The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Imagine you are a fly on the wall in a corporate training center where a management team of 12 is participating in a session on executing strategy. The team is midway through attempting to solve a new, uncertain, and complex problem. The facilitators look on as at first the exercise follows its usual path. But then activity grinds to a halt — people have no idea what to do. Suddenly, a more junior member of the team raises her hand and exclaims, “I think I know what we should do!” Relieved, the team follows her instructions enthusiastically. There is no doubt she has the answer — but as she directs her colleagues, she makes one mistake and the activity breaks down. Not a word is spoken but the entire group exude disappointment. Her confidence evaporates. Even though she has clearly learnt something important, she does not contribute again. The group gives up.

What happened?

In an earlier article, “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” we reported our research findings that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity performed better on these kinds of challenges. In these groups, we observed a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But in the case of these 12 managers, they did show a cognitively diverse approach. So what happened? We returned to our data to find out. In this team, as well as other under-performing teams, we observed a smaller percentage of the group contributing, longer intervals between testing ideas, and greater repetition of the same mistakes.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

So the question is, how do you establish and maintain psychological safety with a cognitively diverse group?

The Generative Organization

Over the last 12 months we asked 150 senior executives from different organizations across the world to rate their organizations in terms of cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the extent to which they consider their organization able to anticipate and respond to challenges and opportunities, i.e. their adaptability. Not surprisingly, adaptability correlated very highly with high levels of both cognitive diversity and psychological safety. We called these organizations “generative,” and labelled the worse-performing organizations oppositional (high diversity, low safety), uniform (low diversity, high safety), and defensive (low in both).

We also asked the same 150 executives to choose five words (from a list of more than 60) that best described the dominant behaviors and emotions in their organization. To identify which behaviors correlated with the best- and worst-performing groups, we matched the chosen words with the levels of reported psychological safety and cognitive diversity. The table below shows the most common behaviors selected by each group:

W180326_REYNOLDS_THEMOST

In the Generative quadrant, we find behaviors associated with learning, experimenting, and confidenceTogether they facilitate high quality interactionInterestingly, “forceful” appears here too, which at a first glance might seem surprising. Exploring this further, participants were identifying the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas. “Forceful” therefore relates to having the confidence to persist in expressing what you think is important. Psychologically safe environments enable this kind of candour without it being perceived as aggressive. Note that we also see more positive emotions in the generative and uniform quadrants.

By contrast, in the other quadrants we find words associated with control and constraint. These behaviors are conspicuously absent from the Generative quadrant. We see more negative emotions as well.

The Behaviors That Count

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

For example, hierarchical behavior is cited as one of the top 5 dominant behaviors 40% of the time in the non-generative quadrants. It is only cited 15% of the time as a top behavior in the Generative quadrant. This is not because the organizations in the Generative quadrant have a flatter structure — hierarchy is a fact of organizational life — but because hierarchy does not define their interactions. We see controlling cited 33% of the time as a top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared with only 10% in the generative quadrant. We see directive cited 24% of the time as top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared to only 5% in the generative.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.


Alison Reynolds is a member of faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School where she works with executive groups in the field of leadership development, strategy execution and organization development. She has previously worked in the public sector and management consulting, and is an advisor to a number of small businesses and charities.


David Lewis is Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme and teaches on strategy execution and leading in uncertainty. He is a consultant and works with global corporations, advising and coaching board teams.  He is co-founder of a research company focusing on developing tools to enhance individual, team and organization performance through better interaction.

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Laptops in the Classroom

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

Professors are banning laptops in class, driving college students to revert to handwriting—and to complain about it; ‘a hand cramp in government’

The Wall Street Journal

Handwriting notes in class
Handwriting notes in class PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Adam Shlomi says he is a good student at Georgetown University. But the sophomore is failing in one unexpected area: note-taking.

Back in his Florida high school, he brought a Chromebook to class, taking “beautiful, color-coded notes.” So he was shocked to learn many professors at the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., don’t allow laptops in their lecture halls.

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

With nearly illegible handwriting—a scrawl of overlapping letters with interchangeable t’s and f’s, g’s and y’s—Mr. Shlomi, 20 years old, begs notes from friends, reads textbooks and reviews subjects on YouTube when it’s time to take a test.

