The Principal's Field Manual: The School Principal as the Organizational Leader


Michael B. Ayers & William A. Sommers

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    List of Figures

    Figure 1 Top Five Leadership Responsibilities That Correlate With Student Achievement xviii

    Figure 2 Organizational Effectiveness Model xx

    Figure 3 Discovering Leadership Model 2

    Figure 4 Facets of Good Communications 6

    Figure 5 Varieties of Interaction 8

    Figure 6 Ground Rules for Dialogue 9

    Figure 7 Rebuilding Trust 13

    Figure 8 Lencioni and Absence of Trust 14

    Figure 9 Basic Makeup of a Team 17

    Figure 10 Lessons From the Mann Gulch Fire 20

    Figure 11 Do I Need This Meeting? 22

    Figure 12 Basics of a Good Meeting 23

    Figure 13 Levels of Culture 24

    Figure 14 Ten Rules/Guidelines for Leadership 28

    Figure 15 Complementary Missions 32

    Figure 16 Newmann's Model of Authentic Student Achievement 35

    Figure 17 Balanced Scorecard Levels 39

    Figure 18 Sample Balanced Scorecard 40

    Figure 19 Parental/Community Involvement Index 42

    Figure 20 Ten Rules/Guidelines for Mission 47

    Figure 21 Sources of Uncertainty 50

    Figure 22 Varieties of Uncertainty 50

    Figure 23 Responses to Uncertainty 51

    Figure 24 Scenario Planning Steps 51

    Figure 25 Four Plausible Scenarios 54

    Figure 26 Sample Systems Thinking Model 57

    Figure 27 Sample Why Questions 59

    Figure 28 Layers of Systems 60

    Figure 29 Vroom-Yetton-Jago Questions 64

    Figure 30 Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision-Making Styles 65

    Figure 31 Decision Traps 65

    Figure 32 Diverse Criteria for Ranking 66

    Figure 33 Ten Rules/Guidelines for Strategy 68

    Figure 34 Routine Work vs. Project Work 70

    Figure 35 Sample Gantt Chart 72

    Figure 36 Beckhard's Formula for Change 74

    Figure 37 Ayers's Sources of Resistance 74

    Figure 38 Sources of Social Power 75

    Figure 39 Kotter's Eight Steps for Change 76

    Figure 40 Capacity-to-Act Considerations 76

    Figure 41 Evidence of Change Fatigue 77

    Figure 42 Presenting the Issue 81

    Figure 43 Considerations in Conflict 83

    Figure 44 Competency Model 90

    Figure 45 Ten Rules/Guidelines for Organizational Structure 96

    Figure 46 Operating Styles 100

    Figure 47 Data Hierarchy 102

    Figure 48 Test Score Variance 103

    Figure 49 Ladder of Inference 106

    Figure 50 Maslow's Hierarchy 114

    Figure 51 Personal Agency 114

    Figure 52 Sources of Burnout 116

    Figure 53 Persuasion or Coercion 118

    Figure 54 Block's Model 119

    Figure 55 Categories of Currency 120

    Figure 56 Tactics of Political Savvy 122

    Figure 57 Ten Rules/Guidelines for People 123


    A yers and Sommers have compiled and shaped a practical guide to principal leadership. Forged from the life experiences of two voracious learners—one from a Fortune 500 company, the other through every leadership chair in education, and in particular the principalship—they have developed a treasure trove of wisdom wrapped in discreet subject titles, allowing readers to locate topics of interest to them when they need them.

    Organizational leadership, they assert, is the critical skill set for principals, and they cite studies revealing the relationship of organizational competencies to student learning gains.

    This book is what its title proclaims, a fieldbook for acting principals and for those studying to become principals. Readers are provided a smorgasbord of values and research-based practical responses to the daily challenges principals encounter. Ina sense, the book is almost a thesaurus of important leadership concepts, a capsulated inventory of comparisons and choices—project work and routine work, espoused and actionable values, knowing and doing, personal and organizational values, common cause and special case variables in test score variance, walking a leadership tightrope to walking a steel beam. The structure of the book makes topics easily accessible, and the graphics support many of the leadership concepts.

    Exceptionally well grounded in current leadership and educational research and literature, this is a book that principals will find to be a valuable reference tool in their offices.

    RobertGarmstonEdDProfessor Emeritus, Education Administration, California State University, Sacramento, Codeveloper of Adaptive Schools and Cognitive Coaching


    From Michael:

    The ideas in this book represent decades of bricolage. The input came from hundreds of books and hundreds more magazine and journal articles. That input was further processed through untold hours of ongoing dialogue, especially with my friend and business partner Mike Marois and my friend, former high school principal and information omnivore Bill Sommers. Other individuals have also contributed to the evolution of the ideas, including my friend and coffee pal Skip Olsen. I also have to acknowledge my long-suffering family: spouse Judy, daughters Katherine and Megan. They've put up with very odd dinner-table conversations and lecturettes with patience and good humor.

    In addition, scores of managers, engineers, and researchers at 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas, have talked about and used these ideas in a variety of settings. Teachers, principals, and support staff in Twin Cities–area schools have offered us opportunities to serve them and their students, which enabled us to refine the approaches outlined here. People at various nonprofit organizations where I've served on the boards or consulted have contributed as well. The participants in classes I've conducted—where learning surely goes both ways—at Hamline University in St. Paul have offered delightful insights, validation, and challenges for refinement based on their own experiences.

