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Saturday Thunks

Time for Slow Leadership #SaturdayThunk

If you work in a school I’m probably safe in saying you are working too hard and doing too many things.  Whilst it might appear harsh, I may even suggest that you are probably not doing all these things as well as you could leading to reduced impact.  Even worse you possibly haven’t spent enough time thinking, in the first instance, about whether all the things you are doing are likely to have a significant impact or possibly any impact.

Photo Credit: Gian Luigi Perrella via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Gian Luigi Perrella via Flickr cc

This isn’t just a problem in schools it can afflict many public services and private businesses.  Too many people are working and in some cases essentially living in an organisation where busyness, for its own sake, is seen as a virtue.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains his theory about two modes of thought; System 1 (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious).  While System 1 helps us survive in the jungle it is System 2 which is likely to be of greater benefit in addressing complex issues.

To what extent are teachers and leaders working in survival mode?  Operating in a fast moving frenetic environment with System 1 thinking and flight, fright or fight actions and reactions occurring all over the school.  It’s time to slow down.  I’ve spoken at a few conferences recently and used the slide below.  It always seems to have an impact.

Doing Less Better

If you were to list all the objectives and time consuming actions you are currently engaged with and give them a score out of ten – one means unlikely to have a significant impact on the learning, care, guidance or support of pupils or staff and ten means massive impact (pulling on the data, feedback, research and experience to support this judgement) – how many would score a 9 or 10 out of ten?  If it’s not a 9 or 10 out of ten it’s a no.

Now imagine crossing off all the objectives and time consuming actions that scored eight or less from your list.  If this is too scary for you, rather than liberating, write them on another piece of paper but ignore them.  Go back to your original list and the few items which scored a 9 or 10 out of ten; genuinely and truthfully assess which ones you have time to implement or do this year and do very well so they have the impact required.  Each of these items is likely to have a number of strands so be realistic.  Which ones could wait a year or even two?  I know they’re all important but you can’t do everything well so doing some well is preferential to wasting time doing many things badly.  If one thing will improve my leadership, this is the 10 out of ten one on my leadership list, it would be to slow down and focus on doing less better.

Unless you work in a school which is in total chaos is it time to move from System 1 Running Around Like a Headless Chicken Leadership to System 2 Let’s Build Slowly and have Real Sustainable High Impact Leadership?

#SaturdayThunk is based on something I’ve been thinking about, discussing, working on or has been topical that week.  The thunk is designed to be bite sized and will deliberately be kept short.  It will take one small issue or an aspect of something much bigger.  The intention is for it to be read in two minutes as you’re relaxing or busy running around on you day off.



12 thoughts on “Time for Slow Leadership #SaturdayThunk

  1. Stephen, you are so right with this. It is possibly one of the most frustrating parts of the job. You know you could do things so much better if you just had more time. I do seriously worry that many of us are being spread so thinly that the impact of our work, with colleagues especially, is being much reduced. We need say, ‘STOP’ and let us take time to take stock of exactly what we are doing, what we are hoping to achieve, how successful we are and what we can get rid of – not replace with something else, get rid of to have more time to be more successful. Nothing rushed is ever really any good.

    Posted by @wendymaria100 | November 7, 2015, 6:59 am
  2. Thanks Steven

    I totally agree and believe that the accountability process is what prevents discarding everything that isn’t 9 or 10. As the goal posts shift – our own targets grades have just received the yearly ‘bump up’ due to progress 8 goals – headteacher a are tempted with those process that have a 4/5 impact factor because it may make a tiny difference to one or two kids. When Ofsted can draw conclusions from a minority of children not reaching targets we are programmed to grasp everything as fast as we can. Unfortunately.

    Posted by dannyhilditch | November 7, 2015, 7:27 am
    • It’s a familiar story and I certainly recognise it from my own experience. We’re looking to follow the great example of John Tomsett and do our interventions in the classroom via better and better teaching. Final thought from Vivienne Porritt “Posts Move, Goals Don’t” which really made me think when I first heard it.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | November 7, 2015, 7:32 am
  3. Thanks for the mention, Stephen. I’m glad this thought continues to resonate. So you won’t be surprised to know that I agree totally. We need to concentrate on the right things that help us achieve our unchanging goals – quality learning from quality teaching supported by quality leadership.

    Posted by Vivienne Porritt | November 7, 2015, 1:08 pm
  4. Thank you, this could not have hit me at a better time. I spent the last part of yesterday afternoon thinking through my workload priorities and asking myself ‘ is this really making a difference to children?’ Good activity for SLT, who are also feeling the same. November can often be a tricky month for teachers, increased staff sickness and general ‘dark’ feeling, as a head I’m well aware of the seeping feeling and need to be proactive with not running around like a headless chicken! Good think!

    Posted by prihead | November 7, 2015, 1:35 pm
  5. Good to read this, Stephen.

    It reminded me that when I was a Head of Department I would amass a list of jobs to do on a Sunday, which I added to as the week went on. When I looked at the list on Sunday morning, I realised that, often, there was more on it than I could comfortably cope with, so I put them in priority order. The ones at the top the list (which I would do early on, when I felt less pressed for time and also had more energy) were either a) the more important (in that they would have a direct effect on the pupils, or on the staff in my dept – and if I didn’t do them well, others would suffer. This included planning/thinking about my lessons) and b) any particularly difficult jobs that I didn’t really relish doing (eating the frogs! Better to get them out of the way than to dwell on them!)

    The jobs at the bottom of the list weren’t accorded as much time, and sometimes they had to be deferred, even occasionally ignored completely, because I’d decided that, perhaps, they weren’t worth investing time in.

    The system worked for me as a HoD so I did the same later in my career, as a Head of Sixth Form, then a Deputy Head and a Head. In actual fact, thinking about it, I still go through a similar process in the post-headship phase of my life, what I’m starting to think of as #lifeafter! http://staffrm.io/@jillberry/2ogIgJY9gg

    Thanks again. Hope you’re having a good weekend.

    Posted by jillberry102 | November 7, 2015, 5:24 pm


  1. Pingback: How to make stuff happen… and deliver change | Dan Nicholls - November 8, 2015

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