As professors take a stand against computers in their classrooms, students who grew up more familiar with keyboards than cursive are struggling to adjust. They are recording classes on cellphones, turning to friends with better penmanship and petitioning schools for a softer line.

Chris Seeley, a senior political-economy major at the University of California, Berkeley, can handle an hour-long class that bans laptops. Ninety minutes gets tough. A two-hour lecture, such as one this semester, is brutal.

Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes
Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes PHOTO: ADAM SHLOMI

“My hand is yelling at me, basically,” he said of the feeling after handwriting final exams.

Mr. Seeley, 22, has established some shorthand, such as writing “nat” for “nation” or “national.” He isn’t always consistent with how he abbreviates, he said, and if he waits more than a few weeks to review the notes, deciphering the terminology can get confusing.

Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students’ faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?

Some lament that students’ speedy typing lets them transcribe on autopilot, rather than synthesize class information.

“I got really tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me,” said Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas associate journalism professor. She banned laptops three years ago from her Visual Storytelling class and now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point.

Students complain professors just don’t understand how hard it is to write by hand.

Students using laptops to take notes
Students using laptops to take notes PHOTO: JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s hard to know how many college classes have gone laptop-free, as schools generally leave the policies up to professors. Some students can get to graduation logged on in every lecture hall, while others bemoan that the majority of their courses have banned electronic devices.

Laptop bans come as a generation of students who didn’t learn to write in script enters college. Though some public-school districts do require cursive instruction, Common Core education standards that guide many states’ curriculum policies don’t emphasize it.

Many public schools now encourage students to work on computers, some providing devices for them, making it all the more shocking when they enter college.

Faculty members say they make exceptions for students with disabilities, though those concessions are sometimes criticized because they “out” students who otherwise might not publicly disclose issues such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, an inability to write coherently.

University of Connecticut junior Christopher Wojick, 21, who studies landscape architecture, was tempted to lobby his sociology professor for a laptop allowance last year.

“That class was ridiculously hard to take notes in,” he said, recalling the professor’s speedy pace. “I was thinking, ‘Hmm. Do I have a disability?’ I was very close to making something up.”

He thought better of it and stuck to scribbling for the rest of the semester.

Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes.
Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes. PHOTO: ISABELLA BAHNER

Isabella Bahner, 19, a sophomore music-education major at Oklahoma State University, is sick of classmates nudging her for notes.

She has an elaborate system: a 12-pack of Sharpie pens and highlighters to organize her text in real-time, each color assigned a meaning. Red is for terms that are relatable or opposites; yellow for new vocabulary; green for people; light blue for dates. Highlight too fast, and the colors blur together.

“I definitely get a hand cramp in government and physical geography,” she said.

Friends know Ms. Bahner has thorough notes, and she’ll help out if they missed a class. But when someone comes calling who was at the lecture and didn’t bother to pick up his pen, she draws the line.

“They’re skipping or being lazy and then trying to bank off the fact that I go” and take good notes, she said.

The Cornell University student government last year unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the faculty to allow “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” Charles Van Loan, an emeritus professor of computer science and faculty dean at Cornell, said there was “zero interest” from the faculty senate in having such a policy for laptop use. “Keyboard noise is not protected under the First Amendment,” he said.

Noah Chovanec, 21, a senior industrial and labor-relations major who co-sponsored the resolution, said he prefers to write by hand, though it’s often disorganized and carries in smudges when he writes fast. “I probably should be pre-med, with my handwriting,” he said. “People have asked for my notes, and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to translate for you.’ ”

Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class.
Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class. PHOTO: NOAH CHOVANEC

Articles by professors instituting bans go viral every few months, often inspiring another set of teachers declaring tech-free zones.

Many of them point to academic studies showing that students taking computer notes retain less than those who handwrite, that multitasking makes people less effective at any single task and that grades can suffer when internet distraction is an option.

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., had one student drop his class last fall because of a no-laptop policy.

Still, he’s pushing on with his device-free stance. “You’re not trying to be court stenographers,” he said, but rather learning how to identify important information.

This semester, Mr. DeYoung is going a step further in Pastoral Ministry, requiring students to participate in a weeklong digital fast. Afterward, they have to type a paper about the experience.

Mr. DeYoung got pushback from one unexpected source: his father, who works in radio. “He said, ‘You did what? I would never take your class.’ ”

Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different

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Students at Lumineer Academy in Williamstown, Australia. The school uses an alternative learning model based on technology businesses. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.

Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”

If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.

That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.

Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.

“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.

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Instead of classrooms there are “studios,” which contain no desks but often have beanbag chairs instead. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.

In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.

Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.

Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.

Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.

Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.

Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.

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“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Susan Wu, a former tech entrepreneur who founded the school. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.

“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”

Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.

Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)

Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.

The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.

Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.

“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”

Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.

“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”

There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.

Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.

“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.”

Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.

“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.

One wall at the school displayed students’ work with the Asylum SeekerResource Center, a nonprofit organization that assists refugees hoping to resettle in Australia.

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Student-made decorations. CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.

One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.

“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”

The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.

But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.

Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.

When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”

Modeling Assertiveness With Students

Edutopia

Simple role-playing exercises can show students how to stand up for themselves without being unkind to others.

 

©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Assertiveness is a key concept in social and emotional learning and represents the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity. When people behave aggressively, they prioritize their own needs and may use threats to get what they want. When people behave passively, they do things they don’t want to do because they feel pressured or threatened by others.

But when people behave assertively, they stand up for themselves without diminishing or hurting others. In other words, they’re strong, not mean.

Assertive communication is a hard skill to learn. Our culture tends to reward aggression. Putdowns are framed as humor in cartoons and sitcoms, and the internet can be a platform for bullying. It’s hard to find examples of assertiveness in the public sphere.

What does assertive communication look like and sound like in real life? How can we resist the pull of aggressive or passive choices, which may be easier in the moment but don’t solve our problems in the long run? How can we get our needs met without hurting others?

In the classroom, students who lack assertiveness skills may hesitate to share their thinking openly or ask clarifying questions when they’re confused, or allow a classmate’s bullying to go unchallenged. And teachers who lack these skills may struggle to set clear behavior expectations in the classroom or hesitate to seek support from coaches and principals.

Teachers can boost their students’ assertiveness skills—and their own—by teaching some simple communication techniques that can be used in and out of the classroom. Explicitly teaching these techniques can make all of us more comfortable using them in real life.

After introducing and discussing these assertiveness techniques, engage your students in role-plays to give them a chance to practice using them. You may want to present various conflicts or problems, brainstorm about which assertiveness techniques would be the most useful, and then allow students to role-play and evaluate the effectiveness of their choice.

TEACHING ASSERTIVENESS

The “nice no”: Students and teachers may feel pressured to go along with other people’s ideas or invitations. Examples include: “Do you want to trade snacks?” and “Do you want to co-plan this lesson?”

These invitations can cause anxiety if we want to decline them. A simple technique for responding assertively to such requests is a “nice no.” We might say, with a smile, “Thanks for asking me, but I’m not interested.” Sometimes a simple “No, thanks” does the trick. Making a counter suggestion often works as a follow-up to a nice no.

Setting a boundary: Sometimes students are asked by peers to do things that are outside their comfort zone, such as “Will you let me cut in line?” or “Can I copy off your paper?” An assertive technique for responding to such invitations is to set a clear and firm boundary by saying, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Students don’t need to explain why or negotiate about it—they can simply set a clear boundary and hold to it.

Asking for some thinking time: People sometimes ask us questions that we’re not ready to answer. We might need more information, a chance to weigh other options, or time to reflect on our feelings about the situation. An assertive technique for responding to such questions is to ask for some thinking time: “I’m not sure how to answer that right now. Can I get back to you later today?” A key point is to ask for the amount of time we need, whether it’s later the same day or next week.

Stating your needs: We sometimes run into misunderstandings because we haven’t communicated our own needs clearly. It may seem that other people are ignoring or disrespecting our needs when in fact they’re simply not aware of them. If we recognize this, we can address the problem by stating our needs calmly. For example, a student might say to a peer, “I need space to hang my coat in the closet.” And a student might say to a teacher, “Could you please repeat that? I need to hear the directions again.”

Using an “I feel” message: Sometimes we have misunderstandings that are more personal. If we feel hurt by someone we’re close to, we may respond by being aggressive, making an accusation, or withdrawing passively to protect ourselves. But with friends, teachers, and colleagues who care about us, students and teachers can use an “I feel” message to assertively communicate their feelings and emotional needs. A student may say to a friend, “I feel sad when you cancel our plans, because I love hanging out with you.” This gives the friend a chance to understand the speaker’s needs and try to meet them.

