Thursday, December 31, 2015

I’m just guessing that the most common word that will be spoken at the turn of the year will be “happy.” You know the scene… It’s preceded by a big countdown, some shiny ball dropping, and is often followed by a kiss, perhaps a drink, and a familiar song. And, then we wish everyone we love a Happy New Year.

We place a premium on happiness both for ourselves and the people that we love. In fact, ask about any parent what they wish for their kids’ future and undoubtedly the most common response is a simple, but direct response: “I just want them to be happy.” But, do we place the same premium on wanting happy colleagues and if so, what actions are we taking to make that come true?

There is a good reason to want to find joy in your work and to want your colleagues to be happy. It turns out happiness isn’t just this blissful feeling that puts a bounce in our step and a smile on our face in our personal lives; surprisingly it is the very lever that also drives one’s success at work. In the book The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor makes the compelling case that happiness and optimism actually increases a person’s work performance. His research cites a meta-analysis of more than 200 scientific happiness studies on 275,000 people worldwide and concludes that “happiness leads to success in every domain including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity, and energy.” As he notes, “happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, receive higher performance ratings and pay, and are less likely to take sick days, quit, or become burned out. Happy leaders are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy, and who find their work climate conducive to high performance.” The key concept here is that people don’t become happy because of success; rather, happiness breeds success. In short, happiness isn’t just good for people; it’s critical to organizations.

So your challenge for the new year is the following:

1. Be happier.
2. Raise the happiness level at your workplace.

Easy, right? Well, although being happy and making your team at work feel happy may be goals that are simple to state; they are far more difficult to achieve. Achor does outline and describe seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Another good book worth reading on this topic is Fully Charged by Tom Rath, where he shares three key conditions – meaning, interactions, and energy – which make people feel fully charged. And, certainly, Drive by Daniel Pink is a must-read for any leader. Each of these are excellent resources to guide your thinking and actions on how to help make it a happy new year for colleagues and people that you lead – rather than just wishing them one. But reading about what brings happiness also has the danger of setting out an unreachable goal that ultimately only brings more despair. And, certainly none of us needs another unrealistic new year’s resolution that just depresses us more when it goes unachieved or is broken by January 9th. So, instead, consider asking yourself and encourage your colleagues to ask themselves three questions at the end of each day this coming year. These questions I hope will not only guide your own happiness, but ultimately those around you:

1. What are three good things that happened today?
I call this the laugh factor. Have you ever been with people laughing and find yourself also laughing – even though you’re not sure what is funny? Laughter and happiness are contagious. Unfortunately, negativity breeds negativity too. Sometimes, making the shift to happiness is really nothing more than a change in what we are thinking and talking about. Often we have moments of happiness during the day, but we instead bury those moments and happy thoughts with all the memories of the challenges we have faced and the work left to do. I find schools in particular very poor at finding time to celebrate their successes or even reflecting on what went well. So, by end of the day by asking myself what are three good things that happened today, I hope to not lose sight of all that is going well, and therefore, add fuel to my happiness.

2. What’s something that I learned today?
Every day we all experience failures. A project falls behind schedule. A conversation doesn’t go as we had planned. A seventh period class is just plain rude. When this occurs, I like to borrow from the work of Carol Dweck and remind myself that failure is temporary and embrace a Growth Mindset. Or, as described in The Happiness Advantage, “Psychologists recommend we fail early and often because we can only learn to deal with failure by experiencing it and living through it.” So, see yourself as a learner and embrace failures and/or roadblocks as learning opportunities.

3. How did my work benefit others today?
We’ve all heard that “It is better to give than to receive.” Well, it’s true. People who seek happiness in order find meaning often fall short on both. But, people who seek meaning in their work find both greater purpose to life and more happiness. In Fully Charged, Rath shares that the odds of being completely engaged in your job increase by more than 250 percent if you spend a lot of time doing meaningful work throughout the day. He cites research that suggests the more value you place on your own happiness, the more likely you are to feel lonely on a daily basis. Whereas, if we focus on how our work contributes and benefits others, we ultimately fuel our own happiness. In Drive, Daniel Pink also emphasizes the importance of people finding purpose in their work. Finding value or purpose in one’s work often is not just about the project, assignment, or task that one is given; it’s often how we choose to view that project and how we convince others to view it. A bricklayer could view a job as a means for a paycheck, but they also could see it as skilled trade that will provide comfort and safety to a family in their new home. Certainly, those that work in education should not have to search too deep to see meaning in their work. But, whether you are a bricklayer, teacher, or CEO of a multinational company, reminding yourself of how that work is benefiting others remains critical to your own happiness.

