For next school year, I’m throwing around the idea of a community book study for the school at which I’m the principal – T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School in Old Tappan, New Jersey.
Right now, I’m in the process of reading through a few books that could potentially be used. One of these books is Originals by Wharton professor, Adam Grant. While most of the book doesn’t directly discuss education, it does contain countless implications for the field.
In Chapter 3, I was particularly drawn to a section – Putting Your Worst Foot Forward – in which Grant emphasizes the importance of proactively calling attention to the problems with our own ideas. He first illustrates this point by examining how the popular website Babble gained traction:
After having their first child, Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman were appalled by the amount of false advertising and bad advice being offered about parenting. They started an online magazine and blog network called Babble to challenge the dominant parenting clichés and tackle the cold, hard truth and humor. In 2009, when Griscom pitched Babble to venture capitalists, he did the exact opposite of what every entrepreneur had been taught to do: he presented a slide listing the top five reasons notto invest in his business.
Two years later, Griscom took a similar approach when pitching Babble to Disney. One of his slides read: “Here’s Why You Should Not Buy Babble.”
In both instances, Griscom’s strategy worked. The year he pitched to venture capitalists, Babble brought in $3.3 million. Then, Disney ended up buying the company for $40 million.
Grant cites four reasons why we should accentuate the flaws in our own ideas when “pitching a novel idea or speaking up with a suggestion for change.”
- “Leading with weaknesses disarms the audience.” When we’re only presented with positives, we become skeptical and look for holes as if to say, “What’s the catch?”
- “People think an amateur can appreciate art, but it takes a professor to critique it.” We hold in higher regard those who can praise and critique vs. those who heap on nothing but lavish praise. Think restaurants reviews, movie reviews, book reviews, etc.
- “It makes you more trustworthy.” This speaks to the credibility of the person pitching the idea.
- “It leaves audiences with a more favorable assessment of the idea itself.” If the idea is a good one, and we’re already pointing out its worst problems (which aren’t so bad in the first place), there’s nothing damaging left to uncover.
Implications for Education
Grant’s research applies to pretty much any instance in which we’re promoting change (both in and out of education). For example, when moving others forward (or attempting to do so), here are three approaches we can take:
- “Here’s what we’re doing!”
- “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it!” (the Simon Sinek approach)
- “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, and here are some of the elephants in the room!” (the Simon Sinek/Adam Grant approach)
The success of each approach is also dependent on other factors, such as: culture, relationship building, level of collaboration, context, etc. But, if we’re looking at each approach in isolation, the third option would generally be the most impactful. This option first reminds me of the five-paragraph persuasive essay in which we ask students to proactively address counterarguments. Second, what comes to mind is Lewin’s Force Field Analysis, which tells us change is most likely to occur when we minimize restraining forces (obstacles to change), as opposed to maximizing driving forces (positive forces for change).
However, based on previous experiences, I can say I’ve worked with awfulizers (thanks, Jimmy Casas) who seem to enjoy latching onto and accentuating the elephants, while doing their best to downplay the why and the positives. Of course, as leaders, we should be exploring why this resistance is taking place, rather than pointing the finger (which isn’t always easy).
As an elementary school principal, here’s the approach I’ve been taking with change: “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, and here are some of the ways I will support you!” Now I’ll be toying around with the idea of also proactively addressing the elephants in the room. Furthermore, we should allow for teachers and staff to respectfully and honestly discuss these obstacles, as opposed to us trying to sweep them under the rug. After all, flaws will be talked about in one way or another, and critical conversation that gives everyone a voice is preferred to potential venting in the faculty room.
Finally, when appropriate, we should be reminding teachers and staff of the ways in which we’re intentionally learning and of the ways in which we think we can improve. Otherwise, we run the risk of sending the message, “Because I hold [insert administrative position here], I no longer need to move forward. But, here are some ways you can get better.” In short, we need to be modeling the behaviors we want to see in others.
In the End
It takes a certain level of confidence to poke holes in our own ideas. And, based on experiences, I have found there is a correlation between strong leaders and those who are willing to actively discuss the negatives to make everyone feel heard while moving forward with an emphasis on what is right, not who is right.
Because, in the end, if our initiative (or pitch) is well-thought-out, transparent conversations can only help our cause.
How can you throw you own ideas under the bus?
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