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Planning: 2000-Pound Invisible Gorilla of Educational Transformation

Christopher Chabris and Dan Simon have written a popular little book, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, and if you’ve never seen the namesake video watch below.

As explained elsewhere (here) in more detail, participants in the original 1999 study were asked to count the passes between basketball players, and roughly half missed the gorilla as it walked across the room.  The conclusions drawn in the study are that humans tend to overestimate their awareness, and the rest of the book goes onto to talk about this and other “illusions” in greater detail, including illusions of attention, memory, knowledge, potential, cause, and confidence.  A few years back I presented a paper, Invisible Gorillas, Unfair Casinos, and the Action Orientation of Engineers, in which I challenged the idea that the “illusions” were simply errors, and that they might serve some larger evolutionary purpose (powerpoint here and abstract here).

Seting that argument aside, here I’d like to use the metaphor of  invisible gorilla as referring to a cognitive  illusion, and talk about what may well be the fundamental invisible gorrilla of educational transformation.

Planning: Fundamental Illusion of Educational Transformation

In working on transformation projects around the world, the whole notion of planning may well be the fundamental illusion of the transformation process.  Clients consistently overestimate their ability to plan a major transformation in exquisite detail, and time and again, these plans are largely in shambles before the first month of the first semester of rollout.  Worse, clients in part because they’ve spent so much time on their plans have grown attached to salvaging them, and much time and effort is wasted by trying to make the plans (and planners) whole.  Seen through the lens of the Chabris & Simon book, planning is a compound illusion, including all of the illusions discussed in the book, but mainly planning is an illusion of prediction or cause.  Educational transformers are unable to predict outcomes well enough to plan, and a different approach is needed (Sticking to a failed plan is not so much an illusion as it is a refusal to be vulnerable).

Fortunately, the practice & literature of entrepreneurship has dealt with this problem for some time and quite capably.  Sara Sarasvathy’s 1971 PhD dissertation introduced effectual thinking of entrepreneurs and a counterpoint to the causal thinking of routine business managers.  Routine business managers, Sarasvathy argues, are used to making detailed predictions about future outcomes and then planning around those outcomes that are desired.  Entrepreneurs, because they are working in less well traveled settings, are unable or less able to make such predictions, and they are forced to take action with existing resources, knowledge, and means.  Entrepreneurs may have some initial conception of what they are trying to accomplish, but great entrepreneurs are present to what actually happened, not what they wanted to have happen, and as a result great entrepreneurs oftentimes shift their goals and desired outcomes based on what they learned through doing.  Sarasvathy calls this action logic effectuation, and a short paper can be found online that covers the key ideas (here).

Managing the Polarity between Planning & Effectuation in Ed Transformation


Here we suggest that effectuation should be a dominant action logic for educational transformers, but  of course, this does not suggest that nothing should be planned.  In any educational project, teachers can be assigned, classrooms picked, course titles chosen, and so on.  Many subtasks of a transformation are routine and can build on institutional & personal knowledge and knowhow about such things.  However, at a strategic level, educational transformation is fundamentally about doing things differently (both means and ends) than in times past, and so by definition, there are many things that cannot be planned and must be learned effectually.

One of the first things that is needed to do this effectively is the notion of a polarity and the notion of polarity management.  Barry Johnson discusses these things in his book here, and in this short summary here.  Polarities are opposing ways of thinking or acting, and oftentimes we choose one or the other in our work.  For example, do we emphasize individual initiative or team collaboration, or do we care most about task or relationship?  Johnson points out that just because ways of thinking and acting are mutually exclusive by a single actor at a single moment, does not mean that we can’t have diversity in time or across a population, and this management between polarities he calls polarity management.  For discussion here, we need to think more carefully about what things can be planned and what things must be tackled effectually.

Four Ways to Be More Effectual Today

Effectual or entrepreneurial thinking is different from causal or planning thinking, but there is nothing particularly difficult about it, especially if you take some key steps:

Admit to yourself you don’t have all the answers.  A key obstacle to ed transformation success, and a key reason that detailed plans are so popular, is that we are often afraid to admit that we don’t really know the answer.  I’ve blogged about the power of vulnerability (here) and the beauty of not knowing elsewhere (here), but the first step of doing this right is simply not to pretend to be the answer man/woman.  Of course, in some organizations not knowing or, at least, not pretending to know is the kiss of death, so whether or not you share your not knowing with others depends on whether the culture can sustain this level of honesty, but it is essential that you not kid yourself, and that you surround yourself with people who can be similarly vulnerable to not having the answers.

Act. Planners tend to think, think, think some more, revise their thinking, then act.  Entrepreneurs act, learn, adjust, and act some more.  Take more action sooner and more frequently.

Make little bets & pilots.  Planners like to think big, and comprehensively, if for no other reason than to ratify their knowledge and ability to predict.  To be more effectual, start with small bets in limited pilot settings, and don’t view actions, especially early actions as final.  Peter Sims calls these little bets (here) & Teresa Amabile calls these small wins in the progress principle (here).  Either way, smallify and then scale up things that work.

Create a safe space that nurtures experimentation, failure, then success.  Routine organizations are very good at doing what they have already done, over and over again, but they really are fairly ineffective at doing something new or different.  To overcome the bias toward the routine, create a place or an incubator where new stuff is valued and celebrated.  Essentially you are creating a place so that a new culture can take root and be nurtured without having to listen to the boobirds who would like nothing more than to put an end to the threateninginnovations you are trying to pilot and scale.

These things sound easy enough, and they are, but it says quite a lot about the predominance of planning thinking in university life that being effectual is not more a part of how university actors think and act.  In approaching your educational transformation don’t overestimate your ability to plan. Instead, admit what you don’t know and integrate effectual thinking into your transformation process.



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