The great thing about things is that you decide which things are made to happen and which things are not. You also decide the things you want to measure because they are the ones that are important to you as a school. These are the things that matter.
Things then are what we do. Some of them are just 'stuff' as we go about running a tight ship, most of which end up on that endless 'to do' list. In some cases, we might even end up lumping them all together into the school development plan as we seek to cover almost everything. (Remember - when everything is a priority, nothing's a priority.)
As you read this post, how many things have you done today? Were they meaningful? Did they make a difference? Did you stop and think why you were doing them? Or did you just get pulled from pillar to post, flitting from one thing to another?
Flitting of course is not a bad thing. It's part and parcel of managing. But not if it takes up too much of your time. Hopefully though, some of the things you did this week were thoughtful, carefully planned and that they had a point. They were driven by your core purpose.
It turns out though that we’ve all being doing things for years, and very well indeed it seems, even if they may appear rather futile at times. The word ‘thing’ comes from the old German/Norse word ‘thengan’ that referred to a moment in time, like an assembly, gathering or meeting. Our European ancestors loved a good thengan. A thengan eventually morphed into the term used to describe the purpose of a meeting or the subject of a discussion.
It was the ‘thing’ that mattered most and elevated its status to a whole new level. So central were 'things' when it came to getting, well, things done, that the word is still used today. In Norway, for example, it is the name for their parliament. Called the Storting, it literally means the ‘big thing.’ Things then really do matter, especially when they are big.
What I’ve noticed in schools is that we are not always very good at sticking to the big things. We tend to get sidetracked. It's what we call mission drift, and sometimes the best strategy is to just drop anchor and take stock. Go back to base camp.
There are some schools that try and produce everything and anything. There are those that produce some things. And there are others, sadly, that despite their best efforts, produce no things at all in terms of worth or meaning. In other words, nothing.
The best ones of all though are those that create great things.
Schools that consistently produce great things are those that manage successfully to align Purpose with People, the first two quadrants of the 4-Part Authentic Leader Model (4PALM). Instead of Purpose, think Mission, Vision, and Beliefs (the 'Construct' phase). For People, it's Relationships, Trust, and Motivation (in terms of how you 'Connect' with others).
In schools where both of these are weak (no purpose and no connection) they produce no things of value at all. These are likely to be your lowest performing schools. In extreme cases, they are toxic and require a complete re-culture.
But where purpose is clear, connected, and with high levels of commitment, the chances of producing great things increases significantly. Providing of course they are the right things in the first place.
So how do you ensure this? Well, hopefully the four-part model will help you structure your thinking, especially when pondering solutions to the first two conundrums:
1. How do I discover and articulate my core purpose in a way that is compelling for all?
2. How do I persuade others to connect with this so that we can work together on it?
Things then are always a good starting point, such as the things you believe in, and the things that are really important right now. If you don't know what these are, you will struggle to create anything of value at all. Context is key. You need to know your school.
We love over-complicating things in leadership. Strategy is a great example of how it is often elevated to lofty, mythical status as we seek to plot and scheme to outwit opponents and stay ahead of the game.
Ultimately though, strategy is your ability to execute the things that you believe in for the purpose of solving problems. In other words, building the bridge between reality and where you want to get to. If you don't know what this looks like, you are just jumping into a void.
Knowing where you want to get to then is essential. It's difficult to believe in anything unless you have good knowledge of it. For example, what do you believe great teaching looks like? What beliefs do you have in regard to what great behaviour management looks like? What do you believe great governance consists of? What things would you expect to see happen for great learning to exist? What things would you want to see in a great curriculum? And most importantly, what do you believe great pupil outcomes - both within the school and beyond - look like?
All of these start with your own core beliefs, and then how successful you are at connecting these with others.
Defining what 'great' looks like is always a useful starting point, so everyone knows what behaviours are required of them. Most significantly, it signposts people to all the things that you believe are important right now and that this is what they should be spending most of their time thinking about and doing.
Once you have agreed what is it as a school that you believe in, you then need to prioritise them. This will be a lot simpler if your vision is clear and reflects those things that you believe in. It needs to describe vividly what the school looks and feels like when you arrive at your destination and that you have actualised your vision. Above all, it provides the focus for your work, and for those around you.
This is what goes into your annual plan - only the things that you prioritise. It is not a list of everything you need to do (if you're not sure about this, go check your job description). As Stephen Covey once said, 'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.' By doing this, it helps you all focus only on the things that you have defined as success.
What I have found over the years is that I spent far too much of my time doing things that were not important to me or the school. They may well have been important to others, but seldom did they take us a step closer to our envisioned future.
So, we must try and spend our time focusing only on the really important stuff. Any half-decent appraisal policy will reflect this, especially if you are a headteacher or CEO, as this is where the governors will want you spending most of your time.
It is often helpful when listing all the important things to sub-divide them into those that are urgent and those that are not. Many of you will have heard of the Eisenhower grid and the four boxes of Do, Decide, Delegate, Delete.
As useful as this is, all you really need are your school values, mission, and vision statement to help you filter out the non-urgent stuff, such as pointless proxies, systems, and processes, many of which come from beyond your organisation.
However, be warned: don't assume you should only be prioritising the important things. Quite often, it's the important and non-urgent stuff that leads to the creation of great things. This is because it allows you to delegate, distribute and defer the decision-making process further down the line so that you can think more deeply about it.
This is where longer term strategy begins. Futures thinking.
There are no rash decisions to be made here, no quick fixes. You are in it for the long term, and so as things go, this is where you will find your richest of pickings. This is how you create deep, meaningful impact.
Dig deep. That's the key to finding those really important things. It's what Steve Radcliffe refers to in Leadership Plain and Simple as 'in here/out there'. In here in terms of your own inner self, but also - more importantly - out there in the teams that you lead, be they a year group, phase, key stage, faculty, department, or across a complex multi-school organisation. It's very easy to assume that because they are in here, they are also out there. Most often, they are not.
Don't become an 'anything' school. Try not to do every thing and be all things to everyone. Clearly, we don't want you doing nothing of value. Instead, think deeply about the important things that you believe in and then spend time doing these as best as you can in the company of likeminded others. As the song goes, keep them bright and beautiful.
If you want to know more about the 'The Matrix of Things', you might enjoy reading my latest book, The Authentic Leader.