Knowing how to respond to aggression: Sometimes when we communicate assertively, we’re met with an aggressive response that might diminish the validity of our feelings or perspective. The best thing to do in this situation may be to calmly remove ourselves from the conversation by saying something like, “I think I communicated my thoughts clearly, so there’s not much more to talk about.”

Will Letter Grades Survive?

Edutopia

A century-old pillar of the school system is under fire as schools look to modernize student assessment.

Under pressure from an unprecedented constellation of forces—from state lawmakers to prestigious private schools and college admissions offices—the ubiquitous one-page high school transcript lined with A–F letter grades may soon be a relic of the past.

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter and Dalton—storied institutions which have long relied on the status conveyed by student ranking—have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students while ruling out any mention of credit hours, GPAs, or A–F grades.

Public Domain

Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut is one of 157 private schools that are part of MTC.

Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration.

“Competency-based education is a growing movement driven by educators and communities focused on ensuring that students have the knowledge they need to flourish in a global economy,” said Susan Patrick, chief executive officer of iNACOL, a nonprofit that runs the website CompetencyWorks. “The future of jobs and the workforce will demand a new set of skills, and students’ capacity to solve complex problems for an unknown future will be essential.”

For their part, colleges—the final arbiters of high school performance—are signaling a surprising willingness to depart from traditional assessments that have been in place since the early 19th century. From Harvard and Dartmouth to small community colleges, more than 70 U.S. institutions of higher learning have weighed in, signing formal statements asserting that competency-based transcripts will not hurt students in the admissions process.

The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike.

PICKING UP STEAM

Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, was frustrated. His school had recently begun offering real-world, full-day courses in subjects like engineering and entrepreneurship, but he was finding it difficult to measure and credit the new types of skills students were learning using A–F grades. Looney started reaching out to private high schools and colleges looking for alternatives.

Courtesy of Scott Looney

Scott Looney, head of school at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Though he found that many educators shared his desires for a new assessment system, he came up empty-handed.

“The grading system right now is demoralizing and is designed to produce winners and losers,” said Looney. “The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them.”

Looney began brainstorming a new type of transcript for the Hawken School, but quickly realized he would need a critical mass of schools to influence college admissions offices to accept it. With the initial support of 28 other independent schools, Looney formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in April 2017. The group has since expanded to 157 schools, including both historic institutions like Phillips Exeter and newer alternative schools like the Khan Lab School.

In joining the MTC, each school commits to phase out its existing GPA- and grade-based transcripts for a digital, interactive format that showcases students’ academic and enrichment skills, areas for growth, and samples of work or talents, such as a video of a public speaking competition or a portfolio of artwork.

The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges.

While the transcript is still in its infancy, organizers say it will resemble a websitethat each school will be able customize by choosing from a menu of skills like critical thinking, creativity, and self-directed learning, along with core content areas such as algebraic reasoning. Instead of earning credit hours and receiving grades, students will take courses to prove they’ve developed key skills and competencies. Looney insists that the transcripts will be readable by admissions officers in two minutes or less.

The MTC’s work is not entirely original, though, and takes its lead from a number of public schools—most notably in New England—that have been rethinking traditional methods of assessing students for more than a decade.

Some are supported by the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, which helped influence Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to adopt state board of education policies or legislation in the last decade on proficiency-based assessment systems. Other districts, in Florida, California, and Georgia, have made similar changes more recently, and pilot programs have emerged in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon.

©iNACOL

A map from iNACOL estimates that 48 states have at least some policy supporting competency-based education.

There’s also backing from colleges. The Great Schools Partnership was able to garner the support of more than 70 colleges and universities, suggesting that higher ed admissions offices are ready for the change.

“We are accustomed to academic reports from around the world, including those from students who have been privately instructed and even self-taught,” said Marlyn McGrath, Harvard University’s director of admissions, replying via email about the transcripts. “In cases where we need additional information, we typically ask for it. So we are not concerned that students presenting alternative transcripts will be disadvantaged because of format.”

MASTERY VERSUS SEAT TIME

But the new transcripts are just the tip of the iceberg, according to supporters, part of a larger movement to do away with a system where kids can progress through grades or courses without really understanding material and be promoted for seat time and good behavior. When students move on to harder topics, they continue to accumulate gaps in their knowledge—a setup for failure in the later grades or collegiate years.