    I saw Bill Sommers at a book-signing event when I was working at 3M and said to myself, “What's he doing here? He's a high school principal!” But I called him up for a chat, thinking we must have something in common, and that was a dozen years ago. Funny how things turn out.

    From Bill:

    I want to acknowledge Art Costa, who is the reason I remained and remain in education. Thanks, coach. My learning continues to be expanded by Diane Zimmerman, Jim Roussin, and Barbara Lawson, aka the GEL group. Skip Olsen, who as a union agent became a learning partner with me as a principal: thank you. I am grateful for our continuing work and friendship. Pat Wolfe continues to help me learn about the importance of brain compatibility and engaging learning opportunities. You are a rich source of learning for me.

    Shirley Hord pushes my thinking, my doing, and helps me be a better teacher. You are a gift that I never saw coming. I honor Andy Hargreaves for his long-term commitment to educators and for being the first to write about knowledge workers, intellectual capital, and sustainability in education. You always expand my thinking. David Perkins, through his writing, teaching, and synthesizing, always intrigues me. I also want to thank the National Staff Development Council, where learners come together, share content and processes, and passionately model good learning. Thanks to Stephanie Hirsh, for her leadership, and to my friends on the Board of Trustees.

    Finally, Michael. You are a “learner extraordinaire.” You have been a tremendous resource as a parent, as a facilitator of my knowledge, and as a coteacher and cotrainer. You are the most voracious reader I know, and your willingness to share information and challenge my thinking makes me better every time we meet. I most want to thank you for your friendship. You have a special place in my heart.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to acknowledge the contributions of the following individuals:

    • Gloria Kumagai, Assistant Coordinator, Licensing and Leadership Development

      University of Minnesota, Golden Valley, MN

    • Beth Madison, Principal

      George Middle School, Portland, OR

    • Greg O'Connell, Facilitator

      Grant Wood Elementary, Cedar Rapids, IA

    • Tyrone Olverson, Principal

      Lincoln Heights Elementary School, Reynoldsburg, OH

    • Michele Pecina, Principal

      James Monroe School, Madera, CA

    • Joy Rose, Retired High School Principal/Educational Consultant

      Worthington, OH

    • Marian White-Hood, Director, Academics, Accountability, and Principal Support

      See Forever Foundation, Washington, DC

    About the Authors

    Michael B. Ayers has 30 years of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in a variety of roles. He has designed and implemented “hard” computer-based information systems, and he has designed and delivered innovative “soft” staff/leadership development systems. He left the corporate world in mid-2002 to pursue his interests in consulting, especially in the realms of public education and nonprofit organizations. His special areas of interest and expertise include communications, critical thinking, systems thinking, and scenario planning.

    While working within 3M Company, Michael played a leading role in creating a cross-divisional initiative sponsored at the senior vice president level. One primary concern centered on improving the ability of the corporation to retain key contributors. That effort included audiences ranging from midlevel managers in information technology to engineers and scientists in the research and development community. This effort spanned geographic locations, including participants from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas. The innovative format featured an extended learning experience designed to foster the development of leadership skills and behaviors. It was grounded in principles of adult learning and based on a best-practice mixture including both fundamental theory and time for “safe” practice in both individual and group activities.

    In his last assignment at 3M, Michael was responsible for leadership development for the narrow audience of staff members identified as “high-potential” within the central information technology division. Senior management viewed this as a critical component of overall planning for workforce management. It included everything from the selection of a 360°-feedback instrument, to extensive preparation for and delivery of one-on-one interpretations of the feedback, to the co-creation of follow-up leadership development plans tied to the corporate leadership model. In 2007, Michael returned to 3M as a consultant to resume the work with the research and development community.

    After leaving employment with 3M, Michael had the opportunity to work extensively with the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS). That work included helping establish an open-enrollment Core Curriculum of workshops based on the SPPS Leadership Model, revamping the annual summer Leadership Institute (a prerequisite for new principals in the district), interpreting 360° feedback results, conducting workshops for senior district staff, and working directly with individuals (as a coach) or with schools experiencing significant turmoil. In addition, Michael conducted workshops for other school districts, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Urban Leadership Academy (for school administrators under the auspices of the University of Minnesota). He has also conducted board training sessions for many nonprofits and consulted with a variety of charter schools.

    In addition, Michael serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University. He teaches two courses related to leadership and organization development, one of which is a required course in the Administrative Licensure Program in the Graduate School of Education.

    He currently serves as the Board Chair of Family Networks, a regional nonprofit focused on serving children with mental illness. His duties include such activities as close coordination with the executive director and participation in strategic planning activities, including periodic examination and modifications to organizational mission and values. He previously served for 12 years on the board of another organization serving adults with mental illness.

    Michael received an MA in organizational leadership from the College of St. Catherine, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2000. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota, completing BA degrees in English and American studies.

    He lives in Minneapolis with his wife of 40 years, Judy, a licensed psychologist. They have two adult daughters, Katherine and Megan, both married, and one lively grandson, Lincoln.

    William A. Sommers, PhD, of Austin, Texas, is currently a leadership coach, consultant, and author. He is the former director of Leadership and Organizational Development for Manor ISD in Texas, the former executive director for Secondary Curriculum and Professional Learning for Minneapolis Public Schools, and a school administrator for over 30 years. He has also been a senior fellow for the Urban Leadership Academy at the University of Minnesota. Bill also has served as an adjunct faculty member at Texas State University, Hamline University, University of St. Thomas, St. Mary's University, Union Institute, and Capella University.

