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.” (www.vocabulary.com)

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.

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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?

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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?

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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?

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

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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).

 

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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…

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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

Ethic of Excellence | CLF Conference

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The following supports the “ethic of excellence” workshop at the CLF Conference, 2 November 2015…


It is probably true that:

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

It is also probably true that where an ethic of excellence runs through teaching and learning a child’s progress is accelerated and they outperform their peers. This maybe the most important aspect for driving up standards, accelerating progress, securing unusually good outcomes and giving all children a new sense of possibility; enhancing their life chances for the long term.

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing an ethic of excellence in all classrooms…


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What if… an ethic of excellence is measurable and tangible? That it can be judged from a short triangulation of teaching, books and student voice…and that where teachers have a strong ethic of excellence this is likely to be reflective of strong habits and a personal commitment to excellence.

What if… the ethic of excellence is revealed in the attitude of children toward their learning – that low-level disruption is not a feature – it is, in fact, socially unacceptable to not engage and seek to make progress in lessons.

“What if I fail to be the prophecy?” (Peter Pan)

“What if you fail to try?” (Tiger Lily)

(from the film Pan, 2015)

What if… the ethic of excellence is sought through the way the teacher and others inspire and inject passion around content (subject or age related) and learning; using language and praise to reinforce the expectation of excellence. (praise is not cheap).

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What if… the ethic of excellence is supported by the challenge and stretch that is evident in lessons supports children to reach beyond what they can do now, expecting students to work in their top 10% excellence zone.

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the quality of work and books; showing an  an attention to detail in the…

  • care and precision of presentation
  • quality and depth of writing and working
  • continuity and progression in the work over time that reflects a layered curriculum

What if Ofsted are right and that some of the key evidence of an ethic of excellence is seen in books.

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What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in a focus on depth rather than breadth and in routinely re-doing and re-drafting; seeking excellence. That teaching uses deliberate practice to inform teaching, so that:

practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
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What if… children do not produce their best work often enough? It might be that although students are capable of excellence we rarely support students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what is possible for that individual. It might be true then that the opportunity to enable students to see what is possible rarely happens as students simply tread water in the mediocre.

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What if… students skewed their work right toward excellence (and teaching prioritised and supported this) and not left where it probably sits at present?

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What if… there is an ongoing and accessible record of a child’s best pieces of work so that there is an immediate benchmark to build from.

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What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the feedback that is built into tasks/lessons and is specifically targeted at securing concepts and unravelling mis-conceptions…expecting much and targeting specifically where chidden can improve?

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What if… the ethic of excellence supported by assessment (all forms) that is a coherent element of teaching – formatively driving progress and improvement toward excellence? Using mastery to support all children to secure the foundations and core knowledge, skills and understanding that will allow them to be academically and personally successful in and beyond education.

What if… the ethic of excellence is supported where teachers are persistent, and unswerving in raising standards (pass marks etc.) and deliberate in lessons and over-time in catching-up and closing gaps for those students who fall behind?; making a discernible difference to those that fall behind. 

What if… the ethic of excellence is embedded through teacher passion, subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, exam or age-related understanding and an insightful understanding of concepts and mis-concepts that are the foundation for driving children toward excellence? This is also evident in the schemes of work – progression of lessons – and within the layered/spiralled/escalating curriculum. Avoiding the skimming of content and the shallow learning.

What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in questioning that immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintain a high bar and expect much from answers and discussion – expertly steering and intervening to maintain standards and encourage depth of pupil involvement? …the deliberate inclusion of explanation and modelling supports children in their quest for excellence.

What if… in seeking an ethic of excellence we borrowed much from Dan Coyle’s insights and establish the conditions for ignition, (moments that inspire an ignition of internal motivation) and provide the feedback of an expert coach from within tasks to breakdown tasks and specifically remove misconceptions and seek accelerated improvement.

“we are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts – that the talented are effortlessly able to perform feats that the rest of us just dream of. This is false. Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that – in fact look at my best work… my near wins).” (Dan Coyle)

What if… the ethic of excellence was reinforced by teachers and others who have an  unswerving ambition for all children and expecting much from all children, every lesson.

