I’m okay with being uncomfortable. In fact, I welcome it. While it’s in my nature to embrace change, I also seek discomfort. I believe that continually moving beyond my comfort zone is critical for growth and continuous improvement in my work.
As professionals working in education at all levels across the sector, we need a heck of a lot more discomfort in our lives. We’re not doing any child in this country a service in accepting the status quo simply because it’s comfortable for us as adults.
So how do we get more uncomfortable?
Earlier this month, our EP team gathered in New Orleans for our annual all-staff retreat. There, we spent an afternoon practicing innovation (yes, you can do that!) in a session led by 4.0 Schools’ Founder and CEO Matt Candler.
Inherent in the concept of innovation is discomfort. The best ideas aren’t often the first ones. Sometimes, they’re not even the third or the tenth ideas. Getting to the good stuff takes work, and it takes a big dose of discomfort to push ourselves there.
Matt pulled no punches when he told us how to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. A big part of it is learning to give more real feedback to each other when we brainstorm and problem solve. After observing us share ideas and give each other feedback as part of an activity, he urged us to:
- Say it faster and more often—don’t wait for a better time.
- Say it shorter—don’t couch what you have to say with qualifiers like “I’m not sure you’ll agree,” or “This may be a dumb idea, …”.
- Say what you really think.
The point is that we’re not helping anyone if we don’t commit to a culture that not only values but also commits to giving feedback. That’s how we get better ideas, together. That’s part of how we solve education’s tough challenges.
A great friend and entrepreneur, Elisabeth Stock, told me about a practice at CFY, the organization that she founded: she asks her team to prompt each other to “say the thing.” Simple, but effective. We’ve started using that phrase at EP as a signal to each other that we’re going to give it to each other straight.
Here are some other practices we’re focusing on:
- We learn from others, including leaders like Matt Candler, Elisabeth Stock, and this recent Harvard Business Review article, “Teams Can’t Innovate if They’re too Comfortable.”
- We model honesty and transparency to each other at every level of our organization. During our time in NOLA together, our CEO Scott Morgan, our CAO, and I held an executive leadership panel so that our staff could ask us the hard questions. (And they did!)
- We recognize that feedback is a process. We practice it often so that it becomes easier and easier.
- As we do for our team, so we do with our Fellows. We encourage our Fellows to stay on their “learning edge.” We push them out of their comfort zones so that they can have tough and often difficult discussions about the critical issues in our field. We also survey them a lot to get their feedback on their EP experience.
Yes, being uncomfortable and giving feedback is hard. Recognizing that some of our ideas will, in fact, stink, and then actually saying the thing, “I think that’s a bad idea,” takes practice. But there are millions of kids in this country who are counting on us to say the thing and get our work right for them.
Frances McLaughlin is the President of Education Pioneers and is responsible for implementing the organization's strategy nationally to achieve EP's ambitious goals. She believes deeply that effective management and leadership – in addition to high quality instruction – are necessary for all students to reach their academic potential.