    Bill was on the Board of Trustees for five years and past-president for the National Staff Development Council (NSDC). He has been a presenter in pre-conferences and conference sessions for twelve consecutive years and continues to work as a senior consultant for NSDC.

    Since 1990, he has been an associate trainer for the Center for Cognitive Coaching based in Denver, Colorado. He has been a program director for an adolescent chemical dependency treatment center and on the board of a halfway house for 20 years.

    In addition to this book, Bill has co-authored six other books: Living on a Tightrope: A Survival Handbook for Principals, Becoming a Successful Principal: How to Ride the Wave of Change Without Drowning, Reflective Practice to Improve Schools: An Action Guide for Educators, Energizing Staff Development Using Video Clips, and Leading Professional Learning Communities. He has another book, Trainer's Companion for Habits of Mind, in press.

    In addition to writing many articles regarding coaching, assessment, and reflective thinking he also does training in reflective practice, leadership, organizational development, conflict management, poverty, thinking skills, brain research, and classroom management. From 1970 to the present he has been in K–12 education as a teacher and principal in urban, suburban, and rural schools. Bill is a practitioner who integrates theory into the learning opportunities he facilitates.

    Very Quick Reference

    Creating a set of categories for situations within organizations with crisp, definitive boundaries seems impossible. But we've tried!


    If the situation concerns

    • trust, confidence, dependability, integrity, communications

    check out the section on Leadership on page 1.


    If the situation concerns

    • obligations, promises, responsibilities, duties

    check out the section on Mission on page 29.


    If the situation concerns

    • planning, direction, intent

    check out the section on Strategy on page 48.


    If the situation concerns

    • policies, judgment, design, change, framing, hiring, interviewing

    check out the section on Organizational Structure on page 69.


    If the situation concerns

    • engagement, motivation, inspiration, participation

    check out the section on People on page 97.


    For a pathway into the content of this field manual based on questions rather than individual words, see the Less Quick Reference on page xxv.


    This book represents the culmination of a decade of collaboration. It brings together concepts from the for-profit, nonprofit, and education worlds. It mixes in ideas from parenthood and the principalship. It represents an amalgamation of models from the business literature and the education literature. It results from a partnership between a parent who was involved in leadership development in the business sector and a principal working in large urban and suburban high schools. For both of us, the challenge was the same: What can we do to develop more effective leaders in our schools?

    At the outset, we realized that we shared this common goal despite our different career paths. We challenged each other, sharing notes from books, observations on magazine articles, and questions such as “That's all very well, but what do you do if …?” Both of us benefited enormously from the give and take, learning and teaching a great deal along the way.

    We looked for opportunities to bring bottom line–oriented business thinking to the increasingly competitive world of public education. We looked for ways to bring the passion and commitment of public education into the workaday world of researchers and engineers and middle managers. We chose not to focus on the obvious differences between business and education. Rather we focused on both simply as organizations and looked for fundamental similarities. What works there, and how might it work here?

    The first months (or years) in any new position serve as a proving ground, inevitably offering on-the-job training even if you didn't think you needed it. You may go through a formal training program—Supervisory Development or Principal Licensure—but you still have to face the reality of dealing with real live people in real time in your organization. The demands are numerous, unexpected, and often competing. And you want to do your best by your people, by your organization, and especially for those who benefit from the services your organization provides. The fact is that leading an organization is a difficult job, a mix of the urgent and the important, the short term and the long term, the safe and the risky.

    While visiting Bill Sommers, Michael Ayers noticed a copy of a reference manual on the coffee table. That led to a discussion about how wonderful it would be if there were something like a field manual for principals—a guide to understanding and operating a school as an organization. To be useful, the manual would need to offer a clear overall structure and simultaneously support essentially random access to specific topics. The table of contents should reflect the overall structure, showing how the authors had organized the principal's world in a calm, rational way and what questions they tried to answer, just in case someone decided to actually read an entire section at once. Then an effective index should support the random access to specific topics needed right now, in the moment, to deal with something that just came up. And graphics—the manual must complement the written word with helpful explanatory graphics.

    That's what we have adopted as the goal—a calm rational structure supported by a panic-driven index complemented by good graphics. We want to honor your commitment to education. We know you are busy, so we have tried to make this reference manual as accessible as possible to save you time.

    This field manual carries the subtitle The School Principal as the Organizational Leader. The prevailing emphasis in education recently has featured the principal as an “instructional leader.” Surely, a principal must know something about teaching; but to construe the role primarily as a super teacher is, we believe, misguided. Research reveals that leadership ranks number two among school-related factors—behind only teacher quality—in terms of factors impacting student achievement (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). We offer what we believe is set of approaches, models, and techniques that can help.

    We view the principal as the chief executive officer (CEO) of the school. The principal is the only person in the school with responsibility for the entire school, just as the CEO does for a business. No other role within the school or business has this accountability. This calls for abilities as a leader, as a manager, and as an administrator. The principal's focus should be on making the staff and thus the organization effective as a whole. The principal ought not devote all of his or her emphasis narrowly to supervising the practice of teachers, although this is obviously an essential task. After all, there are budgets to balance, community relations to foster, and district/interschool issues that require attention.

