Agile Evolutionary Group

Assisting leaders & organizations for the future of education

Impact to Influence: Dr. Michael Conner

Michael T. Conner, Ed.D. and Jed Stefanowicz

Listen to the podcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=CBIM65syqfg

Jed Stefanowicz:
All right, welcome back to the Impact Influence Conversation. I’m really excited today to be joined by Dr. Michael Conner. I get to read this bio, which is really quite something because he is a force. Dr. Conner is the CEO and founder of the Agile Evolutionary Group. He has most recently served as superintendent of schools in Middletown, Connecticut, where his passion has come to bear as the creator and architect now as the Disruptive Excellence Framework, so modeling what it means to be a lifelong learner, listen to this list of studies and certifications. And he’s gonna be modest, but I’m not. He received his doctorate in education from Cambridge college, Executive Leadership Program at UConn, Harvard Superintendents Institute, the prestigious Howard University National Urban Superintendents Academy in DC, not to mention a bonus Diploma in Business Analytics from Harvard and an Advanced Certificate and Management Innovation and Technology from MIT. Again, he might be too modest to brag about that, but not me. So Dr. Conner, it’s quite an impressive list, but it’s even more impressive to talk to you, in person. So welcome back to the conversation.

Thank you, Jed, thank you for having me. I look at all those resume builders right? Just to deepen the work around the key foundations of what we what we do is to create good learning environments for students. So anything that I can get a piece of or nugget to try to learn and apply for my kids, absolutely. So it’s absolutely great to be here. Jed, good to see you, my friend.

Jed:
My pleasure, thanks. You know, sometimes those are pieces of paper. And sometimes those pieces of paper get you seats at the table, and sometimes they become levers for action. And when I talk about you as a force, Dr. Conner is a passionate advocate who– he asks really complex question, and this is important. He listens intently to their answers. He poses targeted questions to dig deep and challenge beliefs without challenging space and character. One of the quotes I read recently from you, which I really liked, and we’re gonna have you open with that. You said that metabolizing cultural competence in the context of strategic performance management will enlist questions that are uncomfortable. And that discomfort we know breeds innovation, and it’s the kernel and the seed for a lot of the work you’re doing as you take those next steps. So, when we’re readers and listeners when you’re wondering what’s coming next, and how does the research on scientific data make sense of what steps beyond technology integration and where’s education headed, especially post-pandemic. It’s being built right now by Michael so tell us a little bit about your background and most excitingly your next steps?

Michael:
Yeah, no, thank you, Jed, but the you know, the introduction, I really do not like to talk about myself because I always think it’s a collective effort, right. And when we think about divergent systems, learning organizations is inward-outward and inward-outward type of organization appreciates the diversity of perspectives and insights on how to create you know, models for all. So, absolutely, you know, you know, appreciative of all the people that helped get us there, but when we talk about metabolize and cultural competence, right, and you know, whether it be a radical change management reform process, continuous improvement cycle process, or what we say now, strategic performance management, we have to be able to round this level of being closer to relevant, the whole critical why of that is right now, we are educating Generation Z, and generation alpha and Generation Z are your students there are roughly in your incoming freshmen, right, your incoming freshmen, say, sophomores, incoming sophomores and below, okay, and that generation was born into the digital age, right?

That’s when that changed within the digital age where artificial intelligence and technology was grounded, grounded into their everyday life. Moreover, 48% of those students are black and brown students. Now when you get into generation alpha, generation alpha are your fifth graders and below, and they are the first generation fully immersed into the digital age, meaning that they were they had an iPhone in their hand at age one, right? And 50% of those students are black and brown students. So now, because of demographics, associated demographics are shifting nationally. And now we have two generations of students who are fundamentally different from anybody I was born with, the Baby Boom, Generation X, Generation Y, and they are slightly acutely different from millenniums. So our whole fundamental practices has to change, right, strategic performance management has to be grounded in a cultural relevant lens.

Jed:
Not to mention all their educators, right? That’s a critical separation gap between those two populations.