What if… the ethic of excellence is reflected across the Academy in all that we do – in our day-to-day expectations? (from uniform to ‘finishing conversations’ to politeness).

What if… an ethic of excellence was allied to growth mindset that sets the conditions and ethos for a class, cohort or Academy to stretch for excellence? (Dweck)

“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

What if… we focused more on the journey; on the “near win”?(Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

What if… the ethic of excellence is exemplified by the classroom environment that reflects learning, progress and supports excellence? Display is inspired, the walls are useful, all areas are tidy and reflective of excellence… boards (and IWB) reflect organised and logical presentation of information that is timely and focused on the key learning for the lesson?

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the routines that are shared and owned by all – they are systematic and reflects the desire to make progress and learn?


Maybe then…children would see that they are capable of excellence, that this would change them forever and raise their personal benchmark. They would have a new self-image, a new notion of possibility and an appetite for excellence. Maybe observation and education would value the outcome, the quality, the closeness to excellence and be less fixated on observed practice.

“If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well. You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it” (Ron Berger)

Dan Nicholls

October 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. 

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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.

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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)

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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

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(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)

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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

A culture of continuous improvement…

“Seek marginal gains to outperform – small steps that create a contagious environment, where a philosophy of continuous improvement engages everyone.” (adapted from Sir David Brailsford, 2015)

Sir David Brailsford eloquently and concisely outlines the key characteristics of high performing teams in this great 2 minute video…click the photo belowIt is probably true that there are some key principles that are at the heart of high performing teams that enable outperformance .. all of which are highly applicable and relevant to education.

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Sir David Brailsford identifies a number of key principles that allow teams and organisations to over-perform or out-perform others. These are explored below…

1. “Recruit the best people that you can find”. What if we are really fussy over recruitment; ensuring that we recruit the very best to the team? What if we were also focused on this being a good behavioural fit … given that attitude is the key aspect in creating an over-performing culture?  There are a number of organisation who largely recruit based on attitude – often gaps in core skills can be closed. What if we started with First Who Then What?…

g2g-first-who“Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) –and the wrong people off the bus –and then figured out where to drive it.”

(Jim Collins)

What if these were the superheroes, linchpins, mavericks or Freds whose connectivity and altruistic collaboration enabled the organisation to fly?


2. Seek out the “Podium people – ask, who is the best in the world?” What if organisations identified the best in the world? What if we then understood where they were, how and what they achieve? What if we then work out precisely where we are and then plot to close the gap? By setting direction for the “Podium People” in our field we set the expectation high. What if we habitually faced the brutal truths of our own performance?…

“have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)

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By aspiring to reach and exceed Podium People we commit to do “whatever it takes” and embark on a journey, an accumulation of steps…

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time (aiming for the podium) and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)

What if we time limit the drive for improvement?…

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)


3. Seek Marginal Gains, because small improvements in a number of aspects that we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.

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What if we realised that impact, stickability and the effectiveness of any change is in the detail and that where change is planned, simple and purposeful big change and impact can follow? … often with unexpected benefits…

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly!” (Malcolm Gladwell)

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What if we understood greatness was about the choices we make and the discipline to see them through?…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” (Jim Collins)


“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

4. Give Ownership, because with ownership comes motivation. What if we trusted that because we have set the destination … on exceeding our podium people/organisations and  that we have the right people on the bus … then these people are best placed to lead and make decisions? That by giving ownership we increase autonomy and this drives-up motivation and performance that is widely owned and more likely to be sustained. – “pushing decision making to the action” (David Marquett)

What if this ownership was allied to responsibility and accountability – a measuring stick and evaluation that rewards and supports motivation? … so that individuals know they are doing a remarkable job.

What if we connected individuals to collaborate? … Seth Godin reminds that groups/teams need a clarity of destination and an ability to connect and communicate … collaboration and improvement follows…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

What if, as John Kotter identifies, we create and facilitate connection and collaboration (right hand side) alongside hierarchy that challenges, supports and delivers accountability (the left hand side)? It is balancing these that create a successful, agile team/organisation.

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5. Absolute clarity of role – People need to own and absolutely accept the role they have, but importantly they need to believe it is the right thing to do. What if we understood that Individuals perform well when there is absolute clarity on what is expected of them? Too often leaders complain of poor performance only to realises that they have never been clear in the first place as to what was expected.

