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10 things I learned in 20 years.

We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary at School Perceptions! I thought it would be a good idea to take a moment, reflect, and share ten things I learned since starting this company.

1. Transformation of any kind begins by asking the right question. This is a profound thought. Think about it! Have you asked yourself a really good, (i.e., thought-provoking) question lately? Or have you been on a Zoom or a group meeting when an intense debate breaks out? Then, suddenly, someone—usually the quiet person in the group—asks a question. In an instant, everyone sees the shortcoming of their—at least until that point—firmly held position. It’s brilliant. They asked the right question, and it shifted everyone’s thinking. In the same vein, a well-designed survey (which is filled with questions) can be a critical first step in bringing about change in your organization.

2. Weighing the pig doesn’t make it any heavier. A while back, I received this advice from a good friend from Iowa. Just like weighing a pig, conducting a survey can be a promising first step. But, by itself, it won’t change or improve anything. I’ve learned that people are less concerned with the survey results and primarily concerned about what you’re going to do next. Therefore, after the survey, don’t worry about the data as much as how it will be used to inform your planning process and what you will do next. I’ve learned the survey is part of the process, not the main event.

3. Sometimes, surveys are a bad idea. Some decisions should be made by the educational leaders. I’ve learned, in these cases, don’t do a survey. A good example is deciding which instructional practices should be used at an elementary school or at what age world languages should be taught. In these cases, make the decision. Don’t ask the parents.

4. Don’t ask a question if you’ve already decided what you’re going to do. People see through this quickly, and it will break trust with your stakeholders. If you truly have already made up your mind, don’t survey around the topic. Explain why you made the decision and lead.

5. Don’t ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to. Enough said.

6. Speak in ways grandma and grandpa can understand. Your goal should be to keep things simple. It doesn’t do any good to try and confuse people into “your side” by using jargon or big words. When people don’t understand something, they’re more likely to say no. In general, people aren’t impressed by titles, degrees, or certifications. People appreciate values: honesty, transparency, humor, and authenticity. No matter your age, education level, title, or other attributes, I've learned that you must know and live your values.

7. Some people’s opinions are more important than others. This may sound anti-American or anti-democratic, but it turns out some people in your community have more influence than others. Hear me out. The authors Edward Keller and Jon Berry explored this concept and found that one American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy. I’ve learned the same is true for your parents, staff, and community members. Think about the mom staying in the elementary school vestibule after dropping her kids to talk to the other moms or the dad who is constantly volunteering to cook brats at the fundraisers. Good or bad, they’re talking to lots of people, and they have more influence. The good news is that those folks, roughly 10 percent of your stakeholders, know what they think and will tell you. They also like to take surveys. People who don’t know or don’t care typically don’t respond to your survey.

8. You must define a problem before you can solve the problem.

Before you start writing survey questions, spend some time defining the problem. Once you and your team are clear on the problem and goals, I've learned that the survey will write itself.

9. You don’t have to ask someone five different ways to know how they feel.

We’re written thousands of survey questions and analyzed millions of responses. As you might have guessed, I’ve learned a well-designed short survey will give you great insights and a higher response rate.

10. You don’t have to be perfect but, you do need to be sincere. Twenty years is a long time. As a company, we’ve made mistakes. As human beings, it’s inescapable. No one is perfect. I’ve learned when you make a mistake, admit it, own it, and clean up your mess.

The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Bill Foster, President and Founder of School Perceptions.

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