Delivering discernible difference

“If something is discernible, you can discern it – you can see it, smell it, taste it, or otherwise tell what it is.” (

It is probably true… that effective leaders and exceptional teachers have the ability to deliver discernible difference (improvement). It is this ability and awareness to focus in, move to action and deliver a discernible difference that stands these people out as great leaders and teachers. They have the ability to rationalise, prioritise, simplify, see the important, dismiss the clutter and move effortlessly and quickly to…

…secure meaningful improvement in areas that will leverage the most impact and improvement… triggering and delivering change that is both discernible and sticky…maybe even irreversible.

Perhaps… we should seek to tell stories and build narratives of improvement in identified areas or on trails where we deliberately place bets to transform practice and deliver discernible difference.


Which begs the question… what does it take to deliver discernible difference? How can we be more deliberate and focused on singling out the key levers of improvement; executing these changes, building a story and telling a narrative of improvement around the few things that matter?

What if… achieving discernible difference requires prioritisation of what matters? and that this takes thinking time and a careful consideration of what will leverage the greatest improvement? What if… we considered the following phrase when identifying where to play and achieve the discernible difference that we seek…

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if… great leaders and teachers understood that what you do not do, what you de-prioitise (the omissions) are as important as what is actioned? …that ability to place bets only on what counts and the mindset that reduces  crippling complexity and workload?

What if… we realised that trails and areas requiring improvement are often obvious and rarely require deep evaluation to be understood?; seek the trails that matter…


What if… we spend too much time evaluating and applying QA to the whole population or provision instead of moving more quickly to action on the areas that require improvement; seeking discernible difference?

What if… we also realised that in any population there are outliers, bright spots and positive deviants who have that answer or exhibit behaviours that have the ability transform? …achieving discernible difference and improvement will often be within the population… seek the wisdom and grow it…


What if…we were more aware of the fact that we can get over-excited or be prone to complacency when we measure and weigh stuff? That feeling we get when we complete the SEF, a round of observations, work scrutiny, achievement meeting, re-writing our to-do-list etc. – often confuses us into thinking we have achieved impact or improvement?

What if…we are prone to believing that things will just improve, or that if we apply a strategy more, or if we weigh stuff more, that we will achieve a different end point?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Albert Einstein

What if… we only focused on the key trails and moved to action. What if… we are not quick enough to move to action (to start stories) and as a consequence rarely achieve the change that we desire and others need…


What if… we do not continue to commit to action during the implementation dip or when it is easier to go off and measure something else or when we can duck the difficult conversation or action?


What if… we were in the habit of telling stories; and building a narrative of improvement? … around those areas that we have prioritised, that will have the greatest impact and deliver discernible difference?


What if… a self-improving education system or academy or teacher has the ability to understand the brutal truths of the situation and embark on a set of deliberate actions that together tell a story and provide a narrative of improvement?


What if… these stories always have a start, a middle and an end…


What if… we are good at opening up stories, but much weaker at building plot and poor at writing great endings (happy or tragic)? What if… we do not stick around long enough on a story or move to action quick enough to realise the twist or truths or barriers to improvement that exist?

…stories motivate people to achieve more. They show what is possible and trigger other unintended improvement.

What if… milestones are a key aspect of delivering discernible difference? That these chart progress, point to the desired destination and importantly provide ongoing motivation to overcome implementation dips and secure discernible difference … perhaps even irreversibility (Barber).



What if…this ability to place bets on the stuff that matters is born out of an acute awareness and a lack of organisational blindness achieved from beyond our present context (Academy, classroom, MAT, region…)

What if… delivering discernible difference has everything to do with execution, execution, execution… only this delivers transformation… and possibly irreversibility…


What if… we…

…ensure that the choice architecture, nudges and culture provokes and rewards individuals and teams to chase their own narratives of improvement, growing the ability to tell stories of discernible difference.

Maybe then… leaders would have pride in telling their narrative of improvement – their motivating stories of the difference that they have made. Maybe then… leaders and teachers can point to examples of  discernible difference as evidence of impact on others and students.

Maybe then… leaders and teachers would move to action more quickly on the few things that matter – placing bets on the one thing(s) that make a discernible difference. Maybe this… level of focused action has the ability to add far greater value than blunt, catch-all, self-evalution.

