Good evening, I hope you’re doing well. I’ve been engaged in lots of weighty discussions over the last couple of weeks, with culture being a particular theme, but I’m not really ready to write about that yet, because I’m not sure that everyone means the same thing by the term. So instead, I’m giving over the Coaching Letter to an email that Gus Jacobson, principal in Hartford, sent to his staff this past Friday about what happened when he asked a group of teachers to review some initial planning through the lens of the pre-mortem. The pre-mortem, based on the work of Gary Klein, is a protocol that I really like because it makes it safe to ask tough questions and give tough feedback to someone who outranks you. What Gus models here is how to respond to said feedback—as you can see, he takes it seriously, does not get defensive, talks about how it has improved the work, and expresses appreciation. The link that I’ve supplied before of Daniel Kahneman explaining why the pre-mortem is so useful, is one of the most popular links so far on the Coaching Letter, so you may have already viewed it. But it bears watching again. I’m attaching the document Gus sent to his staff, the PPT slide I shared with him, and a one-pager I wrote about the pre-mortem that you may already have seen.
The other thing that I like about Gus’s work is that he is blending the work of this year and next year. I always think it’s a mistake to talk about closing out this year, starting something fresh next year, and in fact anything at all that implies that the work of this year is separate from the work of next year. How can the work of school and district improvement possibly fit into nice, neat annual units? That one has always been a puzzle to me. I’ve always thought that one of our most frequent blunders is treating this year like last year never happened. People notice when you do that, you know.
Anyway, here’s Gus. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.
From: Jacobson, Edward
Sent: Friday, April 27, 2018 4:04 PM
To: Webster Microsociety Staff
Subject: Week 33
Noah Webster Staff,
Yesterday I had the pleasure to meet with our team leaders for dialogue about our work as we move from this year into next. I had them take a look at some of my thoughts about our work. We engaged in a pre-mortem protocol. In this protocol, the team was able to hear my explanation and ask questions then they got the opportunity to “tear it apart.” The protocol asks participants to assume that as good as this plan sounds it fails miserably. Their work is to explain why it failed. They work in small groups to look at each section and see what is missing and diagnosis why it failed. We then as a group go through their thoughts. I have attached my thoughts and initial planning as well as their thoughts (in red).
What I immediately notice was how much more concrete the plan and our work will need to be as well as how many factors there are to consider when planning. I appreciated their honesty and thoughtfulness – all focused on helping us to continue to improve and not just through working harder but rather working smarter. The work we will undertake will be ambitious but I heard optimism and opportunity in the feedback and comments. What I also heard was that this work will require all of us engaged and on board. I will certainly push us but the heavy lift of accountability has to come from all of us. We need to work together and push each other.
With the protocol, what I noticed was that in a short time of collaborating (10 minutes) the number of ways the team had found ways that this might not work. Rather than just asking for people to take a look at a proposal the protocol challenges us to find its shortcomings so we can anticipate, plan, and avoid the failure. The team engaged with the work and I received meaningful feedback. Our team will continue to meet and I appreciate the voice that they bring to the work. Your and their input is critical to this process of continuing to improve. Our teamwork will make the dream work!
Stevenson 2017 Pre-mortem and Red-Teaming
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106