School & District Management Opinion

How Adding Another Person to a Conversation Builds Capacity

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 14, 2017 3 min read
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In the first part of this interview Vista Unified School Superintendent Devin Vodička and University of California San Diego professor Alan J. Daly talked about how consciously building networks of relationships enhanced the capacity of the school district, including its capacity to innovate. At the end of the conversation, Daly asked the superintendent to talk about his practice of bringing a third person to what would normally be a one-on-one conversation.

Devin Vodička: You can triple the degree of connectivity by adding one person to a conversation. If you and me are talking, that’s the one connection. If I bring in a third person, you triple the connectivity. Bring in a third person to those conversations and watch how fast things will move because you’re now tripling the rate of connectivity with just one additional person.

Give me an example.

Devin Vodička: Okay, I’m visiting a school site and I’m walking with the principal and we’re checking things out. Now I invite a school board member to come with me and now it’s three of us instead of two of us. The impact of that experience is going to ripple out so much faster than it would if it was just myself and the principal in that conversation. There are times when it should be just one on one, but most of what we do is about trying to build capacity, so if you’re trying to build capacity, bring in that third person and sometimes make it someone who’s not necessarily connected to the task or the project. They will bring in different insights. It’s that weak link kind of a opportunity that expands dramatically just by being intentional about who you include in some of those routine interactions as a leader. It’s not hard to do.

Alan J. Daly: No, it’s easy and in fact it is critical to success.

Devin Vodička: It’s like a trick. It doesn’t take much time to be intentional about bringing in one extra person in the conversation, but the, you know, there’re all kinds of incredible things that have happened in our community like getting a $10-million dollar award from XQ. I can trace a lot of those things back to simple interactions years and years ago that started with inviting people into the conversation.

Charles Kerchner: Are there things we haven’t covered that we absolutely need to talk about?

Devin Vodička: I just think that hopefully, the big message through all of this is that relationships are important, which we all know kind of just from our experience, but that’s validated now with lots of really, really good research, and if we know that and if we believe that to be true, we need to be intentional as leaders about focusing on the development of high trust relationships to create the conditions that we want in order to best serve our kids, so I see this as the ethical imperative of modern leadership.

Alan J. Daly: So I’ll take my last word: Fear is an incredibly insidious, and sadly all too present these days. Fear can eat us from the inside out. When human beings, are afraid, blood rushes to their central organs, their hands become clammy, and they’re ready to fight or to run. It turns out that organizations do exactly the same thing.

When organizations are under a perceived threat, they circle the wagons. There’s limited connection to the outside. Decisions are often reactive or stereotyped: meaning that the systems tend to do the same stuff they always did. This “threat rigid response” will always be the case unless there are mediating conditions. Those mediating conditions are everything that Devin talked about: high levels of trust, deep relational connections, and our ability to be vulnerable and connected to one another. Fear does not get removed by knowledge alone. It’s more than that. Fear is inhibited through our ability to really create authentic, genuine relationships that are grounded in respect and trust. So in these times of fear (and we are in times of fear right now), we can anticipate that systems will also respond to this fear and react in very rigid ways. It is incumbent upon us to create the conditions of support and counter the fear based narrative. We have the moral commitment and commandment to make sure that we are creating the nurturing conditions grounded in deep respect, acceptance, and care because there’s a lot of fearful people in the world right now, and that’s untenable and will impeded the good we are all committed to bringing about.

Graphic: Courtesy of Alan J. Daly

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