Ahoy Mate! Systems Thinking Tools for Checking in With Your Crew

Our role as school leaders often make us feel like we are Pirates of the Caribbean.  We don our eyepatches and swing from the ships’ masts continually navigating uncharted waters. Surrounding ourselves with the right crew is essential, and we build that crew by strategically deploying open, closed, and random-strategic systems as the situation calls for to progressively move forward. The pirate crew that Jack Sparrow assembled to chase the Black Pearl functioned within all these three systems. But even on a pirate ship, everyone has a voice.

In the book, Schools That Learn (2000), co-authors Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton and Kleiner, recognize that open systems give voice. Within this open system, there exists a nested system inclusive of all school stakeholders. Therefore, when we look at any type of issue, project, challenge and new venture, a school leader can ask the crew how does this impact the nested system? How permeable is the system to the issue, project, challenge or venture?

Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education . Crown Publishing Group.

Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education . Crown Publishing Group.

These authors also acknowledge that giving voice through an open, nested system is critical to success. As a school leader, how do you give voice to your crew?

One systems thinking tool to consider using during your next meeting, conversation or discussion is called the Check-In.  You will no longer have to steal, rob or plunder to figure out what your crew is thinking. You will simply check-in to access everyone’s voice - even those who never talk.  A Check-in gets our voices out there into the world. Check-ins also help to build relationships and connect people to each other. Examples of Check-ins to use include:

  • What are you currently banging your head against?

  • What should our organization be celebrating?

  • What inspires you?

  • How is your personal weather (sunny, cloudy, rainy, foggy) today?

  • What do you feel best about regarding our current work?

To facilitate a Check-In, a question is presented and those attending the meeting or participating in the conversation or discussion respond. A Check-in usually starts with a volunteer and then the group proceeds around the circle or room. Individuals can choose not to speak and pass their turn. After everyone has responded, another opportunity is afforded to those who initially passed.  Tim Lucas, co-author of Schools That Learn, recently said “Once you get people thinking and talking, continue to nurturing this thinking by engaging people into more conversations. Developing an organization is a by-product of good conversations.”

Let us know how your Check-in worked!

- Dr. Cathy Keegan

Dr. Cathy Keegan

Dr. Cathy S. Keegan, practitioner and author, currently serves as the Superintendent of the Milton Area

School District, Milton, PA, after taking the helm in June 2010. Working with Systems Thinking and Systems

Thinking Tools since 2005, she believes that everyday school leaders face messy and chaotic challenges,

situations, events, and problems. All school leaders need a decision-making framework and tools to

navigate confidently through these complex situations to reach an effective resolution.