    Indeed, if you look at the research of the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003), you will see quite clearly that of 21 principal leadership responsibilities that it identifies, those that most strongly correlate to improved student performance are organizational, rather than curricular as many would expect! Figure 1 shows the top five responsibilities that correlate with improved student performance (see the entire list in Appendix 1 on page 125).

    Figure 1 Top Five Leadership Responsibilities That Correlate with Student Achievement

    Note that none of these top five are exclusively the domain of schools: Every organizational leader must show situational awareness. Every organizational leader must offer intellectual stimulation to the staff. Every organizational leader must seek input for important decisions. The next 8 also are universal; in fact only 2 of the 21 are education specific! The bottom line is that leading an effective educational organization has an enormous degree of overlap with leading any other effective organization.

    After much thought and discussion, we settled on using the categories contained in the Organizational Effectiveness Model from The Commonwealth Practice (TCWP).1 Michael Ayers currently serves as CEO of TCWP and participated in the development of this model while employed at a Fortune 500 company. Within that company, the model was used to diagnose effectiveness issues with several divisions. It was later used to diagnose issues at a large suburban high school. Thus the model has demonstrated its usefulness in several real organizations.

    The Organizational Effectiveness Model serves as the broad organizing framework for the current manual. Each of the five major categories in the framing model represents a broad area of concern in pulling together any effective organization, as you will see as you read further.

    We have read many articles and books, and we have attended many workshops over the years. Although acquiring knowledge about management and leadership is important as it adds to our theoretical knowledge base, using that knowledge in real situations is where a leader creates value within the organization!

    We have to issue a general caveat here at the outset. All of the models, processes, and ideas presented here have worked. All of the models, processes, and ideas have also not worked. We do not know of anything that works all the time. That is why we have provided many models, processes, and ideas. When one thing doesn't work, the well-equipped leader can try another one.

    Many people read to find answers to problems. This is a good thing. However, there is no silver bullet or magic pill. Quit looking for it. The learning search for leaders involves both building their repertoire and developing the ability to use that repertoire when facing real problems in real time with real staff, students, and community. At the end of each of the five major sections of this book, we have included a top-ten list of good reference books you might find useful.

    If you absolutely insist on looking for one answer, here it is.

    That is the only thing we have found to work. We wish you well in your work and career.

    The Framing Model—Facets of Effectiveness

    First let us remind you that this model is just that—a model, an arbitrary simplification of a complex reality. Thus we offer the following caveat:

    These are the words of George Box, a Canadian statistician. He meant that all models are human devices intended to serve a specific purpose, including only a few elements while omitting many others. We readily admit the limitations of the model that frames the contents of this book, but nonetheless hope that you will find it useful.

    The Organizational Effectiveness Model (Figure 2) presents, on a single page, a simplified view of the key facets of any effective organization. In essence, it asks the leadership to be clear about five very large questions:

    • What central role must leadership play in holding things together?
    • What is our organization's mission?
    • How will we accomplish it?
    • How must we organize ourselves?
    • Who will we be?

    The rest of this introduction explores the framing model in a little more detail.2

    Figure 2 Organizational Effectiveness Model

    Start at the 3 o'clock position on the model. The premise is that we create and sustain an organization to accomplish a purpose. We call that the mission, and that mission involves providing a valued service (or product) to a specific audience (market). Without this mission being clear to all, the organization is literally without direction. The role of leadership (at the center of the model) is to commit the organization to the accomplishment of that mission.

    Moving to 6 o'clock, we encounter the strategy: how does the organization intend to deliver on that commitment? What will it do? What will it not do? The role of leadership here is to validate the strategy by ensuring that it falls within reasonable expectations and prevailing constraints.

    Moving to 9 o'clock, we find organizational structure. How will we organize ourselves? How will we divide the organization's overall responsibilities into coherent roles within the organization? What are the organization's values? How will we balance policies and procedures (for consistency) with professional judgment (for the sake of evolving circumstances)? The role of leadership here is to shape the organization.

    In moving to 12 o'clock, we cross a boundary—we move from a largely organizational focus to a largely individual focus, one that focuses on the people who comprise the organization. What must our people be able to do? How will we find the right people and get them into the right positions? How can we keep them here and enthusiastic? The role of leadership here is to fully engage the people.

    Also note that as you sweep around from 3 o'clock to 12 o'clock, leadership will find increased volatility. In other words, mission and market are less likely to change (thus requiring episodic updates), whereas people are much more likely to change (thus requiring continuous vigilance).

    On the horizontal axis, the structure must serve and support the mission. On the vertical axis, the people must understand and apply the strategy. Those two axes come together at the central hub, where we find leadership.

    Note that it is leadership that an organization must have, not a single leader. In the most robust and resilient organizations, anyone can step forward to provide leadership when that individual is best positioned and best equipped. And no one need be threatened; no one's place is jeopardized by that. As Ira Chaleff (1995) notes, the sooner we get comfortable with the idea of powerful followers supporting powerful leaders, the sooner we can fully develop dynamic, self-responsible, synergistic relationships in our organizations. Each person will be both willing and able to lead and to follow.