Under a competency model, kids can no longer just “get by,” said Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, which has used a proficiency-based transcript since 2005.

The new transcripts “get kids focused on doing their personal best on meeting or exceeding standards rather than getting a better grade than the kid next to them,” said Pierce. “There is no longer a ‘gentleman’s C’.”

However, without widespread agreement on the necessary skills and knowledge required for core classes, proving mastery may be just as elusive and arbitrary as the current system. Even MTC member schools won’t rely on a shared understanding of what mastery means. Instead, each school will be able to quantify it independently, leaving college admissions officers—according to critics—without a clear basis of comparison.

Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their own education.

While competency-based education proponents argue that the new transcripts will identify students with skills that academia has traditionally overlooked, others worry about equity for marginalized students, who already struggle in the current system. Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities.

©Khan Lab School

Competency-based transcript proponents like the Khan Lab School, pictured here, believe the new assessments are necessary to foster 21st-century skills.

There are other unanswered questions and challenges to be worked out, too. Will college admissions counselors have enough time, especially at large public colleges, to look meaningfully at dense digital portfolios of student work? Will the new transcripts create too much work and new training for K-12 teachers, as they struggle to measure hard-to-define categories of learning? Perhaps most importantly, will parents buy in?

“There’s still plenty of work ahead and some pretty radical changes taking place,” explained Mike Martin, director of curriculum and technology at Montpelier Public Schools in Vermont, whose district starting transitioning to a competency-based model in 2013.

Many public and private schools, like Martin’s, are still years away from full implementation, and others are grappling with the nuts and bolts of how to implement dramatically new systems for student learning and assessment. Those on the forefront of these changes, though, remain hopeful that the new system will push all students to develop the skills they need to succeed in college and careers.

“Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their education,” said Martin. “Proficiency-based education is about getting every single student up to a certain skill level and ensuring every student can succeed.”

Break the Cycle of Stress and Distraction by Using Your Emotional Intelligence

Being able to focus helps us succeed. Whether it’s focusing inward and attuning ourselves to our intuitions and values or outward and navigating the world around us, honing our attention is a valuable asset.

All too often though, our focus and attention get hijacked, leaving us feeling frazzled, forgetful, and unable to concentrate. In my coaching work with executives, these are the kinds of statements I most often hear when they’ve lost their focus (I may have uttered a few of them myself):

  • “I feel completely overwhelmed.”
  • “My workload is insane, and there’s never enough time to get things done when I’m in meetings and dealing with urgent issues all day long.”
  • “I’m mentally exhausted from the pressure and constant distractions in my office. I just can’t seem to focus.”

Constant distractions and a lack of time certainly interrupt our focus, but stress also plays a major role.

Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that short-circuits important cognitive functions. Researchers have studied the negative effects of stress on focus, memory, and other cognitive functions for decades. The findings are consistent – short-term stress raises cortisol levels (the so-called stress hormone) for short periods and can jump-start our adrenalin and motivate us to perform more efficiently in response to impending deadlines. Long-term stress, however, can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol and can be toxic to the brain. Scientists also suspect that high levels of cortisol over a long period of time are a key contributor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

When we can’t focus at work because of distractions, it may lead us to feel stressed about not being productive, which then causes us to focus less, further feeding the cycle. Unfortunately, most of us don’t notice our focus declining until we become completely overwhelmed. When mental and emotional exhaustion sets in, it further drains our ability to focus, concentrate, and recall information.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to break the cycle. I’ve found in my research that one of the reasons why some people get burned out and others don’t is because they use their emotional intelligence (EI) to manage their stress. You can use these same competencies, in particular self-awareness and self-management, to improve your focus. Here’s how.

Start by using your self-awareness to help you notice several things:

Why you feel stressed or anxious. Before you can deal with stress, you need to know what’s causing it. As simple as it may sound, it can be helpful to make a list of the sources of your stress. Write down each thing in your life and at work that’s causing you anxiety. You might categorize items into things you have the ability to change and things you don’t. For the stressors in the latter category, you will need to figure out how to change your attitude toward them.