What if we also identify the standards and insisted on the highest of expectations – in all that you do? What if we create a positive, risk-embracing environment and culture so that we face the brutal truths and seek feedback and understanding to maintain continuous improvement?


Maybe then we would build teams in education from middle to senior to executive leadership that understand outperformance, borrow from other professions, sports and organisations to realise the leadership potential that exists.

Maybe then by asking…

  • …do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
  • …do we know who the podium organisations are? – and how we close the gap?
  • …do we find marginal gains for continuous improvement?
  • …do we give and facilitate ownership for improvement and balance with accountability?
  • …do we have absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure that the standards and expectations are set high … within a feedback and risk-taking culture?

we would would better understand our organisation and how we create the conditions for great teams to grow, succeed and out-perform. After all, in academies/schools leadership and the extent that leadership creates high performing teams directly relates to the success or otherwise of the organisation.

“Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

March 2015

If not now, when? Raising Achievement

‘Garry was brilliant,’ …. ‘He told us exactly where the Italians were and he really motivated us with things like: ‘If not now, when? If not you, who? How much do you want this?’ We knew then that we wanted it more than them.’ (Greg Searle, Gold, Barcelona Olympics)

In the Barcelona Olympics the Searle brothers trailed the Italians by two lengths at 1250m…with 15 stokes remaining it was still more than a length…rising to the if not now, when? and the if not you, who? challenge…the brothers showed extraordinary courage and determination to overhaul the Italians in the last stroke to win Gold. (Click picture to view the race)

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It is probably true that when it comes to raising achievement (RA) a whatever it takes” mindset and culture is key and Term 4/5 is the engine room of opportunity to ensure that students perform. Where there is a focus on quality first teaching and a balance of being deliberate, precise and rigorous on strategies and approaches that matter… there are no limits to what can be achieved.


This begs the question: How do Academies/schools raise achievement most effectively ahead of summer exams? After all, “If not now, when?” … “If not you, who?”

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” (Malcolm Gladwell)


What if we always kept central that it is quality first teaching that matters? – what students receive every lesson, every day is what raises achievement and this is best achieved through strong, precise and deliberate teaching over time. – This is the “flywheel” (Collins), the “One Thing” (Keller). Keep the main thing, the main thing…

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What if we also understood that RA approaches have much to inform us about everyday teaching, assessment and practices? So that RA is not about a sticking plaster or a bolt-on (panic) approach, but is built into effective progress-focussed teaching across all Year groups.


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What if we realised that urgency is important when raising achievement and that it is crucial that this is communicated to encourage and insist on a move to action for both students and staff? We need to “amplify a need” to secure action that makes the difference.

What if it was the superheroes in our midst that led RA – each teacher, tutor, mentor, leader taking responsibility for RA and believing that anything is possible and being the change and impetus to move students to action? …the deliberate action that enables students to achieve. Blog: Connected Collaboration and Deliberate Altruism

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What if we are very clear about who is responsible for student performance? Class-level responsibility is key to RA – teachers being accountable for students – where there is quality conversation (support and challenge) around what can be achieved with a group of students – teaching becomes more focused on RA.


What if we reward teaching that is outcome-orientated? We value and reward teachers who achieve progress over time; placing more weight on outcomes and progress achieved than performance in observations. And what if we support and reward teaching that is more deliberate and grounded in formative assessment, so that it enables planning to close gaps and secure greater progress. (blog: progress over time)

What if we show a boldness of leadership that reshuffles students, alters groupings and changes staffing to ensure students get the best opportunity to perform? (they only get one shot) And What if where behaviour limits progress teachers and leaders are tenacious and quick to remove this barrier?

What if we fully recognised that Raising Achievement is not about doing more and stacking strategy on strategy … in the push to raise achievement… “not everything matters equally?” (Keller) see Strategic leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery. We should deliberately seek “marginal gains” (David Brailsford) but resist the temptation just to add strategy on top of strategy – such approaches are high energy, spread impact thinly and are often counter productive.


