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Aurora Institute

Just Start

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bill Zima

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Just startWhat do Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Bill Belichick, and Anshul Samar have in common? Sure, they all had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. But more importantly, they got STARTED. The difference between a great idea and an idea that makes a great difference, is someone executed it. To engage in the process of continuous improvement, the crux of leadership, one needs to begin. As investor and motivational speaker Robert Kiyosaki said, “If you are the kind of person who is waiting for the ‘right’ thing to happen, you might wait for a long time. It’s like waiting for all the traffic lights to be green for five miles before starting the trip.”

The person most responsible for the construction of the path to change for any school is the principal. Too often administrators try to line up all the pieces so there is a guarantee we do not make a mistake. After all, we are working with young minds. A simple mistake could ruin their future. So we analyze, plot, analyze again, get new information, see how that informs our decision, analyze again, make adjustments, analyze the adjustments, which causes the need for more decisions. All of this is hypothetical since we have nothing tangible to adjust. Voltaire warned, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” We need to not worry and simply apply what we know today. The fear of hitting the magic switch and turning our students into thoughtless zombies left to wander aimlessly in a land of lost potential is unfounded. What school leaders need to do, regardless of role, is get a vision of their postcard destination, map the critical steps to get them from where they are to where they want to be, and then take that important first step.

Start with the Why. Simon Sinek and Patrick Lencioni, two leaders in organizational health and leadership, are clear that an organization’s purpose or reason to exist drives the rest. Without clarity around why we do what we do, the organization will spend time on things that seem important but are actually outside of the work. The organization to which you belong should have a clear idea as to the purpose of the work.

Why do we exist? At Mt. Ararat Middle School, our purpose statement is “Focus on Learning.” Every decision we make is fed back through that statement. If it does not show that we are focused on learning, we make another decision.

Another example of a purpose statement is “Hope Through Learning.” Lencioni suggests that the statement you create should be just short of, “To make the world a better place.” The phrase will get further defined as you go through the other steps. Creating the statement is not easy and will be messy at times. It should be done by a leadership group of no more than eight people. Wordsmithing by committee is as effective as arguing politics with a drunk. Everyone gets tired but nothing ever gets resolved. Simply ask the eight leaders, “Why do we exist?” Using the Five Whys strategy is a great tool to help drill down.

After a strong purpose statement is created and accepted by the full staff through a power vote, it is time to create a list of Hows. These will be the behaviors, that when executed, will lead your organization to the vision.  When I began at Mt. Ararat Middle School three years ago, I started by asking the staff a key question: “What does a successful middle school look and sound like that is focused on learning?” We used affinity mapping to capture each person’s ideas and used them to build categories to summarize what an outsider will see to determine that we are true to our purpose.

From this, a steering committee of five, including myself, used the information to create the vision statement. Our vision became, “Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understandings of the learning.” This vision was then used to begin planning our professional development needs. We asked an instructional leadership team of 10 teachers from across the varied areas of the school to brainstorm what they would need to know and be able to do to successfully implement all the pieces in our vision. We then grouped the skills and understandings into like categories and placed them in year 1 through 3. Our three-year professional development plan was hung in an area just outside the teacher’s room so all would see. The instructional leadership team then took year one, and created action plans. These plans included the measurable goal, the actions that would be taken, who was responsible, and the target date for completion. The action plans were hung right next to the three-year plan. Throughout the year, the ILT monitored our progress on the goals and met to adjust accordingly. Even the best-laid plans can hit snags and delays. For example, we needed to delay the identification of a set of Habits of Mind because our sixth graders were piloting Brainology, the curriculum built around the Mindset research of Carol Dweck. We wanted to see those outcomes before any further decisions.

The steps of creating a purpose statement, the behaviors that would indicate we were working towards our purpose, the vision statement, and the action plans were all created within three days. Using strategies taught to me by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition allowed the work to get done quickly and effectively. Unfortunately, creating those documents is the easy part. It is executing the action plans that will require the heavy lifting. But, it is a start. That is what must happen first. Just start.


Nina Lopez is an independent consultant, based in Boulder, CO. Nina provides facilitation, strategy and innovation design services to private foundations, non-profit and government entities in Colorado and throughout the country to help them incubate new initiatives, develop a shared vision and a clear strategy for achieving individual and collective goals.