How you lose your ability to focus. According to clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, you can learn to sharpen your focus, by understanding how exactly your concentration strays in the first place. By paying attention to the patterns that lead to your lack of focus, you can begin to develop your ability to dismiss distractions and stay with your original point of attention.

How you feel when you can’t focus. Does it make you anxious when you can’t recall information when you need it – perhaps during a job interview, a high-stakes presentation, or an important client meeting? Do you feel tense and dazed when you’re racking your brain trying to find just the right words for an important email? These can be clues that you’re more stressed than you may realize, and that your inability to concentrate is causing even more stress.

When you lose your ability to focus. If, for example, you find yourself worrying yourself sick over something while you’re driving 65 mph on the highway with a car full of kids, you’re putting yourself and others in real danger. This can be a wake-up call to bring your attention back to what you’re doing and make a decision to think about your concerns later.

Once you’ve increased your awareness of what’s causing you stress and how and when you lose your focus, you can use the following strategies, which depend on your self-management abilities, to make better choices that keep you focused.

Do a digital detox. In its 2017 Stress in America survey, The American Psychological Association (APA) found that “constant checkers” – people who check their emails, texts, and social media on a constant basis – experience more stress than those who don’t. More than 42% of respondents attribute their stress to political and cultural discussions on social media, compared with 33% of non-constant checkers. While it may feel impossible to take a cold turkey break from technology, the APA says that periodically unplugging or limiting your digital access can be great for your mental health.

Rest your brain. Most of us have experienced sleepless nights caused by ruminating over past events, or fears and anxieties about the future. But when you add a few of these nights together, sleep deprivation can set in, making it more difficult to focus, and more challenging to receive and recall information. Our interpretation of events and our judgment may be affected, too. Lack of sleep can negatively affect our decisions because it impairs our ability to accurately assess a situation, plan accordingly, and behave appropriately. Committing to the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night may seem impossible when you’re stressed and overworked, but the payoff is worth it.

Practice mindfulness. The research on mindfulness is clear and compelling. Having a mindfulness practice decreases our tendency to jump to conclusions and have knee-jerk reactions we may regret later (and potentially cause more stress). Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says that “Mindfulness boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s fronto-parietal system that works together to allocate attention.” In other words, mindfulness is key to emotional resilience, which is a key contributor in our ability to quickly recover from stress. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a serious yogi to practice mindfulness. You can find some simple methods for everyday people here.

Shift your focus to others. When we fixate on our own worries and fears, it can take our attention away from those we care about. Studies (mine included) show that shifting our focus to others produces physiological effects that calm us and strengthen our resilience. If you pay more attention to other people’s feelings and needs, and show concern for them, you can not only take your mind off of your stress but also reap the benefits of knowing that you’re doing something meaningful for someone you care about.

Too many people feel like they need to work harder when they struggle to focus. But this strategy is likely to backfire. Instead, pay attention to the causes of your stress and inability to focus and then take actions that promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness

How to Succeed in Business? Do Less

The Wall Street Journal

Most top performers in business have one thing in common: They accept fewer tasks and then obsess over getting them right

Most Americans work impossibly hard. We put in long hours and maximum effort, but better performance often eludes us. I’m no exception. I remember being in my 20s and landing my dream job as a management consultant at the posh London office of the U.S.-based Boston Consulting Group. I strode through the front doors on my first day wearing an elegant new blue suit and equipped with what I thought was a brilliant strategy for impressing my bosses: I would work crazy hours.

Over the next three years, I toiled for 60, 70, 80, even 90 hours a week. I drank an endless stream of weak British coffee and survived on a supply of chocolate bars I kept in my top drawer. One day, as I struggled through an intense project, I happened upon some slides created by a teammate I’ll call Natalie. Paging through her analysis, I confronted an uncomfortable truth: Natalie’s work was better than mine. Her analysis contained crisper insights, more compelling ideas.

One evening in the office, I went to look for her, but she wasn’t there. I asked a guy sitting near her desk where she was, and he replied that she’d gone home for the night. He explained that Natalie never stayed late—she worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., no nights, no weekends.

That upset me. We had similar education and experience and had been selected for our skills by the same rigorous screening process, but she did better while working less. The “Natalie Question,” as I came to call it, bothered me for decades. Answering it became the aim of my work when I left management consulting to study workplace performance as an academic. Why had Natalie performed better in fewer hours? More generally, why do some people perform better than others?

