Tag Archives: management

The Solution to No Solution

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on LinkedIn

Not every problem has a solution. Maybe a better way to express that idea is not every problem has a solution within its current construct.

Sometimes, the rules, the structure, and/or the environment are opposed to the solution. Trying and trying again will be an endless cycle; and gains will be replaced by more and more losses.

If you cannot win the game, you need to change the game you are playing.

Finding the Correct Question(s) to Ask

Recently I was reading a comment thread about a housing situation. The situation was ridiculous. I could not think of a single country or job situation where this type of agreement would be acceptable. In fact, it seemed illegal, and more like a scam than a contractual housing issue.

The person in the situation was asking, “What can I do to manage my financial loss in this situation?”

That was the wrong question to ask. This person was focusing on the result of a bad contract. The question they should be asking is, “How can I get out of this contract?”

The contract is/was the issue. If you beat the financial loss with a loophole, another jab will come from another direction. How do I know this? Because the contract is a scam. The scammer needs the scam. The scammer will not take a loss.

In another recent situation, I had 100s of devices start to fail. The software just stopped working. Initially, I was trying to fix the devices. That seems normal, but my choice was wrong.

I only attempted to fix the problem for about 45 minutes. Then I took a step back and asked myself, “What causes 100s of stable devices to systematically fail?”

There was pressure to keep trying to fix each device. I resisted. I knew that if I fixed them, they would fail again. I knew this, because a system wide failure is not created by something on one device. It had to be external.

The problem was external. It took two weeks of paperwork and the support of a two external companies to correct the issue. There was no way for me to solve the problem. The problem was unsolvable within my environment. I had to change the process, and the entire workflow, to bring everything back online.

Avoid Being Locked Into the Past

Many people get locked into a process or workflow. They get so locked in, they never look-up, the never reflect, and they always want to carry their environment with them into the future.

When this happens they spend all their time trying to make their past work in the present.

Technology can be fascinating. It is one of the only areas of the human experience where older solutions are often actually better and more evolved than current solutions. People who are locked in on a process are not always wrong. Their older solution is better compared to the new solution.

The problem is, technology solutions are often abandoned. Developers stop developing. Companies stop supporting. Licensing stops being available. Eventually, the solution does not work unless you bring the entire version of the past into the present. The software. The hardware. Everything. Not only is this not practical, eventually everyone involved is alienated except the “time-traveler”.

I have seen a school running a version of PowerSchool too old to be viable outside of the school’s local network. It was so old, it could not be upgraded using new releases from PowerSchool. So old that PowerSchool would not provide support. And, so old that it eventually did not meet data security standards for any of the other partners the school was using.

This particular implementation had amazing features. It was customized beyond normal limits. It was also something that no parent or student wanted to use anymore. The largest user groups wanted a change, and the only solution was a completely new information system. That also means the school had to hire a new department of people. Those who kept their system living well beyond its life were too entrenched to change.

Reflecting on decisions on a regular basis, and having critical input from others, will prevent these scenarios. And this type of complete rebuild scenario is common. It is far too common, and it is destructive.

A Bad Deal, is a Bad Deal

Education is often seen as an industry that does not follow common business strategy. In many cases, this is true and unavoidable. Schools do not get to choose perfect children. Schools work with students, and sometimes at great cost, to help them grow and develop.

However, the business processes, procurement planning, and infrastructural systems do not need to operate irresponsibly for educational goals to be achieved. Planning to be inefficient, and being content to lose, is not a benefit to any child.

I have seen many bad deals, bad contracts, and predatory vendor relationships. These situations create unsolvable problems. The game is rigged. The school is often getting a poor value with a low to zero return on investment.

I had the unfortunate luck of managing a bad printing contract for a school. The school had made a deal with a third-party for Xerox solutions. Xerox has their own sales force and service, so why would anyone need a third party?

The contractor not only could not manage the hardware, they had no idea how the software worked, they were not aware of all the requirements needed for an Apple Computer environment, and they did not understand the accounting system connected to the service.

What was my solution? Remove the contractor. Instead of trying to fix the printers, I spent every moment collecting evidence and documenting breaches of the contract. I eventually made a strong case, and the school switched to a direct partner relationship.

There was no win-win. The contract was bad. The situation was impossible.

No matter how much we want something to work, or be a solution, there is a point in the process where we need to step back. We need to ask, is this worth it? Is there a better way? Are we driving the process, or is it driving us?

The Tao of Escalators: A Culture Story

Two things fascinate me about the institution of schooling: 1) How the environment around the school impacts the culture of the school and 2) The structure of the school management and how it makes decisions.