Do these three questions hold all the secrets to a happy life and a cheerful and productive team at work? No. But before the ball begins to drop, I will take a moment to reflect on what has gone well in 2015, recognize my failures as learning opportunities, and take pride in knowing that the work that I have done has benefited others. And, even after the year flips to 2016, I will try to ask myself these three questions each day in attempt to not only bring more happiness to myself but to others. I challenge you to do the same. I not only wish you a happy new year. I encourage you to make it a happy new year.

This article was cross posted on the Five-Star Technology Solutions blog:

Friday, September 4, 2015

In the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln faced heated debates and conflicts with other men running for president. As Doris Kearns Goodwin eloquently writes about in the her award-winning book Team of Rivals, after being elected, Lincoln didn’t look past his opponents’ differences, he embraced them. He made three of his fiercest critics cabinet members in his administration - not despite their opposing views - but perhaps precisely because they disagreed. What made Lincoln a remarkable person and one-of-a-kind leader wasn’t just his ability to persuade others, but his ability to listen and learn from others - even those that vehemently disagreed.

The same principle applies to high-functioning teams and effective classrooms. Teamwork is not just about singing Kumbaya around a campfire or falling into each other’s arms during a trust building exercise. Teamwork also is about sharing different perspectives, having the courage to hold each other accountable, and having the opportunity to disagree. Watch any winning sporting team and you will see players clearly telling other players what they think and coaches visibly disagreeing with how a situation was handled.

I have the pleasure of participating in several school leadership meetings and visiting classrooms in a wide variety of school districts. I never worry about the teams or classrooms that have open disagreement - even when emotions run high at times. In fact, I am more concerned by meetings and lessons where people sit quietly and just wait for the boss/teacher to tell them what to do. Many high school students in particular go through a phase where they want to challenge almost everything. So, instead of just fighting that tendency, I suggest we leverage it, channel it, and perhaps most importantly, explicitly teach it.

Dr. Robert Marzano, an iconic researcher of effective educational strategies, calls this a cognitive skill and contends: “When students understand the general framework for a well-supported claim, they can more effectively present and support their own claims.” In fact, in his book, Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement he reports that this one strategy yields 23 gains in student achievement. Really, the point is simple: Let’s not just teach students and employees what to think. Let’s teach them how to think and challenge them to sharpen their ability to communicate their own thoughts.

Whether it’s in a board room or a classroom, suppose you were given one hour to take a position on one of the below issues:
  1. Should there be mandatory year-round schooling for all students?
  2. Should football be allowed as a high school sport because of the risk of injury to players?
  3. Should teacher pay be based on student test scores?
How would you go about making and supporting your position? Would you try to find facts that support your claim? Would you contact other people? Would you try to find counterpoints to your position? Would you collaborate with others in forming your argument? Would you have to synthesize a lot of information from various sources quickly to present it in a logical, compelling way? Would you use technology to do all of the above? I’m guessing the answer to most, if not all, of these questions is yes.

In the classroom, a teacher might ask open-ended questions, such as the following:
  1. Should nuclear power be used as a source of energy? (MS/HS Science and/or World History)
  2. Would you rather have a job that guaranteed you a salary of $100,000 for the rest of your life or a job that had a starting salary of $65,000 with guaranteed 5% raise each year. (Middle School Math)
  3. Do dogs have feelings like people? (Elementary Language Arts)
  4. What suggestions do you have on how we can make our classroom more productive? (K-12)
For students, this exercise will certainly open the door to discussions about the mechanics and methods of making a good argument. For adults, this topic lends itself to conversations about what makes a high-functioning team.

We also know that not all arguments are healthy or yield better outcomes. So, before your classroom or conference room starts looking like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, I offer these suggestions on how to bring more healthy debate to your environment:
  1. Establish “Norms”
    There is a difference between disagreeing and just being disagreeable. When someone disagrees, it should feel like they are challenging the position or approach on a specific topic. When someone is being disagreeable, it feels like they are attacking the person or group of people. To help create the former without the latter, openly talk about how people should and should not disagree. Create meeting or debate “norms” that acknowledge that disagreeing is necessary, but also guides the right way to go about it. Sample meeting norms might include
    • Everyone participate.
    • No one dominate.
    • If you don’t agree, it is your responsibility to speak up.
    • Listen carefully to understand.
    • Talk with others, not over others.
    • Laughing is highly encouraged. But, laugh with people, never at.  
  2. Choose Carefully What Topics to Debate
    Although fostering discussion and debate is healthy, debating every issue can be exhausting and can ultimately cause people to withhold opinions for when they really matter. If you ask ten adults in a meeting what color paper to use when printing a meeting agenda, you might get 10 opinions. But, that doesn’t mean you need to debate the topic until you have some consensus with the group. When these type of disagreements surface, just make an executive decision or pick someone that gets to decide - even if it involves flipping a coin. Likewise, in the classroom, there will be some topics that aren’t up for debate. Save people’s energy and passion for the topics that really matter.