Michael:
And again, right, when we talk about this holistic, comprehensive approach into education now moving into the after COVID stage of education, the first typical year of the post-pandemic error, we have to now… we can’t incrementally or architecturally change the education model like we saw with No Child Left Behind. So goals 22, our goals 2000, even the report that was generated for A Nation at Risk, we saw all of those comprehensive legislative policies go through and only incrementally or even exacerbated some of the most persistent gaps, where we still questioned, separate but equal, right?

During COVID, we saw a connectivity gap, we saw access gaps, we saw urban centers that were operating more remotely than their counterparts in the affluent areas, because why we saw COVID impact disproportionately black and brown families. So again, we saw that level of separate but equal in the Darren COVID stage, we have to be able to radically turn that around, where the model has to be different, the whole strategic process has to be different, and the design has to be different.

Jed:
You know, you if that’s what you’re building, you’re building that model, you’re building the tools because even our greatest leaders will talk about that. It’s beyond an access and equity gap. It’s an opportunity gap. And, okay, just saying it doesn’t doesn’t fix it, you know, acknowledging it maybe puts a spotlight on it, but what you’re really building are the tools for change. And that change, I know that being a change maker, and you know, it can be radical, it can be painful, but it also takes a push.

And as much as you don’t like to talk about yourself, what is it about you, that gives you that courage, that confidence to know that your research is meaningful, is powerful, and to take the work of going to all these different lengths, through both your studies your work professionally, personally, to put you in that position? Because you have not only brought about change, but you know where you’re going?

Michael:
Yeah, yeah, no, I think that is that optimal practice of polarity management, and right, and, you know, not looking at it from an isolated lens, where it’s just education, research, emergent practices, within the education, ecosystem, but also to there’s fundamental learning or great learning in the business science world. And the computer sciences, right? Because if you think about there’s a variety of different ways to define innovation, MIT always defines innovation as a process of taking an idea from inception to impact, right. And also, what I think to innovation can be a coupling or sub definition, is identifying creative solutions by borrowing from different disciplines to address the most persistent gap in your discipline. So now borrow, and layman’s terms, right, borrowing from borrowing next practices from these different sciences and incorporating them into education. Right. So in disrupting some of that traditional education research that we rely heavily on.

And you know, when I talk about some of the research that we rely heavily on, we can actually now apply specific practices from these different disciplines, i.e. research and development. If we want to look at a segment of students, a cohort of students, why are we seeing historically black and brown students with the opportunity to gap in the classroom, we have to go in with data, a data analytics lens that is grounded in science and continuously building capacity to support the leaders and the teachers that are foundational, right? And then to couple that, and that goes back to Ellen Moore’s work around teachers, right? content and knowledge, effectiveness through learning, but also, how can we integrate AI or adaptive software, or these fundamental technologies around emerging technologies that we see how can we integrate that into the instructional model? So that’s where now we have to be able to have that equilibrium of testing research with rapid cycles and using data and analytics to know when to scale and I built a conceptual model to be able to support that to leverage that. It might seem a lot now, but when you unwrap it and unpack it, it’s just not from a theoretical lens or even a conceptual lens. I actually did this work in Middletown.

Jed:
So that model and So we’re going to talk about that because I want to look, I want to hear what that looks like in practice and has looked like for you because you have done it. You’ve lived it. You’ve got that anecdotal, but you’ve also got the research data in case stories and case studies to bring it. You talked about MIT, and I liked that idea of innovation from inception to impact. And of course, I’m just the next logical step after MIT to take that impact to influence right.

Michael:
Well, that’s I mean, that’s, that’s the whole thing. Innovation is like Alan Kay said; you got to create it.

Jed:
Well, you know, and you talk, you use the word Disrupt. And I know you use it really carefully, and really intentionally because some people talk about disruption or being a disrupter, er, or, as, you know, whether it’s upsetting the status quo. And I’ve heard you in the past, we had, we’ve had a conversation where you talked about use the phrase, punctuated equilibrium. And I love that phrase because it carries so much meaning. And, I wonder if you can connect that to this framework model. And tell us a little bit about what it is how it’s intended to be used? Who’s the audience? And then what does it really look like in action?

