Facing a problem? Ask yourself these questions

May 1, 2019
A student talking over his concerns.

Leadership is largely a skill based on decision making. This is especially true in schools, where leaders have to balance the needs of diverse groups while making hundreds of decisions each week.

Like all skills, leadership can be improved with practice and self-examination. Mike Johanek, Director of Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and co-editor of Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance, suggests that leaders start by reflecting on how they assess problems.

Here are three questions for leaders to ask when the next problem inevitably arises:

Is this really my problem?

Leaders can get trapped addressing minor issues that could be better handled by others in their organization.
Sometimes, this happens because they have — accidentally or intentionally — created an environment where faculty and staff feel they are expected to take even the smallest problems up the food chain, or fear not doing so. Other times, leaders get unnecessarily drawn into minor issues.

Educational leaders can only focus on so many things at once. Generally, organizations function best when leaders focus on vision and priorities, communicating those clearly, and empowering the appropriate people to address the other issues that often only they can see well.

Am I looking at the right problem?

The search for solutions is often based on how a problem is framed. But what if the framing itself is problematic?
Suppose a parent complains to the superintendent about the job Mr. Jones is doing as middle school principal. Maybe Mr. Jones really is the problem. But maybe Mr. Jones is the focal point for how the parent experiences a district-wide issue, such as a high-stress approach to standardized testing. If the superintendent can’t discern the underlying issue, parents in other schools will continue to have the same problem, even if conditions improve in Mr. Jones’s school.

Skilled leaders often pause before confronting a challenge. They examine the problem from multiple perspectives without assuming that it was framed correctly. They try to account for whatever role they might have in the problem, and what inherent biases come with their position.

A good first step can be to separate the complaint from the complainant. Then, ask how other people in the community might experience the problem. How do others speak of the issue? How are they framing it? How do these perceptions compare to your own? Who could give you distinctive input? One final, routinely overlooked, question: does anyone not see this as a problem, and if so, why?

What kind of solution do we need?

Technical problems are specific, and can often be remedied by a targeted intervention. The leaking gym roof may just be a technical problem. The technical solution would be to call the roofer.

There is a temptation in education, though, to address every problem with technical solutions. If parents aren’t showing up to parent–teacher conferences, let’s send out more snappy emails.

But many problems school leaders face are actually adaptive problems. These, as researchers Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linksy wrote, “require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.”

In our parent–teacher conference example, parents may be disengaged because of perceived disrespect or condescension from the school, or because of language barriers and cultural issues, or simply from the competing time demands of multiple jobs. The school leader will have to understand the actual mix of causes before they can create a successful solution.

In many ways, adaptive solutions can be harder to see, which makes them more difficult to implement. Solutions often emerge out of the habit — the discipline — of regular reflection on practice. Leaders rarely conceive of a great idea alone. Examining actual decisions with one’s colleagues, perhaps as a part of team meetings, can nurture a habit of reflection and engender a broader culture of inquiry.

Because adaptive solutions take time, and trial and error, leaders should be transparent and communicative as they work through them with colleagues. The community needs to see that leaders are not blind to an ongoing problem, that they treat colleagues as partners in the resolution, and that their stance is one of active, evidence-based inquiry into advancing the quality of student educational experiences.



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