Hello, I hope this finds you well. Thank you for subscribing to The Coaching Letter. You rock. This is a great time of year to be in New England, my family is happier and healthier than we have been since the start of the pandemic and maybe even before, and I have fascinating work with terrific people, so my life is good.
Thank you to everyone who responded to my last Coaching Letter—some of those emails were quite unexpected and took me to interesting places, so I’m really grateful for that. That is, actually, not atypical for what happens when I send out any given Coaching Letter—I say this just as an encouragement to everyone to get over your concerns about putting your ideas out there, and connect with people whose work speaks to you in some way. I have become very comfortable reaching out to people who have helped me through their writing, and I get very appreciative replies in response, which I now believe because I know how they feel.
One of the big themes that loomed large in the responses to the last CL was process v. product. I understand this tension very well, having been removed from some pretty important projects because I was “too process-oriented”. By which I inferred that I was seen to be insufficiently focused on results, and too much on “fluff”. (Yes I know, but I am not kidding that that word and my name have on more than one occasion been used in the same sentence. Almost nothing annoys me more.) But this is a complicated issue, and rests, I believe, on two equally misguided notions based on two separate misunderstandings about process. So here are the two ways we should think about process; I wish I had figured this out soon enough to not get booted from those projects.
First, process is a mechanism for generating results. I designate this Type 1 process. I am confident that anyone who has taken a class in leadership has heard the expression “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” which is usually attributed to Paul Batalden, who was a pediatrician and is a fellow with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, whence come many of our best ideas and tools about continuous improvement. It is, therefore, truly silly to think that you can focus on results without thinking about process. Yet it is amazing to me how many leaders appear to fail to understand this.
The now decades-old fashion for “holding people accountable” seems to rest on the idea that people know what they need to do in order to get better results, and so just need to try harder? And conveniently, it is a stance that absolves those holding others responsible of any responsibility themselves for improving the processes that lead to the results that they are demanding. Thus, process is everything, and if you work with us, on anything from individual coaching to large-scale system change, we will ask you a ton of questions about what you are trying to achieve, your thoughts about options for what you might change, how you might know that a change is an improvement, and what can you try by next Tuesday? Because all of these questions are about improvement of a process in service of improving a result.
Second, process is a mechanism for generating shared understanding. I designate this Type 2 process. As we try to explain to people all the time, it is possible for two educators to have a conversation in which each of them is perfectly clear on what they mean, and think they know what the other is saying, and not really be saying the same thing at all. Here are my favorite examples.
A. We really have to probe, when educators are talking about engagement, to understand whether they are talking about students being on task, behaving well, doing something they appear to enjoy, doing something “hands-on”, or thinking. (This is why Peter Liljedahl’s point that when students are engaged they are thinking, and when they are thinking they are engaged, is so helpful in cutting through the confusion.) What counts as engagement is the question that seems to create the most variation, but of course, there are lots of other terms in constant use that also disguise huge variation in assumed meaning: differentiation, formative assessment, SEL, etc.
B. When we’re talking about high quality instruction, we often ask groups to generate a description of good instruction. Then we show them a clip of classroom teaching and ask them to grade it, individually, on a post-it, and then we can create a histogram that generally shows wide variation in opinion of instruction, despite agreement in the description. Frequently, the graph is a lovely bell-curve, with a majority of people giving the instruction a B or B+, a few giving it an A, and a few giving it a C or below. It’s a great illustration of how easy it is to think that agreement among a group on a definition means something, whereas it actually means very little in practice, and it has also made me very skeptical of the whole concept of “calibration.”
C. When I am talking to leadership teams, I sometimes have to point out that they are operating with different theories of leadership, which can be that what really matters is that leaders are visible, hold people accountable, give evaluative feedback, coach, monitor compliance, ensure smooth operations, or something else. I’m not saying that these are completely incompatible with each other, just that leaders can have a different starting point when it comes to their actions and decisions, without appearing to notice those differences, which can lead to confusion and mixed messages down the line.
It’s possible for someone to say, “X is so important”, where X is engagement, leadership, relationships, or myriad other constructs, and mean something entirely different than the others in the conversation, because each of these terms is an intellectual shortcut for an elaborate construct that is further complicated through its interaction with a person’s own experience and other mental models. Thus having clearer language helps, but “common vocabulary” is not the whole solution, because we are not really talking about the meaning of individual words, even though we think we are. It’s also why teacher evaluation rubrics are, for the most part, completely useless, because, for the sake of space, they are densely packed with intellectual-shortcut-terms, sometimes a dozen to a cell in the table, that do almost nothing to clarify what is meant. I don’t think it occurs to people that by creating documents that are busting at the seams with jargon whose meanings vary from person to person, they are introducing more variation into the system rather than less, and therefore creating incoherence rather than creating coherence.
Likewise, “better communication” may be a small part of the answer, but you can’t hand someone the key to what’s in their head like you can hand over the keys to your car; it’s not a transaction. What really matters—and I know this takes a long time, and that some people find it tedious, and that it would be really great if it could be easier; I get all that—is a lot of conversation that moves people closer to a shared mental model of whatever is at the center of the work.
There is also misunderstanding about what process is NOT. It’s not “all about relationships”, and it’s not about being nice, or agreeable. Relationships are important, but not in the way that people think they are; caring is important, but so is encouragement, empathy, and understanding of what and how others think. This intersects nicely with work that I’m doing on effective teams. There is great research in the business literature about effective teams that highlight how crucial it is to pay attention to team process. For example:
- Ensley & Pearce (2001): “The research poses that shared strategic cognition is the outcome of group processes that occur during the development of strategy. Shared cognition in top management teams (TMTs) is the extent to which those mental models about strategy are shared. A theoretical frame is developed that links shared strategic cognition to group process and new venture performance. The results indicate that the group processes leading to the development of shared strategic cognition are more important than the outcome of shared strategic cognition in terms of predicting organizational performance.”
- Janardhanan et al, (2020): I particularly love this paper because it brings together several themes that I am very interested in, including for example performance goals v. learning goals (please read CL #21 and CL #51!), and the importance of shared cognition/mental models. This paper explores the relationship between these, and how curiosity among team members about each other’s mental models contributes to greater team performance, and how the effects are dampened when team members are motivated by proving competence or avoiding mistakes. Fans of Carol Dweck will understand immediately why this would be the case.
- Weidmann & Deming (2020): Paying attention to pro-social skills and their potential impact on team process pays dividends: “Some people consistently cause their group to exceed its predicted performance. We call these individuals ‘team players’. Team players score significantly higher on a well-established measure of social intelligence, but do not differ across a variety of other dimensions, including IQ, personality, education and gender. Social skills – defined as a single latent factor that combines social intelligence scores with the team player effect – improve group performance about as much as IQ. We find suggestive evidence that team players increase effort among teammates.” And on the flip side, the title of this paper tells you everything you need to know: The insensitive ruins it all.
- Here is a good summary of the research: Ten simple rules for meaningful meetings. I love this because it goes well beyond the normal procedural emphasis on things like starting and ending on time, creating an agenda in advance, and so on. Not that these things aren’t important—in fact, there is evidence that they are really important; this paper describes the effect of meeting lateness on meeting outcomes, and it’s a much bigger impact than you might think—but there’s more that we should be paying attention to: Adopt a philosophy of experimentation! Build commitment to the meeting process! Plan the design of meetings. Plan for creativity and capture these outcomes.
There is nothing fluffy about paying attention to process.
Please let me know if there is anything I can help you with. Best, Isobel