Michael:
So the Disruptive Excellence Framework, right? I created it just on the premises of strategic disruption. And what I mean by strategic disruption and use of word punctuated equilibrium, taking it from the experimentation level, incremental level, all the way up to system mutation level, which is punctuated its equilibrium that goes through a systematic process, where now you’re reviewing data, making changes necessary for scale. Now, the common, the common misconception of disruption is Jed, you, me we’re going in and we’re blowing up the system. That is not disruption. Right. Disruption is thinking differently about your organization.

That is one of the major disruptors that people go through; they go through that disruption cognitively. Because Jed, let’s say that, you know, your right-hand baseball player, and you were batting 360, now all of a sudden jet, I want you to become this multifaceted player, where now I want you to bet 360, or even better with your left hand, that’s going to take what time, that’s what innovation is, that’s what your theory of disruption has to be over time, because you’re not going to get it accomplished in one year, you’re going to have to test experiment, prototype, go back, assess the implementation with the practitioners that are implementing it, because you’re not this is not a bureaucratic approach. It is a wild like to call it a loose hierarchy, where it is driven from the bottom up. So now that takes time and you’re building a culture of learning simultaneously. So that is the punctuated equilibrium of strategic disruption. But you really have to focus this disruption, not on the heart hardware, ie curriculum, i e, structures or grade levels, i e, resources for teachers, obviously, those are going to advance the disruption. But you have to be intentional with the disruption of software, i.e. mindsets to be under that shared mental model.

Jed:
That’s a lot to unpack. And I love the idea of the building from the bottom up and always crediting the practitioners who are actually delivering it at the end of the day, it is about student-facing educators, right? And I wonder what your advice would be to when you think about that very simplified definition of innovation is thinking differently about organizational change. If there is a classroom teacher or a building, Principal, new season, whatever, who begins to feel like they want to begin to do some of this work, they see change that needs to happen, they see policy that needs to be addressed. But maybe they don’t have the paper in hand. Maybe they don’t have the seat at the table, or they don’t feel excuse me, like their voice. Has that level of amplification that maybe you have or other published authors or researchers have. But they’re passionate. Yeah. What advice would you give to that teacher, administrator leader to begin some of this work? And where can they go to find some of that work to feed their own appetite and really begin to affect some change?

Yeah, yeah. I always tell a lot of people speak up I always tell I used to articulate to my students all the time that, you know, talk, make your voice heard. Because I’m, I’m a believer that generation alpha and Generation Z, they’re going to change the world and the way that they’re speaking now and speaking up, I mean, for me, it is absolutely incredible, right? And that’s what our teacher leaders have to do this what our leaders have to do is continue to speak up because again, if you go back to my sub-area of the definition of innovation, right, borrow on creativity. loosens by borrowing from different disciplines. When we start constructing our organization, why don’t we look at it from a design thinking approach? Where what’s the first fundamental principle and design thinking, empathy, ethnographic approach of understanding your constituents understanding, your most important customers and education? We don’t do that.

Jed, you I, John Salley, we like to hear ourselves talk and throw all these theoretical concepts out, and, you know, put them on a paper and say, This is what we’re doing and implement it right? But are we really getting the design features from our most important customers, and most important practitioners, because it should be, they are giving us the ideologies to drive design and test new systems and structures, because who’s it coming from? It’s coming from the true leaders, our most important customers, and our most important practitioners, they tell us what we need to do, and we create the model for. So I think that now you know, I hope that leadership, the dimensions of leadership, I know agile leadership, shifts that type of focus into the learning organization. So I know that you know, within my within my book, as well as how I define agile leadership, that is, the fundamental premise is that we’re creating a culture of learning, where now that culture of learning is being is being driven from the ground up.