What if we embedded deliberate practice within teaching and RA? Deliberate Practice occurs when students…

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

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

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

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

What if based on sound formative and summative assessment that allowed a deep understanding of what students are able to do and not do we used DTT and DDI to close gaps in understanding?…

  • DTT – Diagnosis, Therapy, Test, Diagnosis, Therapy, Test….
  • DDI – Data Driven Instruction.

What if using DDI allows for greater professional conversation around how to secure concepts with students? Why are there gaps shared by students in their understanding? If we focus on understanding how effective our instruction is then teaching will more quickly RA of students.


What if, like the Oakland As, RA is consistently Data Driven? If we ask the right questions and measure the most important performance indicators (the gaps) we get a sense of impact/performance and we direct teaching, planning and intervention to efficiently and effectively close gaps. See blog: Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Coyle What if we borrow and use more of Dan Coyle’s ideas on learning and performance? He identifies three important conditions that support learning:

  • Maximise reachfulness in the presence of an expert
  • Embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • Encourage theft – use feedback and copy others.

Dan Coyle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq0pHpNy6bs (17 mins)

What if RA is based on the assumption that anyone can learn anything? That the physical development of myelin to secure pathways in the brain enables learning – it is practice that counts and that Dweck’s Growth Mindset ideas are central to highlighting what is possible?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).” (Dan Coyle)


What if Mock exams were regular and deliberately delivered, perhaps in this sequence? Quality teaching…Walking Talking Mock…Visualisation/deliberate instruction/preparation…Mock Exam…question-level feedback…moderation…diagnosis…DDI/DDT…deliberate results day…quality first teaching/intervention that precisely closes gaps.

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What if these Mocks are externally marked or moderated? such that a accurate “Actual Performance” is measured? …completed in exam halls, under full exam conditions, with full exam papers? …including all access arrangements?

What if Mock performance precisely informed what is taught and better still how it is taught (DDI)? What if Covey tables or similar identified specifically the gaps and opportunities for marks and that this is owned in subjects and at class-level? (remembering that some marks are easier than others)

What if fine grading was used across all subjects and that the criteria for each fine grade is consistently applied? And what if feedback from each exam provided question-level analysis and specifically directed students to when and how they can close gaps in understanding?

What if parents evenings were also results evenings where students receive results and specific question/area-level feedback on what is known and where the gaps…and how, where and when the gaps can/will be closed?


What if we meticulously had a plan for the seconds, minutes, hours and days prior to am and pm exams – that this tapered preparations, supported students and was consistent, dependable and reassuringly routine?

What if the period before and during the exams was precisely timetabled to make the very best use of the time available, such that quality teaching input existed up to each exam and that lessons and teachers whose courses had completed made an Academy contribution to support the preparation for other exams?

What if we also focused on student well-being, praise and reward? Cohort performance is often linked to cohort ethos and approach, such that there is a collective and wide-held value placed on performing and achieving? This can often be tangible and obvious – where cohorts tip outcomes improve. What approaches can be used to create a sense of belonging, a Year group sense of we are in this together and “your success is also my success?”

What if RA is a whole Academy drive such that a 100 day plan (to… 50 day plans) leading up to and through the summer exams is owned by all? And even better if this is translated into subject plans…that are very specific, deliberate and precise. What if there is a clear focus on the key students that make the difference the “key 34” the “critical 25” the “golden 28”?


Maybe then we would exploit a “whatever it takes” and “if not now, when” mindset that assumes everything is possible and ensures students perform and achieve. That we never let up on improving the quality of teaching as this is the most effective way of raising student achievement of students – what happens in every lesson really matters.

Maybe also we would be precise and deliberate about Raising Achievement, squeezing out the most from the strategies and approaches that matter the most.

…enabling students to perform unusually well.

March 2015

Strategic leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery

bring light

It is probably true that:  When we describe and aim for a preferred future, understand what matters (what has impact) and when we are fanatically disciplined and deliberate in delivering the few (one) things that really matter…we bring new light to what life might be. and achieve unusually well.


So, what if we were better at balancing three things?

  • Our ability, based on the WHY, to describe the future, the destination, the dream? – to set sights on an extraordinary end point?
  • Our understanding of what matters, what makes the difference, what achieves impact?
  • Our fanatical discipline to deliberately focus upon and deliver the One Thing(s) that align with our dream and matter most.