    We also differentiate between several different facets of being a person in position of authority—what we call the PPA. That position typically includes a dynamic and complex mix of elements:

    • leadership strongly tied to and focused on the future
    • management strongly connected to allocating resources in the present
    • administration largely focused on implementing policies and practices established elsewhere in the hierarchy
    • supervision, direct oversight of members of the workforce

    While these operational definitions may sound unfamiliar, we believe that understanding their different emphases offers a richer understanding of the role of the school principal. For example, as the leader, you help shape the organization's mission and values—how you expect the staff to behave and what you intend to accomplish. You are leading the organization into uncharted waters. As the manager, you decide how to allocate limited resources across various grades and subjects. You are managing to get things done. As the administrator, you may find yourself enforcing personnel and student discipline policies created by the superintendent or school board. You are simply administering the policy on zero tolerance. (Interestingly, administrator is the most common general title used for the people in charge of a school, and it is also the least creative facet of the role!) As the supervisor, you monitor and evaluate the performance of the staff. You engage in curricular supervision to determine whether the teachers are using the new curriculum and building supervision to ensure that the hallways are clean.

    Here's an example of how this model might play out for a specific school.

    Winding Path Elementary School (WPES) serves a second-ring suburb with an increasingly diverse student population. To achieve the desired demographic student mix, the district has selected WPES to become a magnet school with an International School theme. WPES has decided to change its mission slightly to focus on “children of families with strong global interest.” That change will require corresponding changes in the strategy to incorporate the inclusion of several world languages into the curriculum. That, in turn, will necessitate evolving the structure to include a new languages department within the school's various teams. Of course, it will also mean identifying and hiring qualified people, skilled in the chosen languages. The leadership of the school (including the principal and teacher leaders) will need to make a compelling case for the change, oversee development of a project plan for the conversion, and ensure that scarce resources are allocated effectively.

    The highlighted words in the description of this hypothetical school bring us back to the TCWP model: mission, strategy, structure, people, leadership.

    The subsequent sections of this guide appear in the same sequence as the TCWP model. We start with Leadership (of the organizational variety!) and then consider Mission, Strategy, Organizational Structure, and People. Within these sections, we identify a series of techniques and tools. We define a technique as a broad approach or method you might find useful. To be fully effective, a technique must be highly internalized so that you can use it fluently. We define a tool as something you can employ in a given situation. Since it can be stored in your toolbox, you can more easily show a tool to others and help them see how you use it.

    For example, in operating an automobile, keeping your tires properly inflated is a technique for better handling and safety and also for improved gas mileage. To change a flat tire, however, you need specific tools: a jack and a lug wrench. Similarly, in operating a school, providing people with timely and specific feedback on their performance is a technique to improve their effectiveness, and thus the school's effectiveness. A specific performance evaluation worksheet is a necessary tool to use in accomplishing this task.

    A good field manual ought to provide a wealth of useful material without attempting to be an encyclopedia—you don't go into the field carrying the entire Encyclopædia Britannica, after all! As a result, we have included in this manual practical techniques and tools within a sound theoretical framework. We have also included many references to other works for readers who choose to dig deeper into any of the topics.

    We begin with two basic techniques.

    Two Fundamental Techniques

    Let us first offer preliminary thoughts on two fundamental techniques useful under nearly any circumstance. Suppose you have this situation:

    Clearly that's at too detailed a level for this manual to be of direct help. There are 472,5194 situations that might come up, and a manual can't deal with them all. So the principal will have to address the situation at hand, drawing upon general guidelines and suggestions.

    We suggest two fundamental techniques for working in this situation: (1) applying the Five Whys and (2) reframing. Each of these represents a small slice of Systems Thinking, a technique that we believe must be solidly entrenched in every leader's toolbox.

    Applying the Five Whys

    You can use the Five Whys to precipitate a move from a specific situation to an underlying cause. That is, given the situation above, now what? What is behind the impending meeting? What are the central perceptions operating here? The idea is that something in “the system” sits at the root of this situation. You keep asking why until you get a more systemic cause.

    1st Why: Why is it important to see this teacher now?

    … Because I want to explain the circumstances from my perspective.5

    2nd Why: Why is that important?

    … Because I suspect the teacher has considered only his point of view.

    3rd Why: Why should the teacher hear another perspective?

    … Because we, collectively as a school, are responsible for the students' work and the teacher cannot operate effectively as though he were in private practice.

    4th Why: Why is that important?

    … Because I want all of the teachers to stay in communication with one another and with me.

    5th Why: Why is that ongoing communication important?

    … Because building and maintaining good relationships (between me and this teacher, and between this teacher and all the other teachers) is necessary to create an environment of strong trust.

    Thus in this case, the quick-and-dirty preliminary analysis leads to the potential use of the Ladder of Inference (see the topic Ladder of Inference on page 106) as a means to talk about differing interpretations and consequent actions.

    The Five Whys technique represents one way of approaching Systems Thinking. Rather than looking at the immediate cause and taking it at face value, look back a little further and dig a little deeper. It makes no difference whether the issue is between two siblings within a family or two parties in an intense and adversarial labor negotiation. Almost always, you will be able to discover something else that happened in the past that you can causally link to the current situation. Looking back further in the causal chain to gain a richer understanding is a central element of Systems Thinking.


    We noted that this manual has a built-in framing model. Thus, a second way of addressing a situation is to reframe it, looking at it from several perspectives to see which one seems to offer an approach or solution likely to succeed.

