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Book Review: Leading with the Social Brain in Mind by Dr Joanne Casey

From the Editor:

Here at the EAPJ, we look for material that we believe is useful for the ongoing learning and development of Enterprise Architecture practitioners. Some are directly related to the practice of EA, and others add a different persepctive on the situations in which EA is practiced. In this case, we are discussing a book by Dr Joanne Casey, released in mid 2023.

Entitled “Leading with the Social Brain in Mind – Cognition, complexity and collaboration in schools”, it provides the reader with Dr Casey’s material from her PhD thesis, written in a highly accessible way and for a specific audience: leaders in schools. Having had numerous conversations with the author regarding her work, I was very interested to see how this material might translate into the context of an Enterprise Architecture based approach to change in other types of organisations.

What I found were tremendous parallels in the considerations of an EA, from understanding the behaviours related to silos, to the cognitive loads placed on people involved in change, the value and limitations of relationship building, and ensuring that people impacted by change are involved in the process.

Rather than give my own reflections on the book, I asked Dr Casey if she would like to do an interview to discuss how this exceptionally grounded material could be related to what we do as Enterprise Architects. I hope you enjoy reading it.

You can get your own copy of Dr Casey’s book here:

JC: I began teaching in 1985 as a Primary School teacher in Catholic Education in QLD. I am not Catholic but went to a Catholic Teacher’s College. I share this because it was one of the first times that I got a sense that I was a “different” to those around me. It was also the beginnings of my interest in silos. After teaching in this system for about ten years I moved to the Independent sector and taught for a further nine years in an Anglican School on the Sunshine Coast. I then moved to Education QLD and worked in a large Prep to Year 12 College. I was with Education QLD for about ten years but in a part time capacity. Although I began as a teacher I moved into middle leadership roles. At the same time, I was working part time at the local university and as a consultant. Each role supported and extended my knowledge and skill sets and complemented the work I was undertaking.

The key point here is that I have been in diverse school and various education settings across Australia. I have been privileged to support school leaders and teachers to implement curriculum and pedagogical changes in their contexts. This made me an outsider but gave me unique perspectives and insights because I was an insider to education. In my own school context, I was able to see firsthand, and in an ongoing manner, the successes and the challenges of implementing change to improve student outcomes. Moving among and back and forth through these different contexts and perspectives fed my curiosity and my passion for further study.

JC: My motivation for writing this book was simple – to translate my PhD thesis with a specific audience in mind. I was targeting school leaders. They are the ones that are tasked with implementing policy and consequently the changes associated with this. However, school leaders do not always feel adequately supported, knowledgeable or skilled to undertake the work. However, what I found whilst I was undertaking my PhD was that the themes that were emerging in an education context appeared to be similar for different industries.

JC: Yes, I have always been interested/curious about industries outside of education and with friends and family I have been fortunate to be part of conversations that have explored what it’s like for them in their respective workplaces – health, accountancy, project management for large mining companies, government departments, sporting organisations, financial institutions… It seemed that these conversations had common themes despite them being very different industries with different purposes. I also placed a shout out on social media (LinkedIn and X formerly Twitter) for people to reach out if they had experience of these themes in their own work places.

JC: I talk about cognitive load in terms of the amount of information our working memory can hold at any one time. Collaboration places high cognitive demands on teams, as they must manage complex relationships and information flows. This can lead to fatigue and burnout if not addressed.

I remember being at a workshop where the presenter illustrated the concept by using a glass and pouring water in to it. The presenter asked to imagine that the glass was our working memory, and the water was information being taken in. He did this process twice. The first time, he began to pour the water into the glass and said this represented all information that our five senses inundated us with. He kept pouring and eventually the water spilled over the top of the glass and onto the carpet. We were aghast. He paused and took a mouthful of water. He swallowed and took another mouthful. He repeated this process a couple of times and then began to pour more water into the glass. He explained that like pouring the water into the glass, if we don’t stop, pause and process incoming information, our brain “overflows” and the information can be lost. It is much more impressive when you see this being demonstrated! Simply put, too much too fast won’t last (Jensen, 2000).

If we think about this from an organisational viewpoint, we can see that there are many components in the day-to-day work that we do and for convenience we categorise these components into functions. However, this can underestimate the workload intensity for individuals and teams. For leaders, it can seem a straightforward task to complete and yet for those doing the work, the task can be multilayered and much more complex than leaders first described or imagined. If leaders want to circumvent overload and burnout, then being open to and actively listening to those doing the work and the issues they might see is invaluable. If leaders can support those doing the work in problem solving and workshopping solutions, then there is usually more professional investment from those individuals. A win-win all around!

JC: Dunbar’s research on social group sizes and cognitive capacity is fascinating. It highlights that our brains can realistically maintain only a finite number of relationships at any one time – this includes professional and personal lives collectively.

Social complexity is underestimated! We acknowledge that communication is important and yet we can ignore the effort, attention and energy that it takes to make oneself understood at any time, let alone in a fast-paced work environment. Assumptions and inferences are a normal part of our interactions (theory of mind) but this can be amplified in the absence of time and multiple demands vying for our attention. The number and different types of interactions mean individuals are switching their cognitive resources in efforts to meet the needs for that interaction or interactions. For example, different roles may not interact often, but it is necessary for them to collaborate, or problem solve issues across their different departments. This can be a very painful or painless occurrence depending upon the relational trust that each party attributes to this particular relationship. In addition, the time frames and outcomes can be unreasonable. Misunderstandings, miscommunication and mistrust can be a result of poorly maintained relationships across and within organisations. Part of the problem is that as an organisation gets larger, it has more layers. More layers means more components that people are interacting with – either directly or indirectly.

