Is A Paperless Office Possible?

The dream of having a paperless office has been around for decades, yet it seems that as each year passes, we end up with more paper, not less.

Case in point: when my district went to an all-online job application system, instead of getting 250 hardcopy pages in the mail, I’d have to print 500 or so pages of application materials. Going electronic actually created more paper.

That’s consistent with the findings of researchers Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, whose book The Myth of the Paperless Office gives a fairly clear spoiler in the title.

Sellen and Harper found that email actually increases paper usage by an average of 40%, and if you think about other ways that digital tools can generate information—such as assessment reports—it’s no surprise that we’re inundated with paper.

What About Scanning?

But we’d all like to have less paper lying around, so why don’t we just scan it all?

There are, in fact, good reasons not to scan everything. Sellen and Harper introduce the idea of affordances—the practical benefits of paper, such as the ability to actually flip through a report that you’re holding in your hands, versus simply scrolling through a PDF file.

Chances are that most of your paper doesn’t need to be scanned, because it:

  • Doesn’t require any action, or
  • Requires action that needs to be done on the hardcopy itself, like filling out a form, or
  • Doesn’t get any easier or less time-consuming when converted into digital format—like reading

So what can you do with it?

The Paper(Less) Office Makeover

Over at The Principal Center, I’m offering a free 7-day online course called The Paper(Less) Office Makeover:

The Paper(Less) Office Makeover

You can start this course any time, and you’ll get a new lesson every day. There’s a PDF workbook—which you may want to (GASP!) print—and a video for each day, to help you implement high-performance systems and strategies for managing paper less, even if you can’t manage less paper.

We’ll explore:

  • The essential tools to keep within arm’s reach so you can optimize your paper-based workflow
  • How to use digital tools to keep track of your paper-based work, without lots of scanning or duplicated effort
  • The real reason most paperwork sits around far too long
  • How you can cut your filing time (and your secretary’s) by 99%, without making it any harder to find what you’re looking for
  • How to “snooze” a hardcopy document so it shows up precisely when you want to see it—even weeks or months from now—and it’s off of your desk in the meantime

Learn more »

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Real Firefighting: Leadership as Creative and Reactive Work

Firefighter 600

I love being part of the profession of school administration, but the word “administrator” is a little too paper-pusher-ey for my tastes. That’s why, like many people, I prefer the term “school leader.”

Leadership is inherently creative work. We’re not just pushing the buttons that someone else in our bureaucracy told us to push. We’re not just shuffling paper around to make work for ourselves and our direct reports.

We got into this line of work to make a difference for students, and that’s absolutely creative work.

Most of us feel a tension between the creative, or leadership, and reactionary, or administrative, sides of our work. Sometimes we feel that we’re spending too much time fighting fires, and not enough creating solutions to the most pressing challenges our schools face.

When we’re spending too much time in reactive, firefighting mode, perhaps it’s because we haven’t yet done the creative leadership work that it will take to solve the unsolved problems in our schools. And often that’s because they’re big, hairy problems.

We’ll never completely eliminate the need for reactive work. As school administrators, we’ll always deal with problems, conflicts, and other issues that are simply the result of human nature.

But for every school leader, there’s an optimal balance between dealing with the crises of the moment, and investing in the changes that will get those challenges under control for good. Firefighters know this lesson well.

How Firefighters Fight Fires Today

Let’s be honest about the “firefighter” metaphor: firefighters aren’t entirely reactionary. Consider the dramatic reduction in deaths by fire over the past 30 years:
FEMA fire stats

Do you think that better reactive firefighting is solely responsible for that improvement? Are firefighters driving faster and spraying more water?

No. These improvements are almost entirely due to prevention efforts. And figuring out how to prevent a problem—especially one that has always existed—is highly creative work.

On a day-to-day basis, the firefighter with the clipboard probably saves more lives—by ensuring that the right policies and procedures are in place—than the firefighter with the hose.

Some of these solutions are cultural, such as helping people understand that they shouldn’t smoke in bed, while other solutions are policy-based, such as building codes.

Prevention doesn’t eliminate the need for firefighters, just as having great systems in place in your school will not prevent you from having to respond to problems on a day-to-day basis. But it makes an enormous difference in the results you get.

Solving Problems As Creative Work

Leadership’s creative work usually involves building systems of some type, by developing policies, procedures, norms, expectations, and roles that will keep the predictable problems under control.