I went out for an alumni dinner from my alma mater last week and had some fascinating conversations with people that had very different careers from my own. One, a fresh graduate, was a management consultant for Ernst & Young. He told some stories about the cultures of certain businesses and how it was his job to realign them to be more purposeful. “The oil industry is all compliance driven,” he said, “So it’s tough to build in any creativity or things out of the norm. It was my job to untangle their complex and clogged systems of compliance to allow more flexibility in a rapidly changing market to allow for adaptations before things went into the tank.” Schools hire strategic consultants to come up with all sorts of things like new technology programs, NGSS, literacy initiatives, accreditations, and so on. A few take symbolic gestures at governance structures but they are mostly compliance driven and address things like whether or not the procedures for updating the policy manual have been reviewed. Very few allow someone to come in and look under the hood to see what’s really driving the work flow. (or not).

A second man, a Singaporean who had attended my university for banking and commerce, told an equally fascinating story when I complained about how awful school mission statements were. “Did you know,” he said, “that the MRT in Singapore supposedly had the fastest escalators in the world? It was part of their mission to grow the fastest and most efficient economy on the planet.”

“Really?” I said. “Faster than now because they’re really fast.”
“Oh, way faster. This is nothing.”

“So, what happened?” I asked. “How come they no longer have the fastest ones?”
“Too many older people were getting hurt. They would hesitate at the top and be afraid to get on like a carnival ride. And a lot of times when they stepped on they’d fall or something would happen. It was like an out of control conveyer belt.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

“Yeah, they only go about half speed now.”

It made me reflect on what a critical thing such as cultural attitudes towards work can impact something so operational as escalator speed. When we work in a hyper competitive environment, we don’t pay attention to the big picture, whether we are ‘compliance driven’ as the management consultant described, or even the people trying to step onto a whizzing escalator. We pay attention to the output, the outcomes, and the pressures that force the escalator to move faster or the oil company to be more compliant.

The young graduate told me that he simply crunched a lot of data and pointed things out for them to decide. He’d highlight the time for supply chains to reach their destinations, for invoices to be approved, for policy decisions to be made, all of the meat and potatoes of managing large companies. It was fascinating to think about the similarities to schools. And the escalator speed? Fascinating parallels. I know a lot of people (including myself) that have gotten tossed from that high speed staircase.

There are actually some really bold attempts to break down the compliance driven, top down, creativity, risk averse, and fear driven hierarchies that many educators work in now. One is The Mastery Transcript Consortium, (mastery.org) which is looking to redefine the way we think about and record high school academic work, and the other is the ACE Accreditation from NEASC, a bold initiative that is going to reshape the entire structure of oil company compliance that drives many schools.

So, whether you’re working in a bureaucratic and inefficient environment such as one where the post office closes during lunch (a very maddening experience) or one that is so efficient it is tossing retired folks off the conveyer belt like potatoes, you have to acknowledge and accept that the culture that surrounds you will have a direct impact on the place you work and the expectations placed on you, regardless of how high your gates are or how bold you believe your mission to be.

Think culture. Think mission. Think environment. And most of all, think relationships, they are the root of everything we do.

Lessons from Starting a New School

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By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

Since the summer of 2017 I have been working with some very committed administrators, staff, and of course teachers to start a new school in Jeju, South Korea.

Going through this process has been challenging, frustrating, disappointing, and at times confusing. The professional development is illimitable, and in a year I probably will not recognize myself (or most of my peers). We will be better in every aspect of our practice.

Without reference to anything other than this experience, and my life experience, I would like to list a few lessons that apply to school administrators, teachers, and even students. These lesson would apply to any new situation where the landscape, demographics, rules of engagement, and/or expectations are different to a person’s current status quo.

There’s No Oxygen on Mars

That is not exactly true. According to Space.Com the Martian atmosphere is about .13% oxygen. However, if you were planning a trip there and everything you needed to survive depended on the existence of oxygen then you will probably have a bad time.

As with anything, taking previous expectations, plans, schedules, curriculum, etc. to a brand new experience should be done with extreme caution. What anyone needs to thrive in a new challenge is what they learned from the previous experience, not the items they accumulated.

What a person knows in one environment could be completely useless in a new environment.  In fact, unless people are collaborating and tapping into one another’s ideas, success will consistently linger over the horizon.

