That’s The Way We Did It Last Year

by Mark Hennes | Nov 20, 2017

Quote of Note
"If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong."
- Charles Kettering

The National Training Center is an awesome training location. Encompassing over 1,000 square miles of Mojave Desert in southern California, it is ideally suited for the tough, realistic training that Army units need just prior to a combat deployment.

One night, late in the second week of our training, my team had just finished setting up our unit’s operations center on the Arrowhead (so named because the rocky hill looked like an arrowhead on our topographic maps). The ops center was where we worked in round-the-clock shifts to direct and synchronize our unit’s operations using radios, computers, and a slew of maps. The center was really a mass of canvas tents connecting trucks and armored vehicles, and it was there that I was helping put a map on a wooden frame when my new boss came striding towards me. He shoved his finger in my chest, and, in the loud voice that only battalion commanders have when they are really riled up, bellowed “Why is our ops center located here?” He paused to make sure that he had everyone’s attention, before continuing, “And if you say ‘we’re located up high, so we’ll have good radio communications’, then I’ll hear you out. Or if you say ‘the natural rock formation disguises our location’, then I’ll hear you out. But if you say ‘this is the way we did it last year’ like the last 3 people I’ve asked, then I’m going to cut you off --- because that treacherous drive … up that winding road… in the dark … to this tiny location … ain’t worth that lame reason!”

The truth is, it really was the way we did it last year. Many of us had been up there multiple times, and we always put the ops center at the Arrowhead. The problem was that we had forgotten the reasons why it was the best choice and whether those reasons were still valid. We hadn’t gone through any sort of thought process to select the location. Instead, we relied on last year’s memory to do the same drill we had always done.

How many of us EdLeaders do the same? Do we just recycle the same job descriptions to hire replacements, without thinking about the new skills that our team needs? Do we go on field trips to the same museums every year without thinking about how our curriculum has changed? Are we play the same games on Field Day or having the same clubs every year?

How many of our teachers recycle the same lesson plans from last year? How many reuse the same worksheets and quizzes? (And making them camera phone readable doesn’t count.) How many assign the same books and projects from year to year, without considering the new skills our students will need in the modern workplace?

To breakout of the “that’s-the-way-we-did-it-last-year” rut, consider partnering with a colleague to get a fresh perspective. Encourage cross-content collaboration or discussion to create new, interdisciplinary projects. Take an inventory of your skills and expertise, and then ask your colleague what skills they’re masters at that could add to your repertoire. Volunteer your time and talents to help others get out of their rut, too.

Got a good relationship with your supervisor? Then ask him/her to identify weaknesses and blindspots that you need to work on, and for suggestions on where and to whom to go for help. Network with others in your district who are experts at particular tasks or skills, and seek their advice on new approaches to your work. Considering opening your door to a skilled coach, who can offer you some unbiased assistance for your professional growth.

Take on a “stretch” opportunity to push you to learn something new. Volunteer to be a part of a committee in an area that is unfamiliar to you. Don’t know what the Data Team, the Tech User’s Group or the Safety Committee does? Offer to join them. You’ll get some new skills and they’ll welcome the new energy and fresh perspective.

Consider looking outside of your district or building, too. Does your community have a Business Advisory Council or a Career Readiness Committee? If not, then start one. Contact your Chamber of Commerce to see what they need and how they can help you. See if your community has a Young Professionals or Young Leaders group. You’ll polish up your networking skills, while getting some new ideas to solve some of your most vexing problems.

With some new skills in your professional repertoire, take a zero-based approach to common tasks. This means to start a routine task as if you were doing it for the first time. For example, instead of just posting that old job description, take some time to think about the current requirements of the position, and then write a new description from scratch. Then, compare it with the previous description to see if you missed some required element. Periodically refresh your rubrics, checklists, and plans in this way to keep on improving.

Get It Done

  • When brainstorming new ways to do old tasks, don’t filter or discard too early.
  • Get new ideas by questioning old assumptions. Ask, “what’s changed”?
  • Get new ideas by asking how another organization would do the same task.
  • Reflect on skills or perspectives you’re missing and go after them.
  • Look for a coach or mentor who can offer a fresh perspective.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.