Moving from Alignment to Coherence

Peter Senge and Systems Improvement

I am a long-time fan of Peter Senge’s work.  When AASA asked me which author had had the greatest impact on me – my response was Peter Senge and his book, The Fifth Discipline. I spent time with Peter Senge in Boston and devoured his material on common purpose, shared vision, mental models and improved systems.

Three Arrows

His three arrow diagram in my copy of The Fifth Discipline is dog eared, marked up, and much copied.  In the original illustration, he shows three arrows moving from chaos to alignment:

  1. The Blob

    The first “blog” shape lacks both alignment and direction.

  2. Conflicted Arrow

    The second shape resembles an arrow but the inside arrows are pointing in several different directions.

  3. Alignment

    The third – now definitely an arrow shape – has internal arrows aligning in the same direction.

Focus for Success

I have used these three arrows as a guide in each district where I served.  When I came to Seattle as superintendent in 2014 it was one of the first diagrams I used.  My frequent pitch to the board was, Four years + Four goals = Student Achievement.

Alignment is Not Enough

By my third year in Seattle, we were doing pretty well on the 3rd arrow – alignment.  Then I realized that we weren’t there yet.  Although our arrows were aligned, we still had lots of silos working independently. We were focused on equity.  But we had a dozen efforts underway.  Each felt isolated and alone in their quest for equity.  Each felt that if the district really cared about equity, we would invest more in their work.

Coherence Was Missing

When we added it up, we found that we were dedicating $21M to equity but scattering it across numerous programs.  Missing was a fourth arrow, Coherence.

4. Coherence

A bigger external arrow … with internal arrows actually touching.

Moving Toward Coherence

What followed was a convening of partners in several areas:

  1. professional development;
  2. positive mentoring;
  3. college readiness;
  4. community engagement.

We shared what the district was doing.  We invited partners to share  what they were doing. For example, the district was having great success with My Brother’s Keeper. This is an after school program providing mentors of color for students who were chronically absent.  Others were providing similar programs but with different terminology and coverage.  Gradually, over several meetings, shared understanding grew.  And the new strategic plan now makes equity an explicit goal.

Partnerships and Touching Arrows

As understanding grew, two areas moved from alignment to coherence – where arrows actually touched and reinforced each other.

  • Seattle Promise

    A decades long College Promise program was expanded from four high schools to a dozen and from one year of college to two.  In this case, through new city funding.

  • Equity PD

    The teacher’s union is partnering more closely with the district than ever on PD and the need to build strong relationships with students to close opportunity gaps.

Turning the Flywheel

In my earlier posts I reviewed Collins’ new book, Turning the Flywheel.  He says, start with strong existing programs.  Keep making them better.  Gradually add the next step.  That is how Seattle is moving from alignment to coherence.  Good programs are getting better and more partners are engaging.  That builds momentum and greater success for students.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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