    Given the example above, consider these differing frames. Is this teacher upset because …

    • He feels that his qualifications have been questioned or his authority undermined and this is about the value of respect? (perhaps pointing to mission and then organizational values)
    • The teacher has drifted from being a solid contributor to becoming more of a maverick? (pointing to people and then followership)
    • The teacher refuses to attend any meetings because his favorite class was dropped from the schedule? (pointing to strategy and decision making)
    • The teacher has refused to share in the enforcement of homework policies and the unified grading practices? (pointing to organizational structure and policies)
    • The teacher has told conflicting stories to two different teachers? (pointing to leadership and trust)

    Each of these reframed interpretations could easily lead to the use of a different approach.

    The reframing technique represents another way of approaching Systems Thinking. Rather than looking at any single cause and take it as the only cause, look at the situation from multiple perspectives. While there may indeed be a human resources cause, there might also be causes related to structure, mission, or other areas. In our experience, we find that two kinds of people generally promote the single-cause perspective: (1) special interest groups of all stripes and (2) disreputable consultants and other snake-oil salesmen. Not only is there always another view, in most cases there are several other legitimate views. Harlan Cleveland (1985) observed decades ago that “no conflict, negotiation, settlement, or bargain is merely two-sided” (p. 220). The more perspectives we consider, the greater the likelihood of crafting a high-leverage, enduring intervention. Looking more broadly to gain a richer understanding is another central element of Systems Thinking.

    1. The Commonwealth Practice ( is a very small consulting firm.

    2. For a narrative exploration of the development of the model, visit and click on White Papers/Provocations.

    3. Rather than use ugly and distracting constructs such as s/he or her/him, we will simply randomly use the female and male pronouns.

    4. We made this number up. Allowing for a rounding error, we think it must be close.

    5. Note that this is not the same as saying, “The teacher needs to hear my side….” This is not really about what you, paternalistically, determine that the teacher needs; it's about what you want to do to respond to a challenging situation.

    Less Quick Reference

    As the model on page xx indicates, the leaders within an organization must give attention to several critical facets. The following questions provide a broad set of considerations leaders must think about. Each points to a more specific set of questions to try to bring the reader to genuinely helpful material.

    Note that we refer to stakeholders as a broad category of people who have an interest in the success of the organization. It serves to remind us that many different (and sometimes competing) groups have such an interest.

    • What kind of leadership and culture will permit us to endure and thrive? See Leadership on page 1.
    • What do our stakeholders (e.g., parents, taxpayers, children, society at large) value? Why do they give us resources? See Mission on page 29.
    • Which products/services might we provide to satisfy their needs and priorities? See Mission on page 29.
    • Which products/services will we provide, and how do we provide them? See Strategy on page 48.
    • What work group capabilities must we have to build and/or sustain this organization? See Strategy on page 48.
    • What values, systems, and structures must be in place to support this organization? See Organizational Structure on page 69.
    • Which resources are needed to ensure excellent work group performance? See Organizational Structure on page 69.
    • How do we develop or hire performers to get maximum performance? See People on page 97.

    Use these broad questions to bring attention to a general area that the organization may need to look at more closely. Then the leaders—on behalf of the members of the organization—should be able to zero in quickly on the questions for each specific segment of the framing model. Each of the following sections deals with one of those five segments:

    • Leadership
    • Mission
    • Strategy
    • Organizational Structure
    • People
  • Conclusion

    You've reached the end of our field manual. We hope that you understand our framing model, the Organizational Effectiveness Model. We have covered a broad range of topics, starting with examining the central role of leadership in creating and maintaining an effective organization. We then worked our way around the perimeter of the model, moving from committing to a mission, to validating a strategy, to shaping an organizational structure, to engaging the people. We believe that these elements, when connected in a fashion that is both thoughtful and heartfelt, will make your organization more effective.

    The remainder of the book contains a glossary of key terms; a list of the books, articles, and Web sites we referred to throughout the manual; and an index. As you can tell from the list of references we've included, many of the topics we touched on have several books devoted to exploring them in great depth and from multiple perspectives. If you find yourself seeking more information on those topics, we hope you'll take advantage of the references cited.

    Meanwhile, if you have questions or comments about this field manual, we hope you'll let us know. Please direct your e-mail to

    On behalf of teachers and students, citizens and taxpayers everywhere, thank you for making your school a more effective organization!

    Appendix 1—Principal Responsibilities

    The following 21 principal responsibilities are identified in School Leadership That Works, by Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005). Note that the responsibilities are presented here in descending order according to the value of the third column: correlation to positive impact on student achievement.

    Appendix 2—Currencies

    Currencies Frequently Valued in Organizations

    The Cohen-Bradford Model of Influence through Exchange

    Appendix 3—Project Charter Sample

    Prepared By: Date:

    Sponsor______(who is paying for this?) (name and signature)

    Project Leader (name and signature)

    Section 1—Background Information

    Project Name/Number:

    State the name of your project and project accounting number (if appropriate). Project Objectives:

    State the objective(s) of the project in clear, measurable terms using action verbs as specifically as possible—What output will this project produce? What major product or service will it deliver?


    State the name(s) of your main client/requester—Who will benefit from this (assuming it's not the sponsor)?

    Other Critical Stakeholders:

    State the name(s) of others (people, roles, groups) who have a vested interest, can impede/propel the project, withhold/offer support (political or resource), will experience a profound change by its output, and so on.

    Project Problem or Opportunity:

    State the major challenge (problem or opportunity) that requires the establishment of the project—Why should we do this? What rationale supports this project?

    Value Proposition:

    How will this increase revenue, avoid costs, and/or improve services? Why will our organization deem this a “win”?

