Two key ingredients to solve problems successfully are time and structure. By time, I mean concentrated time. And by structure, I mean a common methodology to frame a problem and solve it. In working with districts and organizations, accelerated work and productive work occurs when the right people are assigned to the right issue and then given a concentrated block of time to work it out.
Uninterrupted time allows a group of people to bond as a team and to synergistically identify, frame and dissect a problem. The power of focusing on an issue without disruption cannot be understated. Cal Newport writes about this power in Deep Work. We don’t realize how much productivity we lose in the normal course of a day due to little disruptions. Our brain works best when we focus on specific things and allow time to concentrate our cognitive abilities on them without interruption. I’ve seen teams produce significant work in short periods of time. The socialization and actual implementation of that work may take more time but the actual thinking and problem solving occurred over a short period of time.
Structure is the methodology and approach a group of people apply to a problem. Structure provides boundaries and a framework to guide the deep thinking of the group. A little structure goes a long way in facilitating group work. This includes group norms in how the members interact with each other and in decision making. It also includes mechanisms to organize thoughts and data as well as to visualize and capture the work. The combination of structure with a concentrated, uninterrupted block of time to do the work creates an incredibly productive environment.
We often use these two ingredients, structure and time, as a foundation to project work with organizations - whether it’s in education or a commercial enterprise. We’ll ask the organization to identify an issue they would like to resolve and then identify the right people to work on that issue. With a little upfront work, we can minimally define the issue that will be worked on. We then bring the team together for 2 days to define, frame, and then analyze the problem. Often, we can identify a future state vision and high level model for the particular focus area. We then have the teams socialize their work and thinking with their organization. This socialization could take anywhere from one to a couple of weeks. This allows other parts of the organization to provide feedback to the team and contribute to the future state vision.
The team returns for another concentration of 1-2 days fleshing out a detailed design and implementation plan including a way to monitor and assess the performance of the future state. Depending on the project, the time to implement the plan can vary. Some implementations may take a couple of weeks while others may take 1-2 years.
It’s wonderful to witness the work of the team through this concentrated block of time. Without fail, each team is amazed with the work it has accomplished. We have the teams reflect on what they’ve accomplished and why. It is at the end of the journey that team members can look back and appreciate the power of concentrated, uninterrupted time and a little bit of structure.