A couple of weeks ago I attended the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, in San Francisco. It was a good meeting for many reasons, but one image in particular has stuck with me:
Foundation president Anthony Bryk used it to illustrate the kind of patience required for turning hunches into genuine changes at scale, in either behavior or culture. If you want the ball at the top – the end state you’re going for – then the temptation at first is to just put it there. But usually what happens is people reject it as alien, and the ball gets a quick and easy nudge downhill.
What you discover is that really you need to start small, at the bottom. Then as you build support you get other people’s help moving the ball upward, and they even change and improve it along the way. Work like that, and by the time you get to the top there’s no way it’s falling back down.
That rang true for many in his audience, who live this stuff. But it also cast a harsh light on our context: we seldom get that much time. In my version of his diagram, that long red hill might last a decade.
In my experience coordinating a string of state universities, the impetus for change has come in one of three flavors:
- you get a grant (three years to spend it, tops)
- someone passes a law (to be fully implemented in eighteen months or less)
- the state economy changes (quick: which half of your programs do you eliminate? or quick: spend $50 million in unexpected revenue before it’s swept!)
This world doesn’t lend itself to the patient rolling of balls.
So then what’s the well-meaning wonk to do? Cause Tony’s right: use that grant or tax windfall to drop a big ball on a hill, and it will not stay there. But walking away from a short-term opportunity is bad management, and in the case of legislation and the economy, not even an option.
I’ve decided the answer is to think of the hill as a sequence of line segments. One segment might be a grant, the next one a law, or the boss’s whim, and so on:
The object of the game – maybe the only one – is to know where you are along the hill, and then to take each short term exigency as a chance to edge higher.
As I’ve been picturing that, it’s occurred to me that it’s also not a bad metaphor for the individual lifespan, in the context my friend Alice Perez calls the “long experience of the human family.”
Really, that’s all we get.