Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Last week a trustee at one of our schools voiced a familiar dissatisfaction, “Generative thinking.  I like the idea, but the whole thing’s too abstract.  What are some concrete ways to DO it?”

Want to hear my favorite recent example?

Last year at a PreK-8 school in our network, ideas were percolating for long range planning.  The school had acquired an adjacent property, though its current tenants wouldn’t vacate for many years.  That left time to consider what Pat Bassett calls “blue sky” options. 

How to do this well?  At a Governance Committee meeting, the chair mentioned that he’d just been reading Governance as Leadership (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, 2005) and wanted to try out a suggestion from the book. “Let’s do something that brings lessons from our history

into our thinking for today,” he said.  “I like that general concept,” he added, “but what would actually work for us?”

We thought for a while and finally the Head of School had an idea. “You know, a tremendous number of the things that define our school identity actually started in the ‘80s and early ‘90s during the time of the Head before me.  I’m talking about the middle school (both the building and the program), our racial diversity, the all-school coordination of academics, a more formal administrative structure, and the preschool.  What if we had our former Head come back to talk about how these changes came to be?”

And so it was.  A few months later we gathered for a retreat day.  The former Head was delighted to be there and started us off with a fascinating walk through a seminal time in the school’s history, 20-30 years ago. 

The things the community now banked on weren’t always that way, we learned.  We heard how serendipity had played a part in progress, how she’d felt a pressing need with no possible way to act on it -- and then had been able to step quickly into an opportunity when it presented itself.  More than once, too.  We heard about the obstacles, as well as the kerfuffles.  There was lots of laughter and huge appreciation for the legacy the school now enjoyed.

Then we broke into 4 groups identified by topic:
·      Curriculum
·      Healthy Finances
·      The Care Relationship between the Quaker Meeting and the School
·      Managing the Impacts of Growth

Our assignment was to discuss:     
  1. What important things did we learn from the Head’s talk about history, values and power at our school?
  2. What important similarities and differences do we notice comparing her time period to our current one?  How do they matter?
  3. What questions does this discussion raise for us, related to the work ahead?
  4. What implications do these learnings have for doing the best job possible in the period ahead of us? 
Takeaways?  They were huge and varied.  For some of us there was a striking realizing that we love the school in exactly the way, for the same reasons, as our former Head did, so many years ago.  Others saw a pathway to fundraising informed by persistence, inspiration, and connection – not a new learning, but newly informed by our history.  One important message was the central role of the Meeting in the future of the school and the steadfast attention required to keep this relationship healthy.  For me, the most important idea centered on the role of preparedness and vision, being ready to take advantage of an opportunity should it arise.

In generative governance, we open the door to big questions and we hope to create whole new frames for our thinking.  On this day, the past came to visit with important lessons for a vibrant future.

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