process down or fail to observe the full process. I want to build real long-term capacity, and would rather miss one summer of work than build on a shaky foundation.The RFP suggests that a small team will, over the summer, design and prototype the way forward. I think that is robbing the larger school community of both the burden and opportunity to collectively build this way forward, which is where the real strength of process lies. What if we used those first workshops to develop the cultural framework around teachers and administrators taking ownership of this wonderful process upon which you are ready to embark; to jointly develop vision, structures, and norms to take on this work; to identify specific design challenges that would align to the guiding elements of a shared vision; and to gain some skills in how to collaboratively own and advance a design-type process. If the smaller working team is going ahead on design and prototyping in the summer, I truly believe the school community is not building the collective strength it needs to effectively implement these designs down the road.
Did I just remove myself from consideration on a long-term, lucrative contract with a very forward-leaning school full of wonderful educators? Possibly. But I would rather give honest advice in hopes that this school will build towards a sustainable model of systematic change than move forward quickly on a weaker foundation.