In The Four Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling suggest, "The real enemy of execution is your day job! We call it the whirlwind. It's the massive amount of energy that's necessary just to keep your operation going on a day to day basis. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move your team forward."
Educational leaders are constantly getting caught in the whirlwind. When asked what they have accomplished at the end of the school day, weary school leaders recall running from one task to the next, putting out fires to prevent their schools from collapsing.
While these efforts are admirable, leaders who operate solely from the whirlwind spend all their energy trying to stay upright but never have time to tackle their biggest priorities. Herein lies the challenge for school leaders: How to complete high leverage activities in the midst of daily chaos.
Several programs have been developed to assist leaders with this very problem. Two of the most common are the Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX) model and the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) model. While the following paragraphs provide a brief overview of 4DX, feel free to explore OKRs or any other system you believe would work in your setting.
The first step in the 4DX process is selecting a Wildly Important Goal (WIG). To determine a WIG, simply answer the following question: "If every other area of our school (or district) remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?”
Ask this question to a room full of educational leaders and you are likely to get many opinions. The key here is not getting hung up on finding the perfect answer, but rather to choose a WIG that fits your leadership style and is aligned with your district philosophy.
Once a focus area has been identified, the second step of 4DX is for leaders to define two measurements to track progress of their WIG: a lag measure and a lead measure.
The lag measure is a general goal that tracks progress towards the school's top priority. This measure is called a lag measure because by the time the final outcome is determined, the performance that drove the score is already in the past. Lag measures are "typical" school improvement goals, such as student assessment scores, graduation rates, behavior data, and culture and climate survey results.
The lead measure is a specific goal that defines the daily actions needed to meet the lag goal. Lead measures are small actions that - when completed on a regular basis - dramatically impact the lag measure. For example, if your lag measure is to decrease teacher turnover by 10%, possible lead measures include completing ten classroom walkthroughs each week or holding quarterly check-in meetings with individual staff.
The third step of 4DX is to create a scoreboard. Regardless of activity, people stay more focused when keeping score. Therefore, leaders much be diligent in tracking lead and lag measures. The scoreboard - which can be physical or electronic - does not need to be complicated. The photo below was my scoreboard for the 2019-2020 school year. Although COVID put an early end to the goal, this image of the whiteboard in my office demonstrates the simplicity of the scoreboard.
The fourth step of 4DX is creating a cadence of accountability. Leaders who wish to accomplish extraordinary goals must regularly analyze data to determine if their efforts are making a difference. The best way to reinforce this habit is with frequent accountability meetings.
Recall in this previous blog post where weekly 1:1 meetings between supervisors and direct reports were encouraged. Bosses who implement the 4DX process will find that these short conversations are the perfect setting to revisit goals and hold employees accountable to their data.
How much time should leaders spend addressing their top priority? Since this goal has been identified as a strategic tipping point for their school, bosses will want to set aside a fair amount of time to complete this work. The 4DX model suggests leaders spend twenty percent of their time on their WIG. However, given the unique demands of educational leadership, five hours a week is perfectly reasonable for school leaders.
You may be thinking, "Five hours a week!? Have you seen my calendar? It's already packed!" Certainly, if you look at your calendar for the next couple weeks, there is a good chance it is full with commitments. But look at your calendar one month from now and what do you notice? It's mostly empty.
Once leaders identify the everyday actions needed to address their biggest goals, they must use their daily calendar (whether it be electronic or handwritten) to block off time to complete this work. Once time has been assigned, leaders must keep this time sacred by scheduling new obligations around their "priority" work hours.
The daily whirlwind has been a part of educational leadership for a long time. And with schools being asked to grapple with more of society’s issues each year, the whirlwind is beginning to feel like a hurricane.
School leaders who are looking to create meaningful change in their buildings can either get swept away by the storm or develop a system allowing them to stay upright in the midst of chaos.