What are your trails? where is your discernible difference? what stories of improvement can you tell – where have you achieved irreversibility? Has this become the lens through which you seek future improvement?

After all… the measure of our own impact should be judged through the stories of discernible difference that we can tell.

Dan Nicholls @DrDanNicholls

November 2015

Failure is not an option… attitude matters…

“Leaders (and teachers) who know what they are doing will aim for the heart. They connect to the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. They make the business case come alive with human experience; they engage the senses, create messages that are simple and imaginative, and call people to aspire.” John Kotter

It is probably true that attitude matters…possibly the most. It is also probably true that this determines our belief in what is possible, determines the questions we ask and the quests that we embark upon. Attitude is everywhere; it determines our limits and those that we expect of others…it is the underlying attitudes that determine the outcomes and progress of students in classrooms and schools/academies.  It is also probably true that urgency, purpose, emotional connection and ownership are key for developing, fostering and motivating positive and focused attitudes that are aligned to the ambitions of the individual, class or organisation.

…Urgency is often the key to aligning and propagating attitudes – attitudes that can transform and create unusually positive outcomes. The compelling urgency for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts is a neat example of how attitude sets the challenge unwaveringly and achieves what appeared to be a miraculous return to Earth… taken from the script of Apollo 13 (edited)…(click picture for the video clip)… maxresdefault

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – So you’re telling me you can only give our guys 45 hours. It brings them to about there… Gentlemen, that’s not an option.

(the use of the visual on the blackboard here is key – people need to see and feel a problem  – only then are they likely to be moved to action.) 

MOCR ENGINEER – Gene, Gene. We gotta talk about power here… 

CONTROL – Without it they don’t talk to us, they don’t correct their trajectory, they don’t turn the heatshield around… we gotta turn everything off. Now. They’re not gonna make it to re-entry…With everything on the LM draws 60 amps. At that rate in sixteen hours the batteries are dead, not 45. And so is the crew. We gotta get them down to 12 amps. 

MOCR ENGINEER – Whoa. 12 amps! – How many? – You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps, John. 

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – Well, we’re gonna have to figure it out. I want people in our simulators working re-entry scenarios. I want you guys to find every engineer who designed, every switch, every circuit, every transistor and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy in the assembly line who had actually built the thing. Find out how to squeeze every amp out of both of these goddamn machines. I want this mark all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch!. Failure is not an option!

(the attitude here compels action, it expects much and takes a “whatever it takes” approached to a well defined and clear, compellingly urgent problem. How far does this type of attitude permeate our classrooms and academies?)

…and from Star Wars… (the importance of certainty and purpose of moving to action –  committing to a key internal decision to do something..)

Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try. Yoda: No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try. 


Luke: I don’t, I don’t believe it.  Yoda: That is why you fail.

All of which begs to question how do we recognise, use and provoke great attitudes, that make everything possible and does whatever it takes in our academies and classrooms?

What if we understood how our attitude and that of others around us interact to achieve our ambitions or hold us back? Consider your colleagues and students … are they drains (takers of energy) or radiators (givers of energy)? Street_Drain_w_Double_Yellas_by_BewildaBeast8radiator What if we also considered Adam Grant’s great book, “Give and Take,” which provides greater insight and highlights that there are three types of people: Givers, Matchers and Takers. Takers only seek to gain from others, these add little or hold organisations back. Matchers, match what they give with what they have received. However, he argues that the Givers are the most and least successful…

“This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” ― (Adam Grant)

Question: how do we create the conditions in our organisations that reward and support Givers?

What if we realised that establishing the WHY (Sinek), the PURPOSE (Pink) and aiming for the heart (Kotter) is key to motivating and harnessing buy-in. This has a direct impact on attitude and on mobilising the inner drive to improve and succeed. It is interesting how these ideas line-up. Simon Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it … Dan Pink identifies three things that are important for people to feel/achieve success – a motivating purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery. Allied to John Kotter’s thoughts around aiming for the heart, we have the recipe to secure and maintain individuals attitudes and for keeping these aligned to the organisational, class or individual ambitions.