It is at the intersection of these three things that we have the chance to accelerate improvement by:

  • Aligning strategy toward our dream, ambition, destination or preferred future.
  • Focusing on the few areas that have impact (our positive deviant practices)
  • AND maintain the fanatic discipline to deliberately deliver our preferred future.

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Or we might consider that when we have a focused strategy that aligns to our dream and when we are fanatically disciplined and deliberate in the delivery of the few (one) things that make a difference (have impact) we achieve unusual improvement over time

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What if: We start by finding our organisation’s WHY? and seek to describe a preferred future … maybe then we can point to the destination and follow strategies that align and accelerate towards that dream.

“Inspired leaders, organisations and teams find their deepest purpose – their ‘why?’ – and attract followers through shared values, vision and belief.” “this has the ability to transform the fortunes of a group or enterprise – activating individuals, providing a cultural glue, guiding behaviours and creating an overall sense of purpose and personal connection.” (James Kerr, Legacy, 2013)

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“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” “All organisations Start with why, but only the great ones keep their why clear year after year.”  (Simon Sinek)

Simon Sinek has been very influential in ensuring that the basis of strategic planning and the focus of work is located around the moral purpose – the why. His golden circle has framed an approach, language and strategic focus. Sinek identifies that human motivation is emotionally linked, meaning that when people start with why (the moral purpose) this secures early emotional buy in. Just as Martin Luther King composed the “I have a dream” speech and described the future and not the “I have a plan…first we…” speech (taken from Sinek), school leaders have a responsibility to describe the desired future or destination.

Emotional connection is also crucial:

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)

Question: How far have you/your organisation identified the WHY – how well is the moral purpose communicated/shared? How often is it articulated? is it taken for granted? is it a comfort blanket or even an excuse when improvement is slow?


What if: we then used the WHY to describe a preferred future (a dream) and ensure that urgency is in the system to drive toward the end?

John West-Burnham highlights the importance of describing a preferred future.

“Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe. – In the 1970s Shell developed an approach that required identification of preferred scenarios…that are essentially descriptions of a preferred future.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)

If leaders create compelling stories of the future (a dream), attach meaning to them and embed the why, they have the chance of connecting peers with purpose (Fullan). Such ownership allows change and strategic improvement to be owned at a greater depth within the organisation. Tim Brighouse describes how schools are on journeys and that the best schools ask where they want to be and take small steps on a journey toward that goal.

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)


What if: we ensured that there is an appropriate level of urgency in the system.

There is little point in having a compelling dream unless there is in-built urgency (often beyond that provided by the WHY). John Kotter uses the word urgency to emphasize the need for a heightened sense of focus, readiness to act and determination.

Kotter’s urgency describes the force that is released when people feel a quest, a purpose, that their work is meaningful and has a greater purpose than themselves. It is not to be confused with panic or knee-jerk leadership that is reactionary. This is the type of urgency that inspires and moves people to action.

Great leaders understand that generating and highlighting urgency is important as it creates forward motion.

(Jim Collins)

Great organisation often need to generate urgency. For Academies, a poor set of results or pending Ofsted, for example, should not be the driver for the required urgency…neither should it be knee-jerk, reactionary responses to temporal problems or transient political directives. Great organisations are naturally urgent – the moral purpose is deep, the preferred future is compelling, the strategic focus aligns to the need to improve – there is a deliberate and discipline pursuit of what matters. It is this that generates and embeds the urgency in the system.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)

Ken Segall, in Insanely Simple (2012): “Though it may defy logic, the easiest way to screw up a project is to give it too much time – enough time for people to rethink, revise, have second thoughts, invite others into the project, get more opinions, conduct tests, etc…you invite overthinking…only when people are kept in constant motion do they stay focused with the right kind of intensity…keeping the team in motion is what gets you there.” (describing project management at Apple)


What if: Based on the why, the described future and the built in urgency…we are able to focus down to the one Thing(s)? based on what matters and what makes a difference – those positively deviant, hedgehog ideas and core practices that have impact?

“What is the ONE THING that you need to do, such that by doing it, everything else is either easier or not required.” (Gary Keller, The One Thing)

…because not everything matters equally.