Some of these are basic, like ensuring adequate supervision when students are getting on and off the school bus.

Others are more nuanced, like creating a culture where ideas can flow freely in a staff meeting.

Both require systems, not just effective reactions or charisma. Both require thinking ahead about the kind of school we want to have, and doing whatever it takes to create that reality.

Over the next 12 months, I’ll be working with an amazing group of school leaders in the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Registration is currently open, and you’ll want to join by the end of the month so you don’t miss out. We’ll explore how we can build systems for high performance, solving problems at the organizational level, and how you can transform your productivity to multiply your impact. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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Should You Turn This Year’s Regrets Into Next Year’s Agenda?

One of the most critical starting points for high-performance instructional leadership is having a focused leadership agenda. If you don’t have a well-defined sense of what you’re focused on, everything that you’re not focused on will gradually creep in. The principalship—and the work of schools in general—is subject to the Ratchet Effect: once the “ratchet” […]

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How (Not) To Differentiate Your Leadership with Staff

As leaders, we achieve most of our results indirectly. I don’t teach reading or math or art; I ensure that reading and math and art are taught well. We work through relationships and systems to turn our daily work into results for students. But that impact isn’t distributed evenly. Teachers are not mere conduits for […]

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The $10 Experiment for Giving Something Up

Scope creep. “Other duties as assigned.” Coverage. Little tasks and duties get added to our calendars, and over time, this can take up quite a bit of a principal’s week. We’re all team players and don’t want to ask our staff to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves…but sometimes we end up spending our time […]

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80/20 Hacking: The Power of Process

We do much of what we do as school leaders simply because it’s expected. Not because we’ve carefully decided exactly how to spend our time, or carefully considered what leadership actions will have the greatest impact, but simply because we’re supposed to. As much as we might want to be redesign our roles from scratch, […]

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Likely Success

Part 5 in a series by Steve Peha (see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) In our last piece, we talked about that all-important initial group of change agents in our schools: Willing Starters. Without them, nothing starts (at least not willingly). But without the next group, the Likely Followers, nothing continues. Likely Followers may […]

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4 Smart Ways to Hire Well When Hiring Late

You may have started your hiring process months ago, even in January or February. You may have filled all the vacant positions. But then the “Can we talk?” meetings start. “I’ve decided that it’s time to retire.” “My family is moving to another state.” “I decided to take another position.” And you have an unexpected […]

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Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

Part 4 in a series by Steve Peha (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) In general, I bristle at well-worn clichés, but one has always stuck with me in education: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” In the hundreds of schools where I’ve worked, and the dozens more I’ve visited, I have come […]

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5 Ways to Ship Great Work

Justin’s most recent post was about doing great work. This is something that is deeply important to me whether I’m working in the classroom or not. So I thought I’d share five things that seem to make a big difference in the quality of work that both children and adults produce. Justin made the point via […]

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Shipping Great Work

The late Steve Jobs and the companies he founded are known for inventing countless great technologies. Great ideas are important, but they’re not the final determinant of achievement. Most inventors are remembered as tinkerers, not history-makers. Jobs knew the difference, which he summed up like this: All the creative genius in the world isn’t worth […]

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What’s In A Name?

Part 3 in a series by Steve Peha (see Part 1 & Part 2) In my first post, I defined effective PD as “getting the right information to the right people at the right time.” I also talked about how Dr. Everett Rogers’ research on change within groups and levels of receptivity to change held […]

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7 Focal Points for High-Performance Instructional Leadership

If you want to be a better school leader, where can you focus? We have plenty of opportunities, but they often get lumped together in unhelpful ways. Here are 7 key concepts that can help you sort through the possibilities. Time Allocation Allocation is about devoting your time to the right work. When we talk […]

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How To Take Shorter Showers

If you want to get more done in less time, step one is to provide less time. Aboard the USS John C. Stennis, a US Navy aircraft carrier, a 2002 water shortage (documented in This American Life) forced sailors to reduce their water consumption by taking shorter showers. Two-minute showers, to be precise. How do […]

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Work Piling Up? 5 Ways To Eliminate Backlogs

Why do we keep up with some aspects of our work as instructional leaders, but fall far behind in others? It’s not about priority, and it’s not always even about urgency. Using the Four Quadrants to decide what’s most important (if not the most urgent) is a start, but it won’t solve our problem with […]

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