Even The Rock Tapped Out

Dwayne Johnson, The Rock (aka The People’s Champion), may have seemed undefeatable in the ring, but he did tapp out on occasion. Any adult would critically explain that WWE ring action is scripted. I would agree, and then remind them that a superstar like The Rock had to agree to, and even help write, that script. Why? He wanted to succeed. He wanted to entertain. He wanted to be “human” to his younger fans. Whatever the reason, he knew when to go from doing one things (dominating everyone), to losing a few.

Knowing when things are not working, that comes fairly quickly. Developing the courage to tell a new team that your plans are failing, that comes much slower. It seems everyone’s initial reaction is to keep doing the same thing over and over. The sooner that cycle is broken, the better.

Good leaders adjust in chaos. Good team members read those adjustments and make their own. Having a preconceived plan that fails badly in a new environment is normal, and not, in itself, a failure. In any new situation perspective changes what is, and is not, success.

There’s No Need to Remind Everyone About the Apple Tree

Imagine taking a group of people to an orchard to pick apples from an old apple tree. Upon arrival the tree is gone. Cut down. The tree is no more. There are peaches, pears, and a few random cherries, but there are no apples. What do you do? You eat the other fruit.

When people move to another country or situation they initially try and replace their previous environment. Once informed that a thing or resource is not available, or impossibly expensive to obtain, the next step should be to look for a replacement.

If a replacement cannot be found, then a new solution has to be found. Asking over and over for the apple tree is not going to bring it back, but it will waste the time of the people who can help with the other fruit.

Do Not Search for Ice in Antarctica 

I have never been to Antarctica. I do have family and friends who have been. I have seen their photos. It seems fairly certain that finding ice in Antarctica is about as easy as finding a horse or cow in Kentucky.

In Antarctica I need to worry about food. I need to worry about staying warm. I do not need to worry about everything I can make from ice.

When people arrive at a new school, or any policy driven institution, they bring previous policies. Many of these policies address problems that do not exist in the new location.

Without noticing the things that do not apply, it is easy to slip into the habit of solving problems that do not exist.

This is another good reason to review everything with a group of people while spinning around in the chaotic process of starting something new. Implementing policy in a vacuum is risky business.

Celebrate the Small Wins

Starting a new journey with a group of mostly strangers is exhausting. Everyday, for many days, will be challenging. Waiting to celebrate until everything is perfect or finished would mean never celebrating when celebration is needed the most.

Plan times to take breaks (non-optional breaks) just as intensely as you would plan everything else. Give everyone those way-points to work towards. Allow people to look at the clock and realize that today they cannot work late, because at 6:00 PM there is a place they just gotta be.

Understanding The End of Year Process: Tech in the Spring Determines Tech in the Fall

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

In August or September, the first week of a new school year, do you find that your campus seems to have problems that are unexpected and out of line with the status quo from the spring term? If so, then there is probably one or many problems embedded in the execution of the school’s End of Year Process (EOY). Although this post is going to focus on technology EOY, the fact is all systems and departments have (or should have) an EOY.

Any system, department, etc., that is not practicing a well thought out EOY will not only struggle, but create a cascade of problems that will spread through out the community. This cascade will feel like a sudden and unseen wave of chaos, or a series of seemingly small disconnected problems.

An Example of a Technology EOY

Here is a list of EOY processes/jobs that must be completed before the end of the first week of July. I have simplified some of them as most have multiple steps to complete.

Active Directory access for all non-returning staff needs to be removed.
Active Directory accounts and groupings for all new staff needs to be created
Active Directory Student Accounts Need to Be Moved to the Next Year Group
New School Student Enrollment Complete/Check/Verify
Leaving Grade 5 Students in PowerSchool
All other Primary School Leaving Students Transfer After RollOver and Remove AD Accounts
Destiny needs to be updated
Powerschool Roll Over and Back to School Update (If Required)
Powerschool Records must be Cleaned- teachers/students/etc/ use PowerTools to Check Data Issues
PS Database Backup to Test Server
Make Primary School School Teams
Primary School Backup Report PDFs Generated
Secondary School Backup Report PDFs Generated
New Courses for Primary School Imported/ Old Courses Off
New Courses for Secondary School Imported/ Old Courses Off
PowerSchool- Plugins Update
Office 365 users and groups need to be adjusted to match the schools AD
Turn-It-In, and Naviance Updates/Staff/Students/Etc
ATLAS- Add new Hires and Remove All Old Accounts
Prepare all laptops, printers, and other necessary equipment that have been damaged sent for repair
Prepare all laptops, printers, and other necessary equipment to be recycled
Year 17-18 Orders – All Paperwork completed so items arrive in August
New Constructions/ Building – Checked and Tested
Websense Sync and Configure
Filewave Sync and Configure
Secondary School School Server Room Cleaned and Placed in Correct Working Order
Secondary School Switch Rooms Cleaned and Checked
Primary School School Server Room Cleaned and Placed in Correct Working Order
Primary School School Switch Rooms Cleaned and Checked

This list does not include the procurement process, as that connects to other EOYs in other departments. 

