Hello, I hope you’re well. The weather here in Connecticut has been glorious the last couple of days—I was going to say it was very far from the dog days of summer, thinking that that phrase meant something about ridiculous heat. But I looked it up and it turns out it has to do with the Greeks and constellations. Who knew?
I think many of you are taking a break this week or next—I certainly hope so. You deserve it. This has been a very difficult few months and the next few will be too. Right now feels a bit like the interval between rounds—you get to sit down and have the trainer squirt water in your mouth, but you don’t have time to get your gloves off before you have to get back up and go the distance.
What, then, to talk about? What has been on my mind lately is the science of improvement. I could write another mammoth Coaching Letter on that topic, but instead I’d like to encourage you to learn a bit about Doug Engelbart. Heard of him? Me neither. I was doing some research on improvement science, so I was going through a PowerPoint I had from one of the authors of Learning to Improve, and the name was in the notes on one of the slides. Well, technically, I had heard of him—he’s in the book, p. 141:
It was December 9, 1968. Approximately 1,000 people, mostly computer scientists, had filled San Francisco’s Brooks Hall for the biennial meeting of the Joint Computer Conference. They were there to witness the results of a research and development initiative titled the “Augmenting Human Intellect Project.” Douglas Engelbart sat alone center stage looking every bit the engineer of the day: short-sleeved white shirt, thin black tie, close-cropped hair, and visibly nervous and the public presentation that he was there to give. The goal of Engelbart’s project was to explore the ways that a then-new technology, the digital computer, might enhance human functioning and performance. As he sat at his computer workstation, Engelbart had a keyboard directly in front of him, to the right sat a bulky device about half the size of a shoebox with three glowing buttons atop it.
OK, instead of reading about what happened next, I think you should watch it: The Mother of All Demos video embedded on the Doug Engelbart Institute web page. I was blown away and couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before.
If you are like me, you are unlikely to have read anything by Engelbart, but you may have read about him—see this bibliography. I can also recommend this story from Wired: 50 Years Later, We Still Don’t Grasp the Mother of All Demos and a companion piece, How Doug Engelbart pulled off the Mother of All Demos.
The reason he is relevant to the idea of continuous improvement is laid out in this paper: “Improving our Ability to Improve: A call for investment in a new future.” It’s a teeny bit dry, but scroll down to the graphics—some of us remember when overhead projector slides all looked like this—and the idea of ABC work:
A activity: the core work of your organization
B activity: improving the organization’s ability to do A work
C activity: improving the organization’s capacity to improve
As Engelbart says: “Clearly, investment in type C activities is potentially highly leveraged. The right investments here will be multiplied in increased B level productivity—in the ability to improve—which will be multiplied again in returns in productivity in the organization’s primary activity. It is a way of getting a kind of compound return on investment in innovation.”
I don’t know how many books and articles I’ve read about continuous improvement, but this struck me as remarkably cogent and concise. And I read it as a challenge to coaches and leaders to really think about how we invest our energy—in helping people get better at what they do, or in helping them get better at getting better.
OK, back to watching the Democratic Convention. Not as gripping as watching Doug Engelbart, but close. Please let me know if you want to talk about any of these ideas—I mean, improvement science, not the Democratic Party. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
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