So I have a bit of a confession to make: I’m addicted to reality television. While I can’t quote a “Seinfeld” episode or a Monty Python movie to save my life — and while I’ve never seen “Caddyshack,” “Airplane” or half the “Star Wars” trilogies — I have spent hundreds of hours watching “Ax Men,” “Swamp People,” “Flying Wild Alaska,” “Pawn Stars,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Dance Moms,” “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Ice Road Truckers.”
A part of me knows that should be embarrassing to admit. And a part of me knows that I should be spending the spare hours I have every day tapping into the cognitive surplus that surrounds me. Just imagine how brilliant I’d be if I traded in an hour on the couch watching reruns of “Cake Boss” on Netflix for an hour on the couch watching Sal Khan’s tutorials or wrestling with big ideas in Twitter.
But before you judge me, know that I really do learn a lot about school leadership every time I turn on the tube. Take last night, for example: I tuned into “Bridezillas Season 9” — the story of Tasha and Jeff on Netflix.
Like most of those on “Bridezillas,” Tasha was a nightmare. She wasn’t sure she was interested in her 40-year-old fiance, and she pouted and screamed and begged when her father wasn’t ready to pony up more cash to feed her wedding dreams.
But she had big dreams when it came to her bridesmaids — which is why she decided to make them pink sashes to go with their wedding day gowns. Together with her boyfriend, she hit the fabric store and broke out the hot glue guns.
Before long, Tasha had a glittery disaster on her hands. Her simple pink sashes — which were beautiful on their own — were covered with ragged rows of fake rhinestones and glue gunk. And rather than recognizing that her plan just wasn’t going to work, she stubbornly pushed forward, burning fingers and cursing her fiance’s incompetence the entire way.
So what leadership lessons can we learn from Tasha and Jeff?
The best change agents recognize that complexity doesn’t always make a project better: Tasha’s initial goal for her project was to create a sash that made her bridesmaids feel special on her wedding day — and she’d done just that before ever breaking out the rhinestones. Instead of being satisfied with giving plain sashes, though, she bit off more than she could chew and ended up pointlessly wasting hours of effort before completely ruining her final product.
We do that in schools all the time, don’t we? Instead of identifying the core challenge that we’re trying to address and then embracing the simple solutions that are staring us in the face, we needlessly bedazzle every plan because we assume that the more complicated and nuanced our efforts are, the more effective they will be. The end results are just as ridiculous as Tasha’s sashes.
The best change agents know their own limitations: At one point in her late-night craft-fest, Tasha asked her mother for advice. Almost immediately, her mother picked up on Tasha’s mistake and suggested that she stick with plain sashes and skip the rhinestones. Like a true Bridezilla, Tasha pushed back saying, “Mama, if you would just understand my vision!”
Her mother’s reply was priceless: “Looks like you’ve got too much vision and no skills, Tasha.”
If you want to drive change in schools, you should listen to Tasha’s mama. The most successful leaders recognize that just because you can dream up something remarkable — a brilliant remediation period, a project-based learning experience, a new system for holding teachers accountable — doesn’t mean that your organization actually has the professional skill to make that dream become a reality. Sustainable change depends on having a realistic sense of what’s doable instead of a passionate commitment to what’s desirable.
The best change agents fail early, revise and try again: The funniest thing about Tasha’s sash catastrophe is that it is painfully obvious to everyone that her plan isn’t going to work. Her fiance can’t figure out how to work a glue gun, her one-at-a-time approach to slapping on rhinestones is taking forever, and the first sash looks like a hot mess. Displaying a stubborn commitment to her core idea, however, Tasha refuses to quit even after it is clear that she isn’t going to succeed.
Spend any time studying innovators and you’ll discover that displaying a stubborn commitment to any idea — no matter how beautiful it seems — is a horrible idea.
Change depends on a willingness to fail early and fail often. Instead of sinking tons of organizational time and effort into one idea, leaders who identify mistakes in the preliminary stages of the project design process and then demonstrate a willingness to revise their initial thinking end up with multiple opportunities to succeed. As Jeremy Jackson — lead technologist at Method — explains in a Fast Company article, “The key understanding in adapting a design process to an iterative one is that failure must be expected and embraced. This process also creates opportunity to remedy those failures early on — and more efficiently.”
Long story short: Change is about hitting home runs 50 feet at a time. Developing a successful plan is far better than having big dreams that are bound to fail.
Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter wears multiple professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger and a senior fellow in the CTQ Collaboratory. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his sixth-grade science classroom.