    Project Scope:

    State what the project will and will not include (include both in-scope and out-of-scope lists).

    Project Constraints, Assumptions, and Concerns:

    List all known constraints and assumptions made on the project as well as any known or anticipated concerns. Concerns might include the need for availability of certain people to participate, potential conflicts with other projects, absolutely inflexible deadlines, legal mandates and potential penalties, and so on.

    Project Timing:

    State your best macrolevel guess as to when the project will terminate (e.g., end of month or quarter, year-end. Document the actual schedule in the Project Plan.

    Areas/Disciplines/Departments/Functions Involved:

    Identify other groups (beyond the project team) that will warrant consideration, involvement, or partnership during the project.

    Section 2—Supplemental Information

    Project Leader:

    State your perception of the project leader's authority on this project as far as staff responsibility, money authorization and management, and direct or indirect accountabilities.

    Project Sponsor:

    State your perception of the project sponsor's authority on this project as far as staff responsibility, money authorization and management, and direct or indirect accountabilities.

    Project Teams:

    State any knowledge you have about the composition of the team(s) for this project, including roles played and names and job positions, if known. Also briefly describe the team's accountability—to whom and for what.

    Project Reporting:

    State your macrolevel expectations of how you will gather project status reports from your team members and participants. Include clear timing expectations, and comment on when and how often team briefings will occur. (The details will be included in the Communications Plan.)

    If appropriate, identify key users and areas that need information about the project implementation plans and significant accomplishments, and the communications approach and timing. Also identify who on the project team will do the reporting.

    Project Glossary:

    State whether the team will prepare a Project Glossary for the project and, if so, who will create, update, and publish it. Consider especially significant acronyms used in your project.

    Appendix 4—Capacity-to-Act Assessment

    This assessment is most effective when administered to a team or department about to undertake a significant organizational change. It's the sense of the group that matters more than any individual responses.

    For each of the following 13 questions, circle the numbered response that most clearly matches your situation.

    • How clear are you about strategy?
      • I'm not sure what a strategy is; I can't identify any.
      • When I look at the strategies, there is no clear linkage between the issues and the resource allocation; I don't think they meet a clear and pressing customer need.
      • I've got only one that is working, or they all fall a little short.
      • I can only identify one or two, or they don't address my real issues.
      • I would have to look them up, but they are reasonably clear.
      • There are so many I can't identify the top three, or the issues or resource allocation is not clear.
      • In three minutes or less I can easily write my top three strategies, and they clearly describe how resources are allocated to overcome my business issues.
    • How clear are your priorities? In three minutes or less, could you write your top three priorities?
      • I am not sure what they are, or I can't identify any.
      • I feel really confused about the priorities, or the priorities are conflicting.
      • They don't meet a customer need, or they aren't easily articulated.
      • The priorities are difficult to determine even after I look them up.
      • I would have to look up the priorities.
      • There are more than five priorities.
      • I know them without any difficulty.
    • How well aligned are the strategies and priorities?
      • The priorities and strategies are completely disconnected.
      • There is significant conflict between day-to-day priorities and strategies.
      • There is a small but manageable conflict between strategies and priorities.
      • The linkage between priorities and strategies is indirect.
      • The priorities support one of the strategies.
      • The priorities support two of the strategies.
      • The top three priorities support the top three strategies.
    • It's okay here to make mistakes.
      • Never on a bet.
      • Rarely.
      • Sometimes.
      • Some mistakes are tolerated.
      • Some mistakes are natural.
      • Making unintentional mistakes is part of learning.
      • Making mistakes in pursuit of taking on challenges is actively encouraged.
    • The rewards for trying to solve problems are greater than the risks of doing so.
      • No way—punishment is the norm.
      • There are very few rewards for trying.
      • Occasionally there are rewards.
      • Trying to solve problems is sometimes more rewarding than doing nothing.
      • Trying to solve problems is usually more rewarding than doing nothing.
      • Trying to solve problems is often more rewarding than doing nothing.
      • Trying to solve problems is almost always more rewarding than doing nothing.
    • If I saw something that needed to be done and I did it, I would be recognized for doing so.
      • Never
      • Rarely
      • Seldom
      • Occasionally
      • Regularly
      • Frequently
      • Nearly every time
    • We are rewarded for taking the initiative to solve problems.
      • Never
      • Rarely
      • Seldom
      • Occasionally
      • Regularly
      • Frequently
      • Nearly every time
    • Concerning my goals and the company's goals:
      • We work toward opposite ends.
      • It's just a means to live.
      • There is very little alignment.
      • There is some alignment.
      • Work meets some of my personal goals.
      • Work meets many of my personal goals.
      • My work meets most of my personal goals.
    • Concerning my emotional engagement:
      • I grit my teeth thinking about working. It is a waste of my talent.
      • I sometimes get upset thinking about going to work.
      • I sometimes wonder why I go to work.
      • Work has its up and downs.
      • I believe I make a positive contribution.
      • I am generally positive and upbeat when I think about work.
      • I get up in the morning looking forward to work.

        Examine the Personal Agency1 chart below. Our personal belief system has a powerful affect on our actions. Context beliefs (Y axis) concern how we believe the world will respond to us—basically this is feedback. Capability beliefs (X axis) concern how competent we believe we are. Find the box that describes your beliefs about your capability and the feedback you receive, and identify the number that represents your beliefs.