This list is share as an online dashboard. Jobs are assigned to team members. Each job has a status, due date, and comment box.

Many of the systems on the list above have embedded EOY processes as well. For example, PowerSchool and Atlas Rubicon have steps to follow every year to close out the school year.

If any of these jobs is not completed, or not completed with enough time to repair problems or make some adjustments to the fall planning, the start of school will be rough.

The Myth of the Summer Staff

Many schools assume that EOY processes can be done slowly during the summer because they have summer staff. This is a myth, and it usually does not work well because the logic is flawed.

First off, summer staff are always fewer in number than the staff during the normal year. So unless the school is completely closed down, then they will actually have less time to focus on meaningful work. For example, unless the schools avoids summer camps, conferences, admissions tours, etc., the summer staff will become distracted. Their jobs many seem less demanding, but EOY processes take hours to complete, and require large blocks of time. Large blocks of time require more human resources than are available during the summer.

Secondly, summer staff tend to work a different work schedule. The hours are reduced, and oversight is lacking. Knowing it takes 4-6 weeks at 40 hours a week to complete the EOY, how is it possible for fewer people working fewer hours to complete the same job in 4-6 weeks? The math simply does not work. Departments trying to fulfill EOY with limited summer staff will be setting the stage for an anxiety and problem ridden start of the year.

Finally, unless summer staff have 100% full signature authority and empowerment to make decisions, many jobs will be partially done and awaiting a manager to return. Not only will this cause delays, but it will also cause project fragmentation. Think of a multiple puzzles missing multiple pieces in order to visualize this problem.

EOY is End of Year not The Beginning of Next Year

EOY processes are designed to allow the time needed to make upgrades, backups, repairs, etc. These processes need to finish no more than a few weeks after the last day with students (and many need to be completed on or before the last day with students).

Do the EOY on time, prevent the cascade of problems, and start the year on a forward moving pace that exceed the status quo. I firmly believe a good start leads to a good year.

Further Recommended Reading:

The Systems Lifecycle

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Systems_development_life_cycle

 

Measurement in the Change Process

By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

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Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, brokering and solutions company. They did an extensive study on change management. In the study they state immediately and without hesitation, “Measurement is among the biggest drivers of overall change success, and it cannot start midway through the initiative”.

Telling someone, “Hey! Great idea. Measure it!”, is not going to work either. Stakeholders in any initiative need a plan with third-party indicators. Oversight requires those metrics to not be solely dictated by people directly working on a project or process. Because many activities are difficult to reduce to a number, observable criteria and anecdotal evidence need to be considered.

Measurement in Technology Driven Initiatives and Processes

Here is a common scenario. A new laptop is requested by a Department Head. The laptop is delivered by the IT department, and all paperwork formalities are completed. The laptop starts up, makes a little beep, and a nice picture appears on the screen. The person delivering the laptop would probably conclude they were successful. They might even give themselves a silent high-five and fist bump.

The fact is, the laptop is still useless. The end user needs to go through many steps in order to apply this new piece of technology to their work. Stating something works, because there has been no sign of error, is a common problem with technology implementation. Those doing the implementation are measuring their success based-on criteria that suits their scope of work.

In order to avoid any type of tunnel vision with regards to measurement, school leadership need to be certain all plans outline what success will look like, and how it can and will be reported. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to find an example from a similar project. Normally, this requires networking with other schools or organizations, but it is well worth the effort. Merely describing success with a list of features is less productive than demonstrating success with a set of functions.

Beware of Examples and Case Studies from Vendors

Many technology initiatives require new or upgraded products or services. Vendors normally include best case scenario examples and case studies. These case studies of successful implementation form the foundation that vendors use to create metrics of success.

Vendors are motivated by their sales and margins. Most of the examples and case studies will not fit into the actual plan most organizations have created. The true details and complications faced by other clients are usually left out or simply not known. The triumph of the implementation is within these hidden organizational specific criteria, problems, and solutions.

