Getting to “Simple”

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By: Darcie Birkett, MSBO Immediate Past-President, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, Ottawa Area ISD

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Colonel Tom Kolditz, Westpoint

This military truth played out countless times during March Madness. The competition at this year’s college basketball tournament was fierce, and often the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat came down to the final seconds of the game. Watching from the comfort of our living rooms, we held our breath as coaches called that last time-out and in a few words, delivered the final game plan to their teams.

The Plan – Keep it Simple

If no plan survives the battlefield, then why bother? The answer is simple. Planning helps us think through the right issues, and get to the critical message we must communicate to our internal teams so they know what’s expected of them, as well as to our stakeholders so they can get behind the plan and support it. In the case of those March Madness final plays, rarely did things go according to plan, but it was obvious that every player on the team knew exactly what was expected of him as he stepped back onto the court to play those last seconds of the game. Core plans, to be effective, must be simple, but to be simple – to find your core message – is tough!

Steve Jobs, founder and key force behind Apple’s success, embodied the “Simple is Good” philosophy. That’s why the iPhone and the iPad don’t have keyboards. Steve also believed that a stylus was an unnecessary detractor because humans already have fingers, thus the “swipe” and “touch” technologies were born. But Steve and his team also understood that to be truly simple, you have to go really deep. Simple involves digging through the depth of complexity. “You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

Here’s another Steve Job’s example. Returning to Apple after years of absence, Jobs found a company that had shifted to a “more is better” philosophy with respect to product offerings, and was 90 days from being financially insolvent. He assessed the company, and concluded that a.) Having so many products created a lack of focus internally that lead to average rather than excellent products, and, b.) Externally, too much choice was confusing the customers. So he made it simple. Steve called a meeting of his executive team, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. He labeled the two columns “Consumer” and “Pro” and the rows “Desktop” and “Portable”. Then he issued a very clear, simple message to his team. Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one per quadrant. Get rid of everything else. The immediate result? Employees became sharply focused. Good people were freed up to work on the core mission. The company divested everything that didn’t fit the core, and over three thousand people were laid off, salvaging the company’s balance sheet. The ultimate result? Another Apple success story. Job’s actions saved the company and turned staggering losses into record setting profits.

Education is facing huge changes in the expectations of its functions and how success is measured. Like the Army and Apple, leaders of the Academic marketplace must be clear on what the “core” is going to be. Finding the core forces us to prioritize. In their book “Made to stick”, Chip and Dan Heath explore why some ideas survive while others do not. They contend that smart people struggle with prioritization, because they can see many angles and complexities, and they are tempted to linger there. But the tendency to gravitate towards complexity is at odds with the need to prioritize. As school business leaders, we understand the need to sort through the complex and find the key priorities, because the “core” is what helps people avoid bad spending choices by reminding them of what’s important. In an era of shrinking fiscal resources and growing educational demands, the core message matters. In your district, have you gotten to “simple”? Take a look at your strategic plan; does it allow staff to make predictions or decisions? Is it focused? In Steve Job’s words, “Does it allow you to say “no”, or is it trying do everything for everybody? As the business official, does the core message allow you to ensure that financial resources are focused on the right things?

The Message – Simply…a Story

As you develop this year’s budget presentation, think about the best way to present your district’s core message to staff, the BOE and your community. Does the presentation lead with the core message you want your audience to remember? Is it concrete enough for people to understand (remember, your audience doesn’t know as much as you do about the topic)? Is the presentation focused on “the few” key points, or does it lose impact by trying to cover too much information?

Is your presentation fraught with statistics? If so, you may want to re-think it. Filling your presentation with charts and graphs will get your audience thinking analytically, but it won’t necessarily make them “care”. To care, you need to appeal to human emotion. Research suggests that if you have a choice between telling a story to make your point, or using statistics, the story will win hands down in moving people to at action. In fact, trying to mix stats with stories is less effective than just sticking with the story. Draw from lessons learned by charitable organizations. There are countless statistics about poverty and starvation in Africa, but that isn’t what makes us want to get behind a cause and reach for our pocketbooks. The ability to affect the life of one child, a child that has a name and a face (because we get pictures) and who corresponds with us (because they write to us), these are the things that engage us enough to act. The kids make the story credible without all of the statistics.

This year, consider presenting the budget using the stories in your district that illustrate the “why”. That will generate the emotion needed to move your audience to action. In the words of the Made to Stick authors, “A credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. The right story makes people act.” If your budget presentation is done well, members of your audience will remember the message and it will compel them to act in support of the message whether they are a teacher, janitor, bus driver, business owner, parent or student.

Public education matters, but we are at a crossroads. As educational leaders, it is critical to sort through the complexities of the system, and get to the simple; the “core” essence of what we are about. And then we need to communicate in a way that allows both our internal teams and our external stakeholders to get behind our cause.