The Dog Days of January

At the beginning of the year, we had a seemingly simple proposal from a student: could she bring her dog in for a day? From this request, we plunged into a storm of community process, ultimately learning a bit about the pros and cons of having dogs at school, and a lot about decision making in community.

To back up for a moment: we're attempting to teach the students how to use the Advice Process, a concept outlined by Frederic Laloux in the wonderful book Reinventing Organizations. It's a method for creating more autonomy, innovation, and simpler community decision making. It aims to avoid both the traditional hierarchy (in which an impossibly large number of decisions center in one person) or the frustrating nature of consensus (in which the cost in time and effort to make any decision or change is often exhausting).

With the advice process, if a community member has an idea they want to try, and presuming it does not violate any of the core values of the organization (e.g. not against our mission, not causing harm), then they have the right to try it, presuming they have identified those who would be affected and requested their advice. They do not have to follow the advice, but they have to request and receive it. The idea is that when people are not worried about convincing or defeating opposition, but rather have the power to try an idea - as part of a community they'll live in for a long time with the results of their decisions - then they will freely choose to consider advice. Compared to a consensus process, when immense effort might be poured out to get everyone to agree (and many good ideas would die along the way) the innovator will also be more likely to try something this way. We use this "advice process" among the adults at school all the time, for example deciding to launch a new program, or try a professional development opportunity; the adult interested in trying something solicits advice and then makes an autonomous decision.

So back to the dog request. First, I bungled things. (A situation which, in addition being common, usually means that some good learning is about to happen). I forgot about the advice process and thought that, perhaps because I assumed most kids would be very excited, we could announce the idea, request feedback, hear a roar of affirmation, and then go ahead with the plan. This is more or less what I advised our student who had raised the idea. Immediately this plan exploded. She shared the idea, many students voiced their approval, and then many voiced their disapproval, and we were left at an impasse. We shared the idea with parents as well and got the same mix - the "go for it!" responses and plenty of "this would be a major distraction, bad idea" responses. Now what? We had made the cardinal mistake of not defining our process in advance. No one knew if we were going to go by majority rule, by consensus, if I would simply make a decision as school head, or what. Some had the sense that because a few people had raised objections, probably the idea should not move forward. But we had also learned in the process that no one had a serious allergy to dogs, and so the greatest danger of "harm" to the community was distraction for a day. Was this potential danger worth shutting down a student's sincere desire to try something at school?

After some more reflection, I realized my mistake was in not having defined a process. At the next morning meeting, I outlined for students the idea of the Advice Process. High time to introduce them to this decision-making tool which defines so much of the culture among the staff. I explained that unless anyone was going to be harmed, or the idea of a dog coming to school would somehow violate our mission or core values as a school, then the student had the right to try the experiment, presuming she led a good advice process. People responded quietly, I think wondering how this would all shake out. That day the student sent out an online survey to all students and faculty requesting advice, and received a wide spectrum of guidance; the majority of students were firmly behind the dog idea, but a vocal minority thought the distraction risk was too great. Faculty were divided as well.

At our morning meeting a few days later, the student shared the results of the advice, and that she would go ahead with the dog day as an experiment in a few days' time. The minority opposition immediately spoke up loudly, and it looked like the decision might again be stopped, as several students piled on to the commentary about how distracting the dog could be. But, I reminded everyone again of the advice process. Knowing the risk of harm was minimal, and prioritizing the opportunity to try something a student was passionate about, we would give this a try.

Two days later, a quiet, older dog appeared at morning meeting, silently nuzzling up against his owner's feet. He remained essentially that way for the entire day. Most people forgot that he was there, others came up to pet him during the day, and a crew of students delighted in playing with him during lunchtime. The distraction fears, at least with this particular dog, turned out to be unfounded. A few weeks have passed and already the dog day has faded from conversation, but I think a deeper lesson remains. The student who proposed the idea realized how vastly more complex community decisions can be than she would ever have imagined - and learned  a valuable lesson about how to navigate them, which she did with resilience and remarkable patience. The community as a whole learned that the loudest voices don't always get to decide an issue, and that there is a value for individual students to bring an innovation, even if unpopular, provided that it doesn't violate our mission and doesn't cause harm. Personally I learned that if I don't help define a process in advance, I'm likely to create a big mess until there's clarity about how a decision gets made. I have no idea whether we'll have a dog visit school again, but I do know that these lessons about decision making will come mightily in handy for students and staff alike in the future. So often we forget to define a decision-making process; I would like to teach (and really learn myself) that how we define this makes all the difference. This may be one of the fundamental skills for being happily in community, and surely that is one of our greatest hopes for our students.