  3. Role Play
    Instead of asking people if they agree with an idea, ask questions like: 
    • Everyone write down at least one argument on why the idea is bad and be ready to share with the group. 
    • Everyone write down at least one argument on why the idea is good and be ready to share with the group. 
    • Suppose we want to really mess up this idea, what we would do to make it go terribly?
    • Suppose we were going to do this, how would we go about it? 
    Be clear that this isn’t an exercise on seeing who agrees or disagrees; it’s an exercise to help everyone see the problem from as many perspectives as possible.

  4. Let the Best Idea Win
    I know that we live in a world where we like to declare winners and losers. And, certainly if you are an attorney or arguing in a debate club, you want the ruling to go in your favor. However, the purpose of most real-world arguments isn’t really about you being declared the winner; it’s about finding the best answer to a question or solution to a problem. So, when teaching people how to argue, it’s equally important that we encourage people to not only be good at convincing others, but also be good at being convinced. This requires listening to learn from others, seeking compromise, and not just finding what’s wrong with an idea, but finding what is right about it. Often, the best idea or course of action isn’t at the extreme of either position. The sweet spot is often the middle ground. Also, good ideas that are poorly implemented can actually end up more damaging than bad ideas that are implemented well. Arguments are not always about picking between two paths; sometimes it’s about creating a new path and ensuring you are fully prepared to go down that path.

  5. Move Your Meetings to the Parking Lot
    We’ve all had parking lot conversations. After spending two hours in a meeting, you walk out of the meeting to find yourself standing by a car telling someone what you really think. This may be because you didn’t feel you had the opportunity to voice the concerns in the meeting and becomes a way to vent frustration. But, these conversations don’t just undermine the team’s decision made in the meeting; they undermine the team itself. So, to keep this from happening, you can either move your meetings to the parking lot (not very practical) or create the time and culture within your meetings for those conversations to occur. This is true both in the conference room and for the classroom. 
So, the next time you have a topic of disagreement in your office or in your classroom, borrow from the remarkable wisdom and leadership of Lincoln. Avoid, the temptation to control and kill the conflict immediately and instead embrace it. The fact that you are arguing is a testament to the fact that you have a team with different perspectives (which is a good thing) and, perhaps most importantly, evidence that your team cares.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Some have claimed that Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” I know there is some dispute on whether or not Ford made this statement; regardless, the statement carries a powerful message. Sometimes asking customers what they want doesn’t uncover what they need - not because they lack a vision but because the question itself doesn't invite a conversation about possibilities.

There is a movement occurring in several schools across the nation - to provide students laptops and/or tablets. Many schools new to this journey often find themselves struggling to decide which device is best for their students. Also, too often the decision process is on a tight timeline. So, the process frequently involves purchasing a variety of devices to test for a few weeks or to pilot in a single class and then making a decision based on what seems to work best and/or seems most familiar and appealing to teachers and students.

Too often, I think this process ends up with… well… more horses.

So, I would suggest schools focus on four questions when navigating this issue:


What’s the problem with how many approach this decision? Hint: The first three words of the question also holds the answer: What’s the problem. Instead of beginning by asking what device is best, begin by asking what problem are you trying to solve. Hopefully your investment in the technology has something to do with student skills, so make that your starting point. Although I like some overarching ideas, such as wanting to improve student engagement, student collaboration, or student problem solving, I increasingly find those broad ideas often too abstract to help select a device. On the other side of the spectrum, in attempt to be specific, some state their problem similar to the following: “I want students to be able use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint and have the ability to print." But, this really isn't identifying the problem you want to solve or the student skills you want to improve. Those are tools (among others) that might help solve a problem, but don't mistake tools for the actual desired skills. Here are some examples of skills that you might identify:
  • I want students to know how to make and support a claim - becoming better at finding, interpreting, and synthesizing information. I want them to work with their peers to research a topic, write about that topic, and make presentations on that topic. In doing this, I want them to generate ideas and arguments that can be shared not only within the class but also with an authentic audience. 
  • I want students to be better readers. I want them to have quick access to books that align to their interest and their reading level.
  • I want students to be able to be more self-directed in their learning. I want them to access videos, tutorials, and educational games in order to review concepts that they are struggling to master and have greater flexibility to work ahead.
  • I want students to be self-reflective learners. I want students to have greater clarity of what they have and have not mastered and why. I want teachers to have more efficient and effective ways to regularly check for student understanding.
  • I want my students to be able to connect and collaborate with others in solving problems. I want students to be empowered to take action on real issues that they identify and to recognize the impact they can have in their community and the world.
Ideally, the list of desired skills would be developed by students, teachers, and administrators and would then be prioritized. I would advise that this list not be lead by the technical staff charged with making the devices work. During this stage, you are not trying to solve the problems; you are trying to identify the problems.


