For the past few days, I’ve had trouble staying asleep at night and staying awake during the day. That sometimes happens in the middle of summer, when a less-structured schedule allows for midday naps; it’s probably been compounded this year by unusually wet weather here, which has led to nap-inducing rainy afternoons and an unusual amount of pollen and other allergens. In any case, since my return home from the ACL Institute, I’ve been oddly sleepy during the day, but waking up frequently at night.
Another piece of the puzzle, I suppose, is that my mind has been working overtime trying to connect the various threads and pieces we’ve been discussing here. There’s the thread of leadership in general, with the Star Trek captains as exemplars. Connections themselves are important, both in learning and in community-building. The ACL Institute, both for itself and as an example of a community of teacher-learners seeking to become better and stronger, is an important thread. And two recent email invitations to two very different projects are somehow connected, too.
On Wednesday, when the news of Doug Engelbart‘s death became public and the tributes to his influence began to flow, I started to realize that two aspects of his work are somehow connected to this tapestry, too. Dr. Engelbart built a lot of amazing technology, but the most significant things he built were a new mindset about what computers could do and a new kind of organization to spread the word. That much I knew, and I kept learning more as I read more about him. But then, awake in the early morning hours, I found Mark’s Google+ share of Elyse Eidman-Aadahl’s tribute to Dr. Engelbart’s influence on the National Writing Project. As I read it and studied the diagram at the top, the one that shows how Networked Improvement Communities work, our disconnected threads from the week began to come together. Go look at the diagram; you won’t be sorry! You should read the whole post, too, but definitely look at the diagram.
In a sense, what Engelbart was building at the ARC (which is also what the NWP has built for its participating writing teachers) was related to the balance of Production and Production Capacity (or “P/PC”) that Stephen Covey put into words. But production (Activity A on the diagram) and production capacity (Activity B) aren’t the whole picture. 20th-century organizations used to strive, not always successfully, to maximize both; the Powers That Be in legacy 20th-century structures, like factory-model schools, tend to neglect Activity B and then, in shock and anger at the insufficient increase in measures of Activity A, they reach for pain-punishment cycle tools in a futile quest to extract more golden eggs from the dead or moribund goose.
But without Activity C, structures designed to help you get better at getting better, both failures are absolutely predictable. That was Engelbart’s blazing insight, and the implementation of it seems even more important to me as I type these words than the computer mouse, the hypertext system, the windowed computing, and the notion of networked computer communication that I’m using to publish them. Yes, those were vital to late 20th and early 21st-century society, and they (and their successors) will remain vital for decades to come. But the idea of not just getting better, but getting better at getting better … without that, even the most innovative organizations stagnate, the most joyful communities become bitter, the most innovative approaches to teaching, learning, or making anything grow stale and obsolete.
And that’s why the factory-model school, a wonder of its time, grew old and stale and irrelevant. That’s why the innovative textbooks of 40 years ago seem “flat, stale, and dead” (as my student memorably said several years ago) to today’s learners. Perhaps that even helps to explain the ugly political infighting that has afflicted my beloved country over the past few decades. We forgot about, or didn’t know about, getting better at getting better, so we just focused on getting better at the same-old-same-old. And the results were predictable: the age-old results of managing the process without leadership and guidance and vision. Doing things right (better and better and better on their own terms) without checking to see if they’re the right things to do.
So what do you think, builders and sustainers of joyful community? Is that an accurate diagnosis of the problem? If so, it’s only a first step, of course, because the next step is to start working on solutions. Surely there are lessons to be gained from Dr. Engelbart’s successes and failures at ARC, but the process of building Activity C into existing structures, places that have never had it, will be very different from building an Activity-C-focused organization from scratch.
Or is that what we actually need to do?
And in any case, how do we invite Ms. X, Mr. Y, and those overwhelmed Powers to join in the process? Are their voices, their skepticism, their challenges essential for such an organization to succeed? Or is it best to ignore them and their Activity-A-focused work for the moment, to leave them to do the work they’re doing, and to get on with a totally different task?
What do you think?