All posts by jonathansmallnichq

I am the Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at NICHQ.

Let the wild rumpus start! Your ideas wanted!

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Those who teach the Model for Improvement often ask, “What will you do by next Tuesday?” It’s a quick way of jump starting the rapid testing that is one of the hallmarks of improvement science. At the end of this post, I offer a “next Tuesday” challenge.

Today, Peter Gloor, founder of the concept of Collaborative Innovation Networks, led a session with NICHQ on how to bring more innovation into our work. (His concept is one of the methods at the core of the Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network to Reduce Infant Mortality, the expansion of which we are honored to be leading.) Peter shared with us his most simple roadmap for innovation, and it went like this:

  1. Collect crazy ideas.
  2. Select the craziest.
  3. Find people willing to work on the craziest ideas.

Peter is an innovative thinker, to say the least. Yet his approaches are also very grounded…

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Life Lessons from a First Grade Teacher

Jonathan Small
Jonathan Small

I will never forget the first time we met Mr. Weinstein, the first grade teacher for three of my four children.

It was open school night, September 1998. He was still a young man, but he was already quite celebrated in our school district. Even then his reputation was so large that I half expected Superman to walk into the class.

My wife and I and all the other parents were awkwardly seated in the little kiddie chairs, our knees in our chests, in a semi-circle at the front of the room. After introducing himself, the teacher opened with these memorable words: “Let me begin by telling you about my big goals for this year.”

Big goals for first grade? Seriously? I immediately began searching my assumptions about what I expected my child to achieve in first grade. My mind went to the usual suspects, the three R’s: some reading, some writing, some ‘rithmetic. But the teacher had a different agenda.

“My first big goal,” he said, “is that they become good citizens of this community. Because that’s what we have here in this classroom – a little community – and I want them to learn how to get along with one another, appreciate each other, and be productive members of the community.”

Wow, I thought. Hard to argue with that. What else has he got?

“My second big goal,” he said, “is that they develop a love for learning – because once they have that, the reading, writing and ‘rithmetic will all follow.”

So true, I thought as the chills started crawling up my back. What could possibly top this? What’s left?

“My third big goal,” he continued, “is that I want your children to fail.” Huh? He went on: “I want them to develop resilience for failure. Because that’s how they learn – by trying and failing.”

I was dumbfounded. His words were so simple, so true, so right on.

But more important than his words were his actions. We had the daily pleasure of seeing his big goals play out in every assignment, every decision, every moment in that classroom. His strong leadership vision was clearly articulated and he followed-through. Without question, the experiences in that classroom changed our children’s lives.

My eldest son is now 22 years old (hard to believe!) and yet I remember that day a decade and a half ago like it was yesterday. So inspired was I by the simple wisdom and clear vision of this special teacher.

These many years later, the life lessons I learned from this teacher are still profoundly influential, especially when viewed through the lens of quality improvement, a framework I would learn later in life:

  1. Think big and set bold aims.
  2. See the big picture and don’t get stuck in the small stuff.
  3. Share your vision with others so we can journey together.
  4. Make the complex simple so everyone can be inspired.
  5. Ensure your daily actions support your long-term vision.
  6. Don’t be afraid to fail because that’s how we learn and grow.
  7. The journey is as important as the destination.
  8. Take care of the people with whom you share your journey.  In the end, it’s all about them.

And I will add one more: don’t be surprised to learn lessons from unexpected sources. After all, who would have thought I could learn so much from my kids’ first grade teacher?

Far From Gold Medal Performance

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Jonathan Small

The Olympics were a source of great pride and entertainment for millions of people around the world. I was personally glued to the TV for two weeks and was filled with admiration and respect for these impressive athletes. I frequently found myself thinking about all the hard work and sacrifices needed for them to reach the pinnacle of their sport. I was inspired.

And then the director cut to commercial and I had the displeasure of seeing this ad from Cadillac. In it, actor Neal McDonough glorifies the value of hard work while berating the more leisurely lifestyle of other countries:

Other countries, they work. They stroll home. They stop by the café. They take August off. Off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy-driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.

Then as he revs up his spanking new electric Caddy in the driveway of his ultra luxury home, he ponders the acquisition of material goods and posits they are “the upside of only taking two weeks off in August, n’est-ce pas?”

OK, fine. But what’s the downside? What price does our society pay for discouraging leisure time and mental health days? How much social capital do we lose when we don’t stop by the café?  How many families have dissolved under the pressure of our cultural norms? How many children lack the support systems necessary to achieve their optimal health? And don’t even get me started about maternity leave and childcare benefits.

The US has higher rates of infant mortality and childhood obesity than most other industrialized nations and lags behind in breastfeeding rates as well. These statistics are nothing to brag about. When viewed through a disparities lens, they are even more troubling. For example, the risk of infant death for babies born to non-Hispanic black women is more than two times greater than the risk of infant death for non-Hispanic white women. That’s horrific and embarrassing.

Maybe these “other countries” have something figured out about life balance, n’est-ce pas?

Certainly there is reason for optimism. Recent reports show obesity rates coming down and breastfeeding rates on the rise.  Infant mortality rates are also moving in the right direction and we are confident national initiatives will continue to drive them down.

But we have a long way to go before we get a gold medal in child health outcomes. I suggest we begin in a humble place – with the recognition that, while we may have much to teach other countries, we also have a lot to learn. Of course, this approach would not be very effective for selling cars.