Good Work: 10 Tips for Enabling Others To Act

Teams without a good coach are selfish, disorganized, and don’t win many games.

Organizations without leadership lack focus, collaboration, and productivity.

Cities without leadership become bureaucratic, uncivil, and uncompetitive.

In physics, it’s called entropy, the measure of the energy in a system that is not available to do useful work. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy in a closed system always increases. In other words, systems seek a lower energy state. More plainly, without productive inputs, stuff naturally goes to hell.

What cities, organizations, and teams need is aligned action, what Kouzes and Posner ‘enabling others to act.  What blocks collective action is a lack of goal clarity, risk avoidance, confusion, and/or weak incentives. There are (at least) 10 ways to enable others to increase their impact.

1.Shared agenda. Perhaps the single most important enabling action is to get people on the same–what Kouzes and Posner call inspiring a shared vision. Harlem principal Andrew Malone (@MrMaloneSAHC) creates a shared agenda with using one short phrase to represent each of his broadest goals. He calls these user-friendly statements Vision Rocks — which are short enough to recall and consult at any time – to bridge vision and action. Malone’s vision for Harlem Success Academy is Focus, Effort, Enthusiasm. He can share the 3 second, 3 minute, or 3 minute version with compelling clarity. Malone said, the Vision Rocks approach has been a game-changer, “I can actually use these portable, flexible, simple statements to guide multiple aspects my everyday work.”

When I was a superintendent and chamber board members, the phrased “a great place to live, learn, work, and play” captured a sense of purpose and vision for community leaders.

2.Shared goals and measurement system. Jeff Edmondson and Greg Landsman pioneered approaches to developing successful community wide initiatives, what they call collective impact. “The work of collective impact requires communities to use data all the time, as often as it is available, to improve and refine how we work each and every day.” Working groups set specific targets for improvement.

A shared agenda and a common measurement system “helps everyone know where and how to focus,” said George Tang, Education Texas, “In Dallas, a simple, digestible scorecard has been developed to show how 800,000 students are progressing toward key indicators.”

3.Productive collaboration. Jason Lange of Bloomboard, a leader in talent development software (where I’m a director), holds a fast paced weekly “standup” meeting where progress is celebrated and plans are quickly reviewed. Matt Candler and Katie Beck of 4.0 Schools hold regular team standups (pictured) with onsite team members and robots (virtual team members). 

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley gained national attention as mayor Baltimore where he applied the same sort of fast, frequent, results-focused, data- driven meetings. Keeping folks in the loop and encouraging collaboration increases productive action.  

The Frameworks Institute says “When people can see the system of education and the need to coordinate its different parts for the good of the whole, they become more expansive in their thinking about how and where reform might take place.

4.Capacity to act. Some districts decentralize everything because they don’t know what to do or because they think they can afford to invest in capacity building. In contrast, Fulton County (Atlanta) has identified four leaders in every school that become Vanguard Teachers–a connected, supported, and empowered crew. After self-assessing readiness,

Fulton school gets a timeline for blended learning design support. In the charter district, schools have lots of autonomy but there’s a common goal framework, a well constructed internal marketplace of services, and a lot of collaboration and support.

Don’t assume people know what to do or how to do it.  Take the time to assess readiness and provide learning and support opportunities for productive action.

5.Aligned incentives. School districts and colleges have relatively weak incentives to improve but education leaders appear to get fired over failed reform efforts. Little upside + lots of perceived downside = paralysis.

A national network of school districts, the League of Innovative Schools, creates incentives for districts to join and accelerate their progress—curated product pilots, research participation, and grant opportunities.

The question for organization is do people get rewarded for taking initiative or penalized for taking action? The key is aligning recognition, compensation, and other incentive systems with shared goals.

6.Productive diversity. Health care CEO Paul Alofs, said “Great cultures are built on a diversity of background, experience, and interests. These differences generate energy, which is critical to any enterprise.” Universities pay attention to diversity during the admissions process in an attempt to provide a richer learning experience.

Protests of police brutality are recent reminders that public services need to be conscious of diversity in hiring to develop a workforce that is effective in meeting constituent needs.

7.Productive collisions. Alofs notes that “In cutting-edge research and academic buildings, architects try to promote as much interaction as possible. They design spaces where people from different disciplines will come together, whether in workspace or in common leisure space. Their reasoning is simple: it is this interaction that helps breed revolutionary ideas.”

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is obsessed with this idea of productive collisions and incorporated it into the design of Downtown Project.

8.Continuous communication.  “One thing that I learned from Rocketship [Education] is that if you can get parents engaged with their children, you can make a lot more progress,” said co-founder John Danner.  He added that “transparency and convenient communication are crucial, because parents are extremely busy, and if engagement takes too much work, many parents won’t have the time to do it.”

Frameworks Institute suggests “Unframed conversations about education blame parents, teachers and/or students.” Aligned action requires framing the conversation–not in terms of crisis or blame, but in ways that inform, inspire, and invite.

9.Investment. Social impact consultants John Kania and Mark Kramer suggest that successful community wide initiatives requires “backbone support organizations.”

Chapters 4 and 5 of our new book Smart Cities discuss the importance of community partnerships and aligned investment. A good example is Education Cities, a national network of 28 organizations that help set the education agenda in their city and provide financial and technical support.

10.Encourage the heart. For economies, positive sentiment is the best economic development. It’s discouraging for citizens and investors to see carping, corruption, and chaos (e.g., congress).  

For teams and individuals, while incentives and investments are important, nothing beats inspiration. Kouzes and Posner devote a chapter to Encouraging the Heart. But when it comes to leadership no one has said it better than Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.”

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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