The knee-jerk answer to what distinguishes great performers from others is simple: talent. Social scientists and management experts explain performance at work by pointing to people’s innate gifts and natural strengths. How often have you heard phrases such as “She’s a natural at sales” or “He’s a brilliant engineer”? These talent-based explanations deeply influence our perceptions of what makes for success.

Are they right? Some experts say no, arguing that an individual’s sustained effort is just as critical as talent or even more so in determining success. According to this view, people perform well because they work hard and put in long hours. They end up doing more, taking on many assignments and running to lots of meetings.

How to Succeed in Business? Do Less
ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN STAUFFER

But neither of these arguments accounted for why Natalie performed better than I did, nor did they explain the performance differences I had observed between equally hardworking and talented people.

In 2011, I decided to try to answer the question of why some people outperform others. I recruited a team of researchers with expertise in statistical analysis and began generating a set of hypotheses about which specific behaviors lead to high performance. We then conducted a five-year survey of 5,000 managers and employees, including sales reps, lawyers, actuaries, brokers, medical doctors, software programmers, engineers, store managers, plant foremen, nurses and even a Las Vegas casino dealer.

The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. We found that just a few key work practices related to such selectivity accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance among our subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much.

The best performers ask a crucial question before they draft their goals: What value can I create?

The research makes clear that we should change our individual work habits if we wish to perform better, but the implications are much more far-reaching. We also need to change how we manage and reward work, how we measure economic productivity and perhaps most important, how our culture recognizes hard work. We should no longer take it as an automatic compliment to hear that we’re “hard working.” Hard work isn’t always the best work. The key is to work smarter.

How did the best performers in our study do this? Rather than simply piling on more hours, tasks or assignments, they cut back. They unknowingly applied a dictum invented 700 years ago by William of Ockham, a European friar, philosopher and theologian. Ockham is famous for a principle that came to be called (in a Latinized spelling of his name) Occam’s razor. It stipulates that the best explanation in matters of philosophy, science and other areas is usually the simplest one.

At work, this principle means that we should seek the simplest solutions—that is, the fewest steps in a process, fewest meetings, fewest metrics, fewest goals and so on, while retaining what is truly necessary to do a great job. I usually put it this way: As few as you can, as many as you must. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry neatly formulated the same idea in his memoir: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

Sometimes “the fewest” means just one. I used to labor through too many slides in my presentations. More, I thought, was better. Then, before a meeting I had with the CEO of a large European company, I was asked to present a proposal for executive education in just one slide. “One slide?” I asked in disbelief. I labored to reduce my 15 slides to four, and then to shrink them down some more. After some struggle, I thought, “What is the key issue here?” Applying Occam’s razor, I discarded all of my slides except one: a color-coded, hourly calendar of our program that I obsessed over to get just right. When you present one slide, it needs to be excellent.

And it worked. Since I didn’t have to take the time to present 15 slides, the CEO and I were able to spend our 45 minutes discussing the program in greater depth. When we finished, he remarked on how productive the meeting had been.

How to Succeed in Business? Do Less
ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN STAUFFER

Once you’ve cut the clutter in an attempt to be more selective, it’s tempting to add new items back in, often in response to outside pressures. In our study, a full 24% of people blamed their inability to focus on bosses who set too many priorities. The top performers we studied combated this by following a second key practice: They said no to their bosses.

Of course, how you say no makes all the difference. The most astute performers explain that their overriding goal is to deliver great work. They are prioritizing, they say, not to slack off but to go all out and excel in a few key areas.

The next time your boss piles on new work, enforcing an old-fashioned “work harder” mentality, try asking if he or she would like you to re-prioritize, giving less attention to previously discussed tasks. Put the decision back on their shoulders. In our data, people who focused on a narrow scope of work, and said no to maintain that strategy, outperformed others who didn’t. They placed an impressive 25 percentage points higher in the performance ranking—the difference between being a middling and an excellent performer.

That number should interest managers. If you can set fewer priorities for your team, they will likely perform far better. But there’s also a caution here for team members. Some tasks truly don’t need to get done, or can wait, or can be delegated. But be careful not to say “no” too often or to focus too narrowly in your work. Doing one small task well doesn’t amount to strong overall performance.

