04 Jun 2016

The Essentials

‘You can do anything, but not everything.’ David Allen

Schools are complex places. We can find ourselves too stretched to think, overworked and under-utilised, busy but not productive. So it is worth considering the ideas within Essentialism[1]. Developed by Greg McKeown,  he makes the case for the disciplined pursuit of less and for doing fewer things, really well. This is the basic proposition: ‘when we give ourselves permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, we can make our highest contribution towards the things that really matter.’

Essentialism makes the case for ‘less but better’. This means pursuing fewer things in a disciplined way. It means constantly asking ‘Am I investing in the right activities?’ It is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. ‘It doesn't mean just doing less for the sake of less either, it’s about making the wisest possible investment of time and energy so that we can operate at out highest point of contribution by only doing what is essential.’

We need to stop asking ourselves, ‘How can I make it all work’ and starting asking the bigger question ‘Which problem do I want to solve?’ If we commit to giving our energy to and investing in fewer activities, we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most. When we deliberately distinguish the vital few from the trivial many, eliminate the non-essentials and remove obstacles, the essential things have a clear, smooth passage.

When we lose the ability to filter what is important and what is not, psychologists call it ‘decision fatigue’. The myth that we can have it all leads, for example, to meetings which have as many as ten ‘top priorities’ discussed. We need to be clear about what the priority is versus many ‘priorities’.

To eliminate non-essentials means saying ‘no’. Often. And to do it well requires courage and compassion and to keep at the front of our minds ‘I can do anything but not everything’. Essentialism analyses the work of Joseph Moses Juran who created the Quality Control Handbook. Juran argued that we can massively improve the quality of a product by resolving a tiny fraction of the key problems. He worked in companies where a high percentage of effort and attention was channelled towards improving just those few things that were truly vital. By distinguishing the trivial many from the vital, by distinguishing what is truly important from everything else, Juran made the phrase ‘made in Japan’ take on a totally new meaning.

One of the places to start is with a school’s mission statement and ask ourselves whether it provides a clear sense of purpose. Many are vague, generic and inflated. So we need to ask ourselves whether our teams are ‘sort of clear’ or ‘really clear’ about our core purpose? How is this lived out in the daily life of the school? Can all teachers, support staff including lunch time helpers and cleaners say what the school’s vision is, in their own words?

‘Essentialism’ argues that we should be determining the ‘essential intent’ - inspirational and concrete, both meaningful and measurable. For example, Martha Lane Fox Digital Champion and her team agreed that their vision should be: ‘To get everyone in the UK online by the end of 2012’. Now, the fact is, not everyone in the UK was online by the end of 2012. However, the clarity of the Digital Champion’s mission meant it was clear whether they had met this goal or not. It could be argued that the simplicity and urgency of this message meant that everyone in the UK will be on line, sooner rather than later.

If we could be truly excellent at one thing, what would it be? While we might not get there in a precise timescale: not everyone is online in the UK, yet. But it does provide great clarity about the purpose of the piece of work. It is very clear when the work is done and similarly any mission statement or school development plan should make it very clear whether we have got there or not.

Essentialisam also shows how ‘reverse pilot’ might work. This means testing whether removing an activity will actually make any difference. Thinking about the papers that are prepared for meetings, which of these could be used for different purposes? For example, the main item on the agenda for governors’ meetings could be the school’s self evaluation and the development plant - this could replace the head teacher’s report to governors. In schools which have done this, there is greater clarity and focus in these meetings.

We need to ask ourselves which problem do I want? Which is the one which is going to have most traction? Which one will improve results, and feed into all other areas of a school’s life? Consider the power of extreme criteria so that when asked whether a member of staff is able to name the top three priorities for school improvement we don't have the following response: ’In our school we have 21! There is no clear plan of how to tackle each, they are just objectives on list. Many overlap and have no owner or target date’.

Linked to this, is the ability to clarify the one decision that makes a thousand. What are we going to pursue and what are we going to say no to? We need to be thinking about whether we can subtract anything which is not contributing to the core business. In schools which have adopted essentialism principles, their  school development plans describe no more than three overarching priorities. Because they know that otherwise colleagues will not be able to keep focus on the main things which need to be done.


In these schools, the meetings, whether whole staff meetings, subject or faculty meetings have the three priorities as the core agenda items. There is simplicity and power in returning to the main things we are working on. People working in schools where there is this clarity, report not only greater focus, but a sense of security in that the main item is the main item for improvement and that they are clear what their contribution needs to be.

In these schools, leaders are checking on a regular basis that these are translated in to daily practice. They do this for example,  by using the lines of accountability through governing body meetings, and performance management discussions which focus on the extent to which the key priorities are being met. And in doing this, they hold themselves to account, first and foremost. They never, ever use simplicity as a stick to beat people with.

Priorities need to be explicit, for example if the priority is to improve outcomes for pupils who have pupil premium funding, they might be expressed on the following lines: ‘we will improve the outcomes for this group by making sure that they are using technical language in full sentences in lessons. We are pursuing this because our understanding of the research on improving outcomes for all, and in particular for this group of students is their ability to use subject specific language accurately and with confidence.’

In this example, where ‘technical language, used by all’ becomes the priority, this is expressed in the school development plan, in faculty plans, or key stage plans. It becomes the subject of staff, departmental and leadership meetings. What are we doing as a school to support our ambition of ‘technical language, used by all’? In some schools which have taken this line, every subject in secondary and every year in primary has agreed on the key terms which will be taught, revisited, checked for understanding, monitored and celebrated. They make sure that it is not a vague aspiration, but something concrete which can be discussed, checked, moderated and evidenced.

In a primary context, where the priority has been identified as engendering pleasure in reading, this is what one school has done. They had identified that pupils were not showing sufficient pleasure in reading. They knew this from information both internally and from external tests at the end of key stage two where the outcomes were lower than in mathematics. They knew that the basics were covered, but that more needed to be done to raise standards. They also referred to the national curriculum for English[2] at key stage two where it says should be taught to: ‘develop positive attitudes to reading and understanding of what they read.’ They had also carried out  surveys which children which showed that this aspect could be improved. So, the priority became: to ensure that all our pupils enjoy reading. How to make this quantifiable? Well, there are a number of ways. First, if the priority was successful, results over time would improve so that they were in line with the mathematics. Second, pupils would self-report that they were enjoying reading. Third, observations from teachers and other staff would show that pupils were enjoying reading more. Fourth, their written work would show greater depth and complexity. Fifth, parents and carers would report that their children were enjoying reading.

For this school, leaders has translated the priority was translated into: ‘We will read with our children, every day, as a whole class, with a class reader. We will show our enjoyment of reading as we share stories with children.’ In this way, the priority is translated into something concrete – a daily activity designed to improve this aspect of learning; and something which can be measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. And for one school, in making this its ambition, they knew that they couldn’t do everything. So they made the reading session, every day, first thing in the afternoon, as the introduction to the children’s afternoon sessions.

[1] http://gregmckeown.com/essentialism-the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less/

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335186/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_English_220714.pdf

(Chapter from 'High Challenge, Low Threat' available from Amazon)

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