What if we realised that as teachers and leaders in addition to securing the why, we must also give autonomy and ownership of the how? This is important because to maintain a “whatever it takes attitude” there needs to be ownership and a freedom to determine the what and the search for mastery. This must also involve pushing the decision making closer to the action (David Marquet). What if we understood the motivating power there is in ensuring the attitudes and approaches value the near-win and the journey toward mastery? How do we reward the near win with our colleagues and students? As Sarah Lewis discusses, those seeking mastery have an attitude that drives them to strive and feel success in the near wins…

Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. …. We see it … in the life of the indomitable Arctic explorer Ben Saunders, who tells me that his triumphs are not merely the result of a grand achievement, but of the propulsion of a lineage of near wins.

We thrive when we stay at our own leading edge. It’s a wisdom understood by Duke Ellington, who said that his favorite song out of his repertoire was always the next one, always the one he had yet to compose. Part of the reason that the near win is inbuilt to mastery is because the greater our proficiency, the more clearly we might see that we don’t know all that we thought we did. It’s called the Dunning–Kruger effect… “You learn how little you know.” (Sarah Lewis)


Click picture to see Sarah Lewis: Embrace the near win

What if we realised that by keeping the moral purpose at the centre, investing time on the why, reaffirming the purpose and by appealing to the emotional drivers we maintain high urgency in the system – be it at individual or organisational level. It is this owned inner drive, the intrinsic motivation that will compel toward action and keep attitudes aligned with the ambition. Chip and Dan Heath highlight the key is to motivate the elephant as well as the rider…

  • Find the feeling (WHY/Purpose) – make people feel something
  • Shrink the change (How) – shrink change so that it does not spook the elephant
  • Grow your people – instil a growth mindset – attitude


(taken from Switch, Chip and Dan Heath)

What if attitude is about feelings and that stories are uniquely placed to motivate and develop attitudes that align with the ambition? As John Kotter highlights…(how often do we use stories … particularly those that tell of a preferred future?)

“Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics.” (John Kotter)

What if we also understood that positive attitudes stem from a growth mindset? (Carol Dweck)


What if we also understood that we need to develop attitudes in line with being deliberate? (Malcolm Gladwell) Leaders, teachers and students whose attitude drive them to…

1. …be motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …seek and receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks towards near wins…mastery.

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if attitude is dependent on ignition? and we should seek to increase students and colleagues opportunities to be ignited by an experience, thought, fact, opportunity etc…

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” (Dan Coyle)

For Albert Einstein, that moment happened when his father brought him a compass.

“Einstein later recalled being so excited as he examined its mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold…. [Einstein wrote] “I can still remember – or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

What if we recruited much more on attitude, understanding that skills and knowledge gaps are easier to close?  Particularly because getting the right people on the bus is the key to great organisations (Jim Collins).

What if we realise that asking challenging questions and setting expectations high can  instil desired attitudes? If we ask ridiculous questions we prompt different possibilities and perspectives. (Questions must be based on the brutal truth of the present reality.)

  • “If your life depended on it what would you do?”
  • “What would we do if the target was 100%?”
  • “What do we need to do now, such that everything else is either easier or no longer required?” (Keller)

It is often the second question that really makes the difference – having attitudes and approaches that dig deep to understand problems and to find solutions that aren’t immediately apparent. What if we also realised that this is about getting the right people in the room – those best placed to ask the right question and not so many to complicate the answer. Steve Jobs only met with 3-4 people – any additions were removed.

Maybe then we would pay much more attention to the attitude of leaders, teachers, staff and students …and seek to create the conditions that foster positive and aligned attitudes.

Maybe then we would also look to other examples like the Apollo 13 mission and learn that attitude rarely exists without purpose and urgency – it does not happen in a vacuum. We might work harder to engage the emotions to drive attitudes and approaches.

Maybe then we would work harder to create the conditions necessary to ensure healthy and positive attitudes.

Maybe then we would work harder to generate or communicate urgency and that this needs to be born out of a clear moral purpose and that this is best aimed at the heart.

Maybe then we would find more ways to reward attitudes that drive us toward success.

Maybe then we would be more attuned to understanding the importance of and the need to create conditions for ignition … to ignite a passion in a colleague or our students … that will propagate attitudes than align with our ambition.

Maybe then we would recognise the importance of attitude and stance when recruiting – getting the right people on the bus.

Maybe then we would understand that autonomy and ownership of the how and what are key to generating the motivation required to propagate great attitudes

Maybe then we would create organisations and classrooms where attitude is understood, fostered and grown – because attitude matters and failure is not an option.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Samuel Beckett)

April 2015