Think of it like buying a house. Long before you start looking at homes for sale, you probably have some idea of your needs (number of desired bedrooms, basement, master bedroom on first floor, etc). But, furthermore, you probably have some idea of where you want to live. Even if a house has the exact floorplan, features, and style of your choice, you probably don’t buy it if it is not in a desired neighborhood, too far from your work, doesn’t have area attractions aligned to your interests, or has a climate that remains too hot or cold for your taste. In other words, buying a house is also a decision about how you will interact with the people and places surrounding the home. After all, the real estate agents' mantra is location, location, location.

Similarly, selecting a computer now is greatly impacted by how well it will interact with the apps and services that you use. And today, these apps and your data won’t just sit on the device or in the main server room in your district. They will live on servers all around the world in what is often simply called the cloud. This applies to apps, pictures, music, documents, and just about anything you save or do on your device.

Let’s look at the three giants in the field: Apple, Google, and Microsoft:
  • Apple has been the master of making its products work elegantly together within their ecosystem. For example, with an iPhone one can turn on an Apple TV or play music from iTunes on an iMac. A picture taken on iPhone can automatically show up on an iPad, Apple TV, and MacBook Air, and iMac without the user doing a thing. None of this is possible without Apple’s cloud.
  • Google is not an immigrant to the cloud; they have always lived there. But over the course of the last 10 years, they have built an entire ecosystem that can now handle most people’s work habits with robust solutions for email, video calls, calendar appointments, task lists, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and much more - all within their Google Apps environment. Unlike Apple, that largely uses the cloud to backup and replicate data across devices, Google uses the cloud as the primary area to store the data -- making it available to any device that can access the Internet.
  • Microsoft still has a strong hold of the desktop OS, with more than 90% of active browsing desktops still using a version of Windows as of December 2014 according to Net Applications. Microsoft Office 365 and the Microsoft recently designed App Store make it clear that Microsoft also realizes that its future depends on users relying on its cloud.
As time passes, users will care less about what is in their hand and more about the easiest way to access and share their work. In other words, cloud computing has disrupted the way most customers will select products moving forward. We use to buy a device and then think about where to save our work. Now, we think about where our work is saved (in what ecosystem) and then pick a device that will let us most easily access our work. Adopting a cloud is not an easy choice, but changing your cloud platform is even more difficult. The three giants have known this for some time. It’s also why they all eagerly provide access to most (if not all) of their cloud services for free to K-12 education.


Battery life, durability, reliability, speed, ease of use, available apps and features, compatibility with existing apps and websites, cost, and difficulty of support are among the factors that quickly come into play when selecting a device. Although each of these variables, or specifications, are important and every school has unique circumstances, they are much more clearly defined and therefore can be easily measured. What is more nuanced is how well these devices solve a problem. In other words, you really aren’t just testing if the device works; you are really testing your workflow.


Back in early 2001, many people were starting to ask the question, what is the best MP3 player on the market? But Apple surprised everyone and rattled the entire music industry by releasing iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and an iPod that worked seamlessly with those products. And, nearly overnight, it became clear: Apple wasn’t just building a decent MP3 player, they were providing us with a solution to purchase, store, and transport our favorite music.

Similarly, what you are really trying to figure out is how a device, its apps, its cloud services, and other tools solve the key problems that you identified. Answering these questions often does not just flow sequentially, but rather the questions work in tandem with each other. You may find a device that feels right -- that has a killer app - which then drives your thinking of where the data should be stored and ultimately how you go about solving one of your problems. In other words, you should retouch and rethink a step as you move to the next step. Even though people may be asking for a device, what they usually really want is a solution.

So, when selecting a device for your students, the method of getting a few devices in to test for a couple weeks is as outdated as the term MP3 player. Instead, spend the time clearly identifying your problems and explore solutions to those problems. Do this by visiting other schools, talk with colleagues, and/or seek the advice of experts. Although Apple may have made it easy to carry your music in your pocket, the challenges in K-12 education are certainly more complex and the stakes are much higher. And trying to make a horse carry you too far too quickly isn't just foolish; it could be deadly.
Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow me on Twitter!