TregoED Blog

It’s Complicated: Leading in a VUCA World

“Running a school district is one of the toughest most complex jobs in America – John Kim, Senior Lecturer @HBS during A Seat at the Table: Strategies and Tips for Complex Decision Making Webinar

Education leaders are living in a VUCA world – a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity as they face the most disruptive period in education history with a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues and rapid technological changes all at the forefront.  Add to that scenario a polarized country rife with widespread mistrust and truth decay. The end of the pandemic will not be the end of these problems.  Educators have made a commitment to educate every single child that comes through their doors using people (not machines) and public funds – could it get any tougher or complex?

Edweek recently ran an article “Making Decisions is Harder than Ever – How District Leaders can Manage Tough Calls” with a companion video panel featuring  (Assistant Managing Editor for Education Week),  Victor Shandor (Superintendent of York County Schools in VA), and Peter DeWitt (Panel Moderator, Edweek) , A Seat at the Table: Strategies and Tips for Complex Decision Making. They asked the panelists: How are districts and school leaders making decisions in the school environment?  What does it look like? What should it look like?

All panelists agreed, VUCA describes the atmosphere they are operating in, but there are ways that leaders can be successful decision makers and agents of change:

  1. Successful change (brought on by good decisions) begins with the results. Before you start you must be clear on what the decision is, who the ultimate decision makers are and what the desired outcome is.  Often, decision-makers come to the table with an idea of what the right choice is and skew the decision making to meet that choice.  Starting with a clear picture of your goals helps you weigh the alternatives without prejudice.
  2. Get the right people in the room can help you build support, transparency and better alternatives. If you are only going to bring together like-minded people, why waste people’s time?  You already know the answers.  You should bring people in that have skin in the game.  Teachers voices matter.  You need to include a voice of advocacy for staff and students.  You are doomed to fail if you alienate certain groups or individuals.  Diversity in ideas strengthens your options, integrity, and implementation.
  3. Use a process to be more efficient and effective with people’s time and expertise. Get the input that you need so you have a comprehensive picture of the risks and implications of your decisions.  Vic Shandor described that in his experience, “you can raise the efficacy of a group by using a deliberate collaborative framework like Decision Analysis– taking winners and losers off the table.  Kim’s research and experience has led him to use an “innovation lens” approach to decision making in a VUCA world where we do not always have the luxury of time or perfection.  To avoid decision paralysis, we need to learn to be comfortable with good not perfect, knowing that we can tweak it tomorrow.
  4. Ensure that there is a sense of urgency with change – to build incremental, measurable results into our implementation plans because people need to see results – they lose their commitment to change if the results are too far down the road. Good project planning includes planning for risks and detailed logistics – what, by whom, by when.

Over the years, to improve education, we have increased the numbers of teachers, leaders, and specialists in education. Now, our investments must be in providing those people with the support and skills to do the jobs they were hired for.  We need to build the capabilities of educational staff to think critically – so they can participate fully in collaborative work by asking good questions, addressing the “little things” before they grow, providing the right data and being part of a supportive, transparent implementation team.