I was once contacted by a company and asked to write a case study about an implementation that my team and I had completed very successfully. I was excited, because this meant we had done an excellent job, we were the example. I spent two days putting all the details together. When the case study was finally published, it contained about 25% of the details, and left out what I considered to be core information other schools would need to follow in our footsteps.

Vendors work for the benefit of themselves, so their metrics cannot be used to measure the success of any school’s (or school district’s) local project. Schools need to set their own standards and criteria for success.

Measuring Technology Projects

Technology projects can be challenging to measure. Although the implementation phases usually have a checklist, the professional development processes and various data management pieces can become very cumbersome for a quality oversight initiative. I recommend creating some simple metrics before the project or new process is launched.

For example, let’s take the topic of attendance. Imagine for a moment that the school will grow from 200 students to 500 students within a year. When it is at 500 students, attendance taking will be more difficult. The current process is fairly informal, and done via emails sent to the office. Therefore, a new IT system has been approved for attendance.

For an administrative team to track and measure a project like this, they could and should:

  • Evaluate the current system.
  • List the top 5-10 aspects that the team feels are part of successful attendance. For example, timeliness, reporting format, alerting parents, etc.
  • Rate those aspects on a simple scale (1-5, 1-7, etc.) until the group comes to a consensus on the ratings.

Using these simple steps, the new attendance process can be measured against the previous one. The ratings system is independent of the technology implementation checklist.

Measurement does not need to be complicated. It does need to be consistent and deliberate. Although we may strive to measure ourselves with as little bias as possible, only a third-party measurement can protect us from ourselves.

Sustaining Excellence Over Time…

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People at my last job gave me feedback that I was too enthusiastic about sport, maybe even too “American” in that respect. Looking back, I think it was because it provided the clarity and focus on a goal that I needed in challenging times.

International schools have a real problem. They have high expectations and in many cases such high turnover that it is virtually impossible to reach the lofty goals of the mission statement. I have worked in such environments, and I can guarantee you that the culture ate the strategy for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. It can feel as though the place is literally re-inventing itself every time new people come in. Throw in the average three year tenure of Heads and you have a place that will struggle to achieve excellence, no matter how strong the curriculum or great the facilities.

The New England Patriots won this incredibly over-hyped game called the Super Bowl this past weekend in such an environment. It was their fourth such victory over the past 14 years which is some kind of a record. They did it in what the critics call “an extraordinary time” of free agency in which players are constantly moving from team to team instead of staying together as they did when previous records were set. It makes it very hard to win one big game under these circumstances, let alone four over fourteen years. So, how can international schools win the big game?

1) Have a clear vision of what you stand for and what is non-negotiable in an authentic sense of the word. This does not mean “create lifelong learners.” What it means, for example, is that we use student work to inform best practice and will create systems to promote that.

2) “Do your job.” This one is from the coach of the Patriots. It sounds child-like in its simplicity, but how many schools have people who don’t know their jobs? Or like to do other people’s jobs? Or don’t even have job descriptions that are updated for relevance? This is critical toward building excellence.

3) Interchangeable parts. One of the astounding things the Patriots do is that they have an expectation that people understand the system in which they work so that they can contribute in a variety of ways. Although “do your job” is #2, understanding the big picture and being able to step in is critical. This does not mean that a math teacher should be able to teach English. What it does mean is that employees have a clear understanding of the systems and overarching expectations of the school so that they are part of a larger ethos and can sustain that foundation over time, not just in their isolated silos. This is hard, but it’s critical.

Of course there is also the opposite problem where schools with not enough turnover get stuck and cannot seem to move forward. But for me, the high turnover issue is compelling because it causes schools to default to the issues directly in front of them (scheduling, I.B. training, constant hiring), rather than the critical work of improving teaching and learning. Maybe this is a bit of a broad brush, but it’s common enough. There’s no magic cure for all of these challenges but it raises the issue of leadership capacity in creating systems that are effective and can be sustained over time rather than taking the easy way out and leaving after three years. For example, how are teams organized around learning? What schedules are put in place for staff reflection and collaboration to learn excellence? Where are the feedback loops? How is appraisal designed and implemented? And most importantly, what structures are put into place to remove the distractions that get in the way of people doing their jobs. (Is anyone ever going to fix the attendance software?)

These are complex issues and it’s still very hard to maintain excellence over time in a high turnover environment. But bringing in the best people and putting them in a position to succeed, having people understand their jobs, and creating an environment in which people can contribute in a multitude of ways can sometimes win championships.

Not sure if it’s from the 80s, but we’ll play this one out with the theme song. the Patriots use when they take the field. (And has some nice symbolism for high turnover environments).