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Creating a Progress Culture: Foreshadowing and Not Foreshadowing

April 19, 2012
I have found myself reflecting on the small steps that lead together to a big step forward in a school. Generally, I have written about this under the idea of creating a Progress Culture. So far this year at my school we have been playing small ball…important moves though relatively small, as if we are simply developing the muscles we will need going forward. We have been starting to get in shape, widening our field of vision, announcing our intent, and foreshadowing our direction. The real work still lies ahead. Writing a new strategic plan is challenging enough in a school, but executing on its promise is something more demanding altogether.
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As I have written before, foreshadowing is central in getting the wheels of progress to begin to turn.  At times cultures need the opposite of foreshadowing, however–instead of  foreshadowing, we need action that is  out in front of consensus.  There are moments when we need to get out first and ask for others to catch back up to us. I have written abut this before in a post called, “Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture,” and my thinking has returned to that metaphor often in the intervening months. Sometimes  we may need to get the community to catch back up to us, while proving each time that we get ahead that there is efficacy in the direction and reward for coming along.
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If we wait for everyone to be ready for each individual move by generously  foreshadowing each small step, we will not go far enough fast enough to stay ahead of the entropy, which is bound to be clicking at our heels. I cannot think of any big moves culturally that waited for critical mass to be fully ready.  Sometimes we have to go ahead and make a move in order to prove to the culture that it is ready for it.
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Interestingly, this approach is not as far from the foreshadowing model as it might first appear. (Perhaps the two can even be symbiotic.) Taking some steps forward before creating broad based support is from one angle it’s own kind of foreshadowing of a culture that will be lighter and more fleet of foot. It also announces through real action that there is the institutional resolve requisite for the occasion. Taking action first on some of these small scale decisions creates an expectation of it’s own borne of the fact that we have changed they way we go about moving forward in the school.
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This approach is not built to be a lasting strategy–it is tailor made for the period of time when the scale of change requires speed and decisiveness focused on a nuanced and thorough understanding of the strategic direction of the school. I have often used metaphors from the beach to help me sort out my thinking, and there is one that may illustrate my point. Imagine that you are on a boat faced with trying to go from the beach to the spot beyond the breaking surf.  We would not ponder each individual step that propels us forward because the only option other than moving forward is moving backward–and we cannot move backward if we ever hope to get beyond the waves.
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Once we get beyond the surf, we can engage in lengthy reflection on our path as we strive to refine our course toward our strategic vision. In fact staying with the initial strategy of preemptive moves at that point would be misguided, but until we get by that last set of big waves, we must do everything we can to preserve momentum forward, or we may find ourselves roughed up and thrown back on the beach.
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[I have written this one as I wrote the last one... on a plane flight--this time from Atlanta to Chicago for the JRPO Academic Meeting. As I wrote I listened to Beth Orten, "Trailer Park" and "Central Reservation," and to Alison Krauss, "Paper Airplane."]
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