I’m convinced that the question of “what can we take away” has been a priority for school leaders since (at least) the Industrial Age. It has been a central theme in all my time in education, and I imagine it transcends many other work sectors too. How do we find ourselves constantly in this situation? Surely, if we are always looking to subtract things we should eventually reach a point where we don’t need to ask that question anymore!
We are in week four of our school year and at the point where we are reviewing our orientation program for new and returning members of our community this year. Honestly, so much thought went into it. We looked back to what worked before Covid, reviewed feedback from previous years, and had a plan to respond to our shared desire to focus on relationship and culture building, to start the new year with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose. But I’ve realized two things this year: school leaders are good at addition, not so good at subtraction.
We are good at addition.
So, we added more ice-breaking, more team building, more time to renew our cultural norms. We made room for these “extras” by leveraging some of our new Covid online tools to cover some of our important compliance needs, and then we had some challenging conversations about other sessions that we could live without. In fact, we did a lot of wrestling in these sessions as we tried to make our decisions to balance the needs of individual teachers (wanting time in their classrooms to get ready to receive new students and deliver the best learning and teaching experience possible from day one) with the needs of the school (time in groups to build a shared sense of community) as we emerge from Covid. Eventually, we made room for all the things we wanted to matter this year. And at some point, we thought, yes, we’ve got this right.
In hindsight, I think we got a lot of things right. But we inevitably also got a lot of things wrong. There’s an old saying that I often have to remind myself, sometimes you are "damned if you do, damned if you don’t." That’s the way it works when you have to make trade-offs between one thing or another.
We are not so good at subtraction.
So why are we not good at removing things? An experiment involving Lego bricks might give us a few clues. Participants were given a range of tasks including one to stabilize the top of a Lego structure by either adding (at a cost) or simply removing a single brick. Despite subtracting a brick being the simplest (and most profitable strategy) the researchers discovered that under control conditions, around 60% of people decide to add rather than take away.
Indeed, there is a fair amount of behavioral research that suggests that humans have a bias toward adding rather than subtracting when considering how to improve objects, ideas, or situations. Researchers show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. This default may be one of the reasons why we struggle to mitigate heavy workloads, over-heated calendars, red tape, and even damaging effects on the planet.
What’s the answer?
There are a couple of lessons that I think I will mull over…
Lesson 1: Do the math.
For everything we took out of the program this year, we added something else back in. The net result is that we ended up where we started. We were trying to be thoughtful, but we also needed to be more disciplined.
Greg McKeown recommends an approach called the reverse pilot. This is where you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. This is a strategy that I have used a couple of times over the last few years with significant success, specifically in relation to scheduled meetings. It requires us to adopt a subtractive mindset, so it’s no wonder I don’t use it often enough (note to self).
Lesson 2: Learn to accept that sometimes you will be damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
We have to accept that when we replace tangibles (e.g., time preparing classrooms, lesson planning, team meetings, etc.) with intangibles (e.g., culture and relationship-building activities, etc.), it will sometimes be difficult to see the intended benefits. We have to be ready for that.
In the interests of science (and love for Lego), I attempted to reconstruct the Lego brick experiment at home this week with my kids. It turned out that the 60% result is fairly accurate: 66% of my participants added more Lego, which might also help explain why we have so much of this plastic gold lying around the house!
Originally published in Serendipities.
Damian is currently a high school principal at the United World College of South East Asia, Singapore. He has previously worked in Switzerland as a founder of a new IBCP school, been the global head of the Diploma Programme and Career-related Programme for the International Baccalaureate in The Hague, and was a secondary principal in Dubai at GEMS Wellington, Silicon Oasis. Prior to this, Damian was a Major in the British Army serving as an education officer in the UK, Brunei, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Damian’s blog, Serendipities, is loosely centered around school leadership, curriculum, wellbeing, and belonging.