The experience of one participant in our study, a customer-order handler, pointed me to a third simplifying practice: reorienting work around its actual value rather than internal goals. The order handler reported that his shipments reached corporate customers on schedule 99% of the time. That’s pretty impressive—except for one thing. When his boss surveyed the customers, a full 35% complained that their shipments were arriving later than they required. And why was that? The order handler was focusing on whether the shipments left the warehouse according to his own targets rather than on the time frame that mattered to his customers.

Many people mistakenly obsess over goals such as the number of sales calls made, patients seen, hours logged, customers visited, and so on. The best performers instead ask a crucial question before they draft their goals: What value can I create? And by value, they mean the key benefits they bring to customers and others, not themselves.

Many people never question whether their work produces value. When I conducted research at Hewlett-Packard some years ago, I visited an engineer at the company’s Colorado Springs office. He said that he was too busy to talk: He had to complete his goal for the week as specified in his job description, namely, submitting a quarterly report about the status of a certain project. He sent off the report in time, as he had in every previous quarter. Goal accomplished, right?

What I knew—and he didn’t—was that the corporate research and development division in Palo Alto no longer used those quarterly reports. His dispatches sank to the depths of an email box that no one bothered to check. He had met his goal according to his job description, but he had contributed zero value.

One useful way to simplify work is to confront a “pain point,” a thorny problem plaguing a set of people.

How to add value? Our study found that people sometimes do it by simply changing something to help colleagues do their work better, downstream or upstream. A production technician at a food-processing plant reported, for instance, that his bosses measured him on “throughput”—the number of boxes he processed with the help of a packing and labeling machine. His throughput was fine, but he found out that when his boxes reached the warehouse, they weren’t “square” enough to fit neatly on pallets for shipment and required extra handling time. He took the initiative to adjust his packing process and straighten up any tilt in his boxes, which made the work flow smoother for his colleagues down the line. This effort placed him in the top bracket of performers in our study.

Attending to what’s valuable often highlights ways to redesign work to make it smarter. At the multinational shipping company Maersk, manager Hartmut Goeritz told me, in the course of our study, how he focused on just one pivotal activity at his terminal in Tangier, Morocco: moving containers on and off ships.

One day in 2011, as Mr. Goeritz strolled around the shipping yard, he noticed that some of the trucks were puttering around empty. “They picked up the container at the side of a ship,” he recounted of the dock workers, “then drove to the back of the giant yard to set it down, then drove back to the ship empty-handed to pick up the next one.” That’s how it had been done for years.

What would happen, Mr. Goeritz wondered, if trucks unloading one ship dropped off their containers in the yard and then carried back other containers destined for nearby ships that were loading? He tried out the idea, encouraging the truckers heading back to the ships to ask their colleagues if they could pick up any waiting containers. Soon team members began using walkie-talkies to coordinate this work, so that they could find more containers ready to ship out. The motto became “never drive empty.” This simple redesign nearly doubled efficiency.

Such redesigns aren’t just the purview of managers. Our study found that successful junior people also challenged and changed their ways of working. Those with a tenure of less than three years carried out redesigns as much as people with a tenure of 10 years or more (in both categories, just under 20% of our subjects made such efforts). Employees at large companies were almost as likely to innovate at work as those at small companies, despite more bureaucracy to overcome.

One useful way to simplify work is to confront a “pain point,” a thorny problem plaguing a set of people. A business analyst for a Minneapolis-based life insurance company in our study processed payroll for the company’s agents scattered across the country. For years she noticed that she got the most calls for help for one particularly labyrinthine part of the online filing process. She reached out to the company’s software coders and worked with them to turn it into a single computer screen’s worth of simple, quick clicks. She thus made it possible for a large group of her co-workers to devote less time and energy to a task secondary to their real work.

So much in our workplaces is premised on the conventional wisdom that hard work is the road to success, and that working the hardest makes you a star. Our analysis suggests the opposite. Yes, the best performers work hard (about 50 hours a week in our data, like Natalie), but they don’t outperform because they work longer hours. They outperform because they have the courage to cut back and simplify when others pile on, to say “no” when others say “yes,” to pursue value when others just meet internal goals, and to change how they do their jobs when others stick with the status quo. They’re innovators of work.

Appeared in the January 13, 2018, print edition as ‘The Key to Success? Doing Less.’