    • What is your sense of personal agency?
      • Hopeless
      • Self-doubting
      • Discouraged
      • Fragile
      • Vulnerable
      • Accepting/antagonistic
      • Modest
      • Tenacious
      • Robust
    • How clear is your accountability?
      • I'm not sure what I'm accountable for, or can't identify any accountabilities.
      • When I look at the accountabilities there is no clear linkage between them and the strategies or priorities, or they don't meet a clear and pressing customer need.
      • I am clear on at least one, but there is no real connection between what I'm accountable for and what is important to our customers.
      • I can only identify one or two, or they don't address my real priorities.
      • I would have to look them up, but at least they are reasonably clear.
      • There are so many that I can't identify the top three; the link between accountability and strategy is not clear.
      • I can easily write my top three accountabilities, and they clearly support my strategies.
    • Are controls at a minimum acceptable level?
      • Bureaucracy is a value and micromanagement is the norm.
      • We have books full of policies and procedures, tight controls, and many levels of sign-offs.
      • There are lots of boundaries, and rules cover almost every consideration.
      • We have too many rules. There is a lot of looking over your shoulder.
      • There is some red tape, but if you know the right people, work can get done effectively.
      • There is very little bureaucracy. There are a few more rules than is needed for high productivity.
      • My organization has almost no bureaucracy and the minimum number of rules and controls.
    • How adequate are your resources? Do you have them or can you get them—human, capital, facilities, and so on?
      • This is a gulag. We fail more often than succeed. Everyone is burning out, and there is no hope that things will change.
      • We often fail to meet customer requirements because of insufficient resources.
      • We occasionally fail to meet customer needs because of insufficient resources.
      • We are slightly underresourced.
      • We sometimes have or can occasionally get what is needed to meet customer requirements.
      • We usually have or can get the resources needed to do the job.
      • We have or can get resources sufficient to do the job.

    1. From Ford, 1992.

    Appendix 5—Position Sketch

    For the position_________________as documented on_____________________

    Use this form to collect your thinking about this particular position. While this position may be based on a more generic role (or roles), this position will certainly require some adjustment. For example, consider middle school principal as a generic role, but principal for Roosevelt Junior High School as a specific position. Your primary focus should remain on the unique position.


    Assumption—See Belief.

    Belief—A fundamental, deeply held (and frequently unexamined) idea concerning the way things are; as widely varying as a belief: in the “goodness of man” (from a faith); that “government regulation imposes a major barrier to economic growth” (from a political orientation—note that this example is a cause-and-effect example; that government regulation going up causes economic growth to go down); that “I am not good at art” (from a casual comment by an authority figure decades ago).

    Competency—A cluster of related knowledge, skills, and attitudes that (1) affects a major part of one's role, (2) correlates with performance in that role, (3) can be measured against well-accepted standards, and (4) can be improved via training and development (Lucia & Lepsinger, 1999).

    Confidence—The belief that a person will perform proficiently, make sound decisions; a matter of ability; situational, applies to an individual in specified situations or domains.

    Data—Numbers, facts, results, comments that one is willing and able to store (for future reference); content with no context.

    Dialogue—A relatively rare form of interpersonal interaction that has the intent to create new knowledge.

    Inference—See Belief.

    Information—Data that reduces uncertainty in a decision-making situation; something that has value (i.e., which we will pay for) because it helps make a better choice (e.g., a second opinion before surgery, counsel on how to invest money, a suggestion on how to avoid a traffic jam); note that the pending decision necessarily provides the context that turns the data into information.

    Leadership—Defining what the future should look like, aligning people with that vision, and inspiring them to make it happen despite the obstacles. (Kotter, 1996)

    Management—The allocation of resources and priorities to accomplish results.

    Mental Model—See Belief.

    Milestone—An intermediate goal with a delivery date within the context of a larger more inclusive (project) plan.

    Mission—That for which we are held accountable, by ourselves or by others.

    Operations—The collection of systems and processes that facilitate the management of routine activities.

    Person in Position of Authority (PPA)—The individual who gets to set priorities and allocate resources based on the position he or she holds (regardless of his or her level of skill at leadership, management, or administration).

    Project—A set of coordinated activities intended to permanently alter the status quo.

    Stakeholder—An individual or group with a vested interest in the organization's performance, including children, their parents, individual teachers and administrators (at all levels), labor unions, the local community, taxpayers as represented by the legislature, the school board, the business community, and postsecondary educational institutions.

    Strategy—The overarching plan (singular) for how an organization intends to accomplish its mission; how an organization proposes to get from here to there, with both here and there clearly identified. Compare with the definition of Tactics.

    Supervision—Overseeing and advising a group of workers. Note that this differs from leading a team.

    Tactics—The activities (plural) undertaken on a small scale, supported by operations and in support of the strategy. Frequently confused with strategies (in the plural). Compare with the definition of Strategy.

    Team—A (1) small group of people with (2) complementary skills (3) who hold themselves mutually accountable for the accomplishment of a common purpose (4) using a shared approach and performance goals to define success (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).

    Trust—The belief that a person will act with integrity (e.g., keeping promises, telling the truth); a matter of character; not situational, applies to an individual across all situations.

    Values—Those ideals and customs held in highest regard and that drive and manifest themselves in an individual's or organization's decisions.

    Vision—The far-reaching future toward which an organization strives and toward which its mission contributes.


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