Reflections on Collaboration

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    Dawn Miller, Ph.D, is the Innovative Projects Facilitator for the Shawnee Mission Public Schools.

    I have a lot of books on my shelves. I have a lot of books in stacks by my desk. Some get read, some get scanned, and some are left in the stack of “good intentions.” Then there are those books that are “keepers.” These are the ones that I find myself pulling off the shelf every now and then, skimming through and reading the parts that were highlighted or contain my own written remarks. One favorite that falls into this category is by Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman titled Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. This book highlights seven groups that have accomplished extraordinary things by virtue of an able leader and amazingly talented people. The seven groups are Walt Disney Studios, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Apple, the 1992 Clinton campaign, the Manhattan Project, the aeronautical engineers who built planes at Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works, and the Black Mountain College experimental community.

    The authors studied these groups to determine how their collective magic was made, with lessons learned summarized in the end. I’ve used these lessons in several different ways over the years. The work we do in education provides one of the most amazing platforms for these lessons to be realized. The ingredients include an able leader and committed teachers. The authors reinforce that while we can’t guarantee that the groups we are part of will always achieve greatness, there are ways to increase the likelihood that we can. Take a look at the lessons learned below and think about what is, and can be, accomplished when the desired outcome is creating strong and successful learners. I’ve shared a few ideas for groups to discuss as they reconstitute for the school year.

    Lesson: Greatness starts with superb people.

    Outstanding teams include members who can make connections, who see things differently, who are skilled at solving problems, who have multiple frames of reference, and who are up to the task of accomplishing anything of value.

    Questions for your team:

    • Do we really understand the strengths, preferences, and talents of each other?
    • Can we see beyond our own class to assist each other, and the building, in the education of all students?

    Lesson: Great groups and great leaders create each other.

    While great groups all have a great leader, the accomplishments are collective. Leaders of great groups have to find a leadership style that suits that group and demonstrate skilled decisiveness that maintains the group ownership. 

    Questions for your team:

    • Do we demonstrate collective ownership of the work we are doing?
    • How do we support the leadership in our building? On our team?
    • What are our expectations when it comes to decision making? Do we understand how decisions in which consensus is expected are different from decisions for which it is not expected?

    Lesson: Every great group has a strong leader.

    A strong leader sets a clear vision, recruits others with the vision, acts as a good steward, creates an environment that allows great work to be done, and is worthy of the group.

    Questions for your team:

    • Is the vision of our principal clear?
    • Do we have predetermined times to evaluate what is working and not working?
    • Are we clear on how to take concerns or disagreements to the team or the principal?

    Lesson: The leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it.

    Leaders use a broad network to recruit and utilize the talents of group members. Teams should view their participation in the group as an opportunity for contribution as well as for personal growth.

    Questions for your team:

    • Do we fully participate as an active team member where we give our personal best to the situation at hand?
    • Do we come prepared and present to each meeting and help each other stretch our talents?
    • Do we build and utilize our own network to recruit other colleagues and families to assist?

    Lesson: Great groups are full of talented people who can work together.

    Great groups must be able to work together. They need not always be amiable or pleasant, but working together toward the predetermined goals is a must. An important component of this lesson is that social niceties aren’t the important ingredient here—challenging and respecting each other are the key ingredients.

    Questions for your team:

    • Have we set group norms? Do we follow our norms? Do we revisit and reestablish our norms when we think of something that would help with our productivity?
    • Do our norms include something that invites the probing questions that are meant for reflection or consideration and not interpreted as a professional attack on one’s judgment?

    Lesson: Great groups think they are on a mission from God.

    This lesson speaks to the group members’ belief that they are seeking to accomplish something very important—something worthy of their best selves. Group members view everything they do as imperative and meaningful.

    Questions for your team:

    • Has the team revisited what is meaningful to accomplish during a Building Leadership Team meeting, a grade-level data review, a student improvement team meeting? It is fair and appropriate for the team to outline what they want to accomplish that would be meaningful for them, as well as for the student(s).
    • When problem solving is difficult, does the team revisit the question, “What will happen for this student(s) if we choose not to do something different?”

    Lesson: Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs.

    In a great group, members embrace the notion that they can, and will, accomplish something unthinkable by many.

    Questions for your team:

    • Do we embrace the challenge of students’ learning difficulties as ones we will approach with relentlessness?
    • Have we allowed our team to succumb to mediocrity and how can we prevent that from happening again?

    Lesson: Great groups always have an enemy.

    Some teams have a clear enemy, and some have to make one up. Having an enemy raises the competition and forces the team to unite and define itself.

    Questions for your team:

    • Does our team embrace time as an important enemy when it comes to student learning?
    • Does our team demonstrate in our words and actions that fellow colleagues, the district, and families are not the enemy? When we feel there is an obstacle getting in the way of the important work to be done, does our team engage in problem solving to find a realistic, but workable solution?

    Bennis, W., & Biederman, P. (1997). Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
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