When individuals are familiar with the processes and systems of their workplace they usually require less energy and attention to be distributed to these demands, but when organisational change comes into the mix this becomes an additional layer with more cognitive effort required.  In other words, they are having to spread their effort, attention and energy among many layers (relationships, systems and processes). I am not convinced that Leaders take this into account when designing and implementing change. I wonder what change might look like if there was an intentional focus on these aspects.

JC: Silos are beneficial because this is where expertise can germinate and then continue to grow. However, they can also lead to “expert blindness”. Silos also act as a protection mechanism for information overload. I always think about the straw that broke the camels back…the larger the organisation, the more layers and components. Leaders/CEO’s put in more structures and systems to provide solutions to areas of need or problems to address. Dunbar’s number and his work illustrates who we determine as “close”. This is related to ease of access (geography), how often we interact, why we see a need to interact (perceived mutual reciprocity) and how much we believe we have in common. We stick to those who are like us. We mistrust those who are different. This is an evolutionary piece…our brain protects us. It is built for our survival. That can be problematic for broadening our knowledge and experiences…we can fear the unfamiliar. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying this is how it always is. What I am saying is that we have to consciously be open to that which is different. That takes cognitive energy, effort and attention. Sometimes silos are a result of staying with the familiar because that takes less energy, effort and attention. The key is recognizing when silos no longer serve organizational cohesion and adapting structures to enhance communication. Silos fail when teams cannot see interdependencies or share knowledge. This is where I believe enterprise architecture is imperative. The ability to see the big picture and how the pieces fit together can mitigate the issues that can arise when leaders ignore or do not recognise silos becoming problematic.

JC: I am familiar with these approaches and am always curious about the names given to them. I often wonder how these approaches are implemented with authenticity and fidelity. My experience and research in education suggests that approaches used for change are hijacked, watered down, misinterpreted and generally sliced and diced for the quickest implementation. I suppose you can say I am sceptical about the “why” leaders choose to use these approaches. I often wonder if it is because their underpinning values and beliefs are aligned with the approaches or is it because it is the latest fad that has come to town and appears to be the silver bullet or a quick fix. Irrespective of the approach “Leading with the Social Brain in Mind” acknowledges that all relationships matter. Our interactions (or lack of them) shape and misshape the way, and who, we are in the world. As a leader, this influences the culture that develops and is maintained within the organisation. How we go about change says a lot about what we think is important about the people in our organisation. Leaders’ actions and investments in collaborative interactions illustrate what is prioritised and what is not (consciously and unconsciously, implicitly and explicitly).

JC: Yes, educators often use the term “digital transformation” to describe the process of integrating digital technologies into various aspects of education. However, I think teachers and school leaders have a love/hate relationship with it. What can appear to be an amazing tool that will better meet the needs of students, engage learners, and prepare them for a digitally driven world, can be a distraction, an additional frustration for both the teacher and the student, and generally another layer to the complex workload of teachers. Usually the technology is “dumped” on teachers, rather than giving them time to learn how to use the tool and how they might adapt it to what they already do. Over time, I have seen tools that have the potential to support teachers in their work become administrative nightmares that are more about political agendas than the students they are supposed to serve.

JC: Strategies and policies are only as good as those that implement them…so as someone who has been tasked with implementing strategies and polices I would suggest that it is important that there is a shared understanding of what it looks like, sounds like and feels like to do this work in this context. This might mean we look for examples of how others have implemented things and take the time to have conversations that explore what went on in other contexts similar and different to our own. For the authors of policy and strategy, be cognizant that there will be many interpretations of these documents because each person brings their own knowledge and experience of the subject. Therefore, it is important that there is a shared understanding built around key messages and that these are revisited regularly. You can not set and forget shared understandings. It seems counter intuitive but over time these understandings can become wobbly with changes to staff and operations. It’s important to review, reflect and refine where needed.

JC: Leaders investing in their own learning about collaboration. There can be many different understandings and practices within organisations of the purpose of collaboration in different contexts. I have witnessed and experienced high quality and effective collaboration when there is a shared understanding of what we mean by collaboration in our context – what that looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Codesigning protocols and investing in the time to do the work also contributes immensely to success. What leaders need to recognise, and intentionally address, is how these collaborative endeavours add value whilst balancing with number of components that make up a person’s workload. If leaders are not strategic in their thinking and their actions, they run the risk of working with false economies.

JC: Organisational change is profoundly human. While structures and technologies catalyze transformation, success depends on understanding people’s innate social motivations and cognitive capacities. Enable connection, demonstrate trust, promote well-being. The brain is the most complex system in any enterprise. Lead accordingly.

About the Author:

Dr Joanne Casey is a research practitioner working in a range of contexts to support the implementation of school improvement initiatives. Joanne calls upon extensive experience working in three sectors of education (Government, Catholic and Independent) across primary, secondary and tertiary settings and applying social brain theory to understand the impact change has on both the individual and the organisation. Her doctoral research focused on associations among cognitive limitations for interactions, collaboration as an improvement strategy, and silo mentality in school contexts (with a particular focus on secondary school contexts).

Joanne’s doctoral interests have lead her to exploring Wardley Mapping and being part of a research group looking at “Making the Right Investment Choices in a Hybrid Technology World”. Prior to this, she came across the work of Gert Biesta and was invited to participate in a reading group exploring Gert’s latest work “World-Centred Education”. Whilst vastly different in their focus, in both cases Joanne has enjoyed the international make up of these groups and more specifically the diversity that this brings to the work they have been undertaking. Joanne values how these “hobbies” have stretched her abilities, skill sets and introduced her to new ideas from amazing thinkers.

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