How often do we ask this question? based on where we need to get to what do we need to do in a years time, a months time, next week, tomorrow….what is the one thing that needs to happen now, such that everything else is easier or not required? Keller describes that if we are to tip our preferred future (dream) domino then we need to set a series of dominoes back to the present…the job then is to realise the one thing that now has to happen to tip the very first domino that is uniquely aligned to the dream future.

The One Thing needs to also have further qualities:

  1. It needs to have impact (more than any other strategy/focus) – be a positive deviant – and this requires measurement of impact and deep questioning.
    • In all that we do there are things that have real impact, things that appear to have impact (but are proxies) and things that have limited impact. Finding the one thing that really makes a difference requires evaluation and measurement. The aim is to identify the positively deviant practices, often referred to as bright spots (Heaths). Beware fads, trends, promising innovation or popular approaches – it is impact that counts – things do not matter equally.
    • Our perception of what is possible is obstructed by historic assumptions about what is possible – they stop us considering game-changing innovations. Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities and the true impact of approaches (Barber).
  2. It needs to be what you have to be the best in the world at (hedgehog concept).
    • The hedgehog concept represents the intersect of three circles: what you can be (need to be) the best in the world at, what you are deeply passionate about and what best drives your improvement/outcomes (Collins). Just like a hedgehog is excellent at One Thing (rolling into a ball for protection) – the key to success often lies in the ability to be the best in the world at one thing – it is amazing how this makes you better at other stuff and how wide the influence of this one thing travels.
  3. It is absolutely at the core of what you/your organisation is about. – aligned to the dream and reflects the brutal truth of your present performance.
    • “have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)
  4. It needs to be sticky and timeless. This is Collin’s Fly-wheel.
    • Success and improvement resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond. This is not temporal innovation or reaction this is a systemic focus on the thing that matters most.

Of course the key is to simplify to those strategies that matter most … it is unlikely to be one thing…but it might be three things that matter (not 20) and these need to be sticky, and aligned to the dream. Great organisations KISS (keep it simple stupid).

“Simplicity is power, whether it’s used by individuals or organisations. The question is, do you have the insight and skills to turn this power into your own advantage?” Ken Segall (2012)


What if:  we are fanatically focused on deliberately delivering the thing(s) that matters.

Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

Collins writes, “discipline, in essence, is consistency of action – consistency with values (why), consistency of method, consistency over time. True discipline requires the independence of mind to reject pressures to conform in ways incompatible with values, performance standards and long term aspirations (dream). …having the inner strength to do what ever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.” (Collins)

Great organisations balance this unswerving fanatical focus on delivery with an agility that enables innovation around what counts. This is not about jumping, adopting new ideas, this is about being the best in the world at what matters most. Kotter identifies the need to balance the hierarchy required in great organisations to turn the flywheel with the agility to to free individuals to connect and innovate around what counts (below). Firing bullets before cannonballs (Collins). And there in lies the contradiction – to be great you focus on the things that really matter, that are sticky, that are timeless – whilst maintaining the innovative agility necessary to stay ahead, to be leading edge, to path find.

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Maybe then: more organisations would be strategically led through:

  • A strong WHY and moral purpose – communicated and compelling.
  • A clear DREAM of the future described at 1 month, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years …2040?
  • An URGENCY that is embedded in the organisation from a deep moral purpose, the compelling preferred future and the aligned deliberate strategic focus.
  • A clarity down to the ONE THING(S) that matter, that have impact – the positive deviant practices, the hedgehog, that address the brutal truth and are sticky and timeless.
  • A FANATIC DISCIPLINE to deliberately deliver the few things that matter. Such that change is sticky.
  • An AGILITY that allows the organisation to innovate in these core things that matter. Firing bullets before cannonballs.

And Finally: none of the above sustains improvement or change unless…

“our actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more.” (J.Q. Adams)

and 

“Leaders inspire others to take charge … they guide us through the journey.” (adapted, Simon Sinek)

and

“leaders create the choice architecture in an organisation to free individuals, to lead the way to the preferred future (dream). Building on a foundation of strong values and principles,  a compelling purpose, great capacity is released to do something great.” (adapted, Seth Godin)