A blank canvas

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I know I have talked about leadership, management and the significance of getting things ‘in order’ at the higher levels in schools in order to realise ambitions of change from the work of #eNoobs. (See http://www.learnenabling.com/blog/the-vision-the-story-the-action/) I would even say that it could be argued, quite convincingly, that the success of any #eNoob is reliant on there being strong leadership in a school. However, what if an #eNoob is setting their own agenda? What if an #eNoob is given a blank canvas, employed for their expertise and left to get on with it? And could this be a good thing?

In most situations I have come across, #eNoobs are employed and are expected to deliver change that involves someone else’s plans. These plans may be quite broad but more often than not are linked to particularly schemes, concepts and/or paths a school wishes to follow. The most common examples that come to mind are BYOD schemes or a new LMS purchase. In other words, there are key aspects of the school’s direction or short term goals that the #eNoob is expected to impact upon and that is usually decided before the appointment is made.

So, let’s think differently here. An appointment is made without any specific agenda other than the school knowing the significance of having someone in that role, someone with expertise who can bring about improvements in a school. Would this be utopia for the person employed and/or for the school?

I would love to know your thoughts.

Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/maxime_fort/20127429671

11 thoughts on “A blank canvas

  1. When I was employed, there was as blank a canvas as you can get. I had roles to play but largely it was about bringing my experience to the table and this was perfect for me. I had autonomy, support and freedom to execute. I was able to work on passion projects, work with staff who were keen to innovate and I believe that my first year was really successful. I had rapport with my colleagues, showcased a range of initiatives and inspired staff to take a look at areas of their work that could be enhanced. At the end of my first year, we brought in a new LMS and I was one of the staff chosen to lead the project. The second year was gobbled up with this and my time was solely directed at bringing about this change. I lent on the relationships that I had developed as I led resistant staff through a large scale change. Innovation was out the window for that year as tech fatigue set in thanks to the LMS. I have to say that I am glad I started with my first year, I don’t think I would have survived if it was the other way around. With that being said, the second year has had more impact and so in my third year I look to marry the system wide change year with the innovation year and see what becomes of it. Personally a blank canvas is my preferred option. Why? It allows me to start with my ideas and to build momentum and positive relationships. Being brought in to execute someone else’s decision is just asking for failure. You have no say, no relationship with the process or decision but are called upon to execute as well as to wear the heat. That’s a recipe for disillusionment.

  2. Hmm I wonder if the ‘blank canvas’ proposition is as appealing as if first seems Nick? I’m not at all convinced a school should seek to employ an individual to ‘bring about improvements.’ Surely a school ought instead to seek someone who can complement, enhance and extend the team which is already in place … whatever that team might be? I’d argue (especially in a school context) that it’s not individuals that bring about change, but a team or community which shares a sense of purpose, set of values and pulls in the same direction. It might be a senior leadership team, strategy group or whatever, but it’s a tough call to expect a single person to make a systemic change (unless perhaps s/he occupies the ‘big chair!). If someone with specialist knowledge (like an #eNoob?) is appointed for their experience and expertise, then that should be to assess the situation, provide a range of possible routes forward, then when the *team* has made the decision, be able to plan, deliver and evaluate the chosen developments. The burden of expectation should not rest on a single set of shoulders, no matter how broad they may be.

    Putting on my cynical head for a moment, someone given a blank canvas might be being set up. If things don’t work out, those who made the appointment instantly have a ‘fall guy;’ if things do work out, they can bask in the glory of having made an inspired appointment. Taking a less cynical view, it might simply be that they don’t know what they don’t know, so bringing a fresh and more knowledgeable other makes complete sense. However I’d then refer back to the remarks I made in the first paragraph regarding collective responsibility.

    I disagree somewhat with Steve (sorry buddy) in that I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of executing someone else’s decisions, provided I was fully aware of what the expectations were in advance and felt that I shared the principles behind them, before I signed on the dotted line. However I do agree that attempting to deliver an initiative in which you’re not all invested would be … demanding!

  3. Thanks for your comments gentlemen.
    Steve, I am not sure what you are describing is truly a blank canvas. It started off that way from what you describe but given the second year LMS there was clearly a focus so in a way it seems as if it was partly agenda driven even if that wasn’t planned from when you got the job.