Jed:
I wanted to ask you both about your book, and then about choosing that name, Agile Evolutionary Group. And you talked about a little bit. So tell us a little bit about, I’m sure very intentional name. And about the book. I know it’s underway, and it will be out in print this fall. Tell us a little bit about that project.

Michael:
So the Agile Evolutionary Group is exactly what it sounds right. Yeah, we’re evolutionary, we’re going to evolve new practices, try new scientific approaches in education, and being agile, flexible with it, but also building the system’s capacity as well as leadership and practitioner capacity around being agile in education, because we have to move from a Jeffersonian model that we underpinned in the BC stage of education and sort of in the DC stage of education. But in the after-COVID AC stage of education, we have to create what I like to call an emerging model. And an emergent model is kind of like it aligns to our economies model, right is flexible, is agile, and is ambidextrous and contexts. So now, you know, we seen the evolution of Lyft and Uber, because of the traditional space of taxis. So we have to be that progressive. And what I mean by progressive is evolutionary to be able to now a model that prepares students for what I like to say the future of work, delta 2030 that was outlined.

And the McKinsey, I believe it’s the McKinsey Global Institute, they produce five different reports that were amazing, but it’s true. We’re not preparing our kids for the necessary skills of the future. And then my book, I don’t want to release the title yet. Jed, you kind of know what it is. But it is a book that really tries to prepare leaders and teachers with regards to creating this emerging model, and the AC stage of education. So everything that we were talking about, is actually unpacked. And it’s really contextualized. We’re now you’re hearing the theory and the content, but I’m bringing it in with what I’m calling a case store, the actual implementation process I did using whether it be that specific component of the framework or what I like to call the anchors of innovation sciences. And there are five different anchors that work in this reciprocity with the conceptual framework. So yes, I gave you a jargon-lated answer. I’ll be it. It was on purpose, because I want you to be I want people to unpack it during the as they read the book, so.

Jed:
Yeah, but there’s a difference between jargon in you know, it’s, it’s clear, you know, what you’re talking about, and you as a teacher, you’re teaching it, you’re not just shouting it and you know, you’re preaching and you’re teaching and you’re telling us, you’re proving through the research and through the discussion, that agility and flexibility. In order to have that really be meaningful. That has to be intentional. It needs models, it needs frameworks, it needs systems needs structures, and that’s what your book provides. So don’t confuse agility and flexibility with any sort of unintentional uncertainty.

Michael:
Jed, you know a professor I had at Harvard is name was Michael Tishman, and he wrote the book Lead and Disrupt right, one of the most compelling and provocative professors I’ve had and he always used to say this right? You have to ensure that your learning organization or your organization, within this specific industry, there has to be a level of what he calls ambidexterity. Right? And all aspects or elements of your systems within your learning organization is ambidextrous. We have to model that in education.

Jed:
Leaders have to model that among their leadership too, and how it’s distributed, how it’s how decisions are made. So Dr Michael Conner, if he were to get a tattoo this afternoon, my favorite question, and it reads Dr. Michael Conner, risk taker, rule breaker or change-maker? Yeah, I wonder which it would be does one of these speaks your language, does one of these or no way?

Michael:
Yeah, all three. But it’s funny because when you talk about tattoos, right, I have a tattoo that kind of outlines one of your multiple choice answers that you have. And that has changed the world. So I will consider myself a change agent, but definitely a risk taker, a calculated risk taker that is grounded and various types of analytics to make sure I’m making the best decision for kids with an equity lens.

Jed:
You have every step of the way. And you have a roadmap ahead of what’s going to be happening, you know, this year, next year in the next decades ahead. So it’s such a treat to have you on the conversation. And I’ve loved getting to know you, and I can’t wait for future collaborations and for folks just to hear from you and learn from you as your projects move forward. So congratulations on your launch and the upcoming book as well.

Michael:
Thank you, Jed; I appreciate you, and I look forward to having you read the initial manual that’ll be coming out very soon. And then the launch of the book which is November, so.

Jed:
All right. Stay tuned everyone, and take care. Thanks.