Let's Do Less 'Fire, Ready, Aim'

Earlier this year, popular (and often insightful) blogger Seth Godin wrote a post titled "Without Them". It has received a lot of circulation on the Web, usually with a positive comment attached to it.

However, I tend to think it offers the wrong advice -- most of the time -- for those of us who want to effectively make social or institutional change.

He basically says that if you have an idea you want to try, and it meets some resistance, you should just do it, "cause a ruckus and work things out later."

He ends his post with "I'm going. Come along if you like."

In the 19-year community organizing career I had prior to becoming a teacher seven years ago, I learned that a key to engaging people to move beyond their comfort zone was to first build a relationship -- a reciprocal one. A relationship entails eliciting from others their hopes and dreams, along with sharing your own. It involves finding learning the frustrations and challenges that people are experiencing. It involves looking for ways to help the other person realize those hopes and dreams and get beyond those challenges. And, if the change you want in schools (or any other institution) can genuinely help in those ways, then building a relationship means framing the invitation to try it in a way that speaks to what the other person wants. And that may not be the way you would prefer to frame it.

Obviously, sometimes doing what Godin recommends has and will work -- certainly in my community organizing career we met plenty of naysayers. And, of course, like many of us, there have been times when I've followed the advice "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." However, I think even in those circumstances, there are many more choices than the ones he lists: "you can fail by going along with that and not doing it, or you can do it, cause a ruckus and work things out later."

Listening to criticisms, asking more probing questions of those who disagree, refining your plan of action before you move forward taking into account what you hear -- these are all additional ways to respond.

Many years ago I helped operate a soup kitchen on San Jose's Skid Row in California. We were well-meaning, but not the most responsible neighbors. On day I was sweeping around the passed-out men and women on our front porch when a police car drove up. An officer got out and started yelling me, saying that we couldn't control things and they received many complaints about us. As the officer continued, one of the men on the porch pulled himself up on the railing and yelled out, "Officer, Larry tries. He tries hard. We just don't listen to him!"

I've often thought about that incident and have framed the lesson I learned that day as a question, "Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be effective?"

Of course, it doesn't have to be either/or.

And I would say the same for Godin's post -- let's do a little more of "ready, aim, fire" and less "fire, ready, aim." And let's remember to include a lot of listening and relationship-building in the "pre-fire" period.