    But, let’s say for arguments sake it is. I think the key elements of what you describe are “support and freedom to execute”. That sounds as if you pitched to the Senior Leaders in the school what you wanted to do and they helped drive it. It also sounds as if ‘space’ i.e. time (always a huge factor) was created for you to implement with staff. This relates to Ian’s points on the team approach and the dangers of being the ‘maverick with expectations’.

    So, the question that comes to my mind is whether in fact those key elements are the deciding factors regardless of whether an #eNoob is appointed with a blank canvas or a specific agenda.

  4. Great discussion guys and valid points. Ian, shouldn’t all new hires be hired with “bring about improvement?” I totally agree that it is not down to one individual but surely we hire people to make things better. Systemic change is a team effort but gradual small change can be achieved by one individual. The change would need to complement the school and not be a maverick doing things their way. In regards to the blank canvas and my experience, it was more a case of my school not really knowing what they wanted the role to be and as you said Ian, it was about bringing in someone who had more experience in the #enoob area. I think my canvas was deliberately kept blank by the school as they wanted to grow sustainably but the more I think about it, maybe it was more to do with the fact that I was new to the school and this was a way to transition me to the role. Nick, the LMS was a project that wasn’t on the radar when I began as it was a project I recommended we undertake but you really have me thinking about what the agenda was for my position. I do think that the support and freedom to execute define your time in the role as without them you really can’t make things happen. As always guys, left with more questions than answers. Always enjoy these conversations!

    • Very interesting, Steve. You’re experiences do not sound too different to mine in terms of “it was more a case of my school not really knowing what they wanted the role to be and as you said Ian, it was about bringing in someone who had more experience in the #enoob area”. However, it seems as if the outcomes have been different in some respects. So, if I ask myself why that is the case? I suppose the answer could be personalities i.e. my personality compared to yours or it could be that more related to space and support as I previously commented on. I think the later is more likely.
      From your comments, I can see a blank canvas approach having positive effects but it is the understanding and provision for #eNoobs to action ideas that, to me, provides the scaffold to development in this area.

  5. Hmm… Blank slate… I’m not sure about that. I don’t think I could work for someone with no vision. I believe that where there is vision, there is power. When the school’s leadership employs someone to outwork a vision, one would hope that the person has the school’s leadership backing them – thus enabling change.
    I’ve found that when a school’s leadership doesn’t have a vision, the #eNoob fights an uphill battle to get change happening.

    • Chantelle, you know how I feel about the significance of vision but I find there are such varied definitions of ‘having vision’ and/or ‘applying vision’. Some would say that wanting change, improvement and investing in a position, a specialist who then has a blank canvas to prescribe the changes and improvements that are needed is vision in itself.

  6. I think that a blank canvas is a phallacy. It implies that there are truly original ideas. I am of the school of thought that ideas are built upon other ideas. As I stated elsewhere (http://readwriterespond.com/?p=118) the first thing that I would do is create a team and expand the room. I, the edtech artist, may come in with my paints, but the reality is there is only so much I can achieve myself. For at the end of the day, it takes a village.

  7. A good read Aaron and lots of good advice there which anyone in an #eNoob would do well to heed. I think you have highlighted issues that relate well to my points about support and space. I still see a question as to whether a blank canvas can exist for ‘the team’ you describe.

  8. Wow, what are interesting post and subsequent comments! Thank you for all the great food for thought!
    Like Steve, I was hired in my role and given a blank canvas. Because of the blank canvas and room to play, I was able to bring a variety of projects to the school and implement in the ways in which I thought were best. I was charged to lead a team of EdTech and IT individuals and together we have played out the vision I set forth. In my world, having a blank canvas is ideal as long as it meets the school’s overall vision and mission.
    I have been mulling over Aaron’s comment that “ideas are built upon other ideas” and I agree wholeheartedly. However, I do think that having a blank canvas and a willing team allows for the generation of other or evolved ideas. These “other or evolved ideas” can lead to growth or regression depending on edtech’s knowledge, research, resources, team and administrative backing.

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