What does it mean to “Build Capacity?” – the story of Vancouver’s Sectoral Review

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: April 6th 2012

My grandfather was a teacher. I asked him once what it took to be a great teacher. With a gleeful squint that only he had, he looked at me and said “Just stay out of their light son. Don’t get in their way.”

I have reflected many times on his words. Now, as I look at and write about district and school-based leadership, it remains good advice and, perhaps is at the core of capacity building. I have revised his saying a bit but first, here is what I think is a good example of capacity building, what it looks like and how it unfolds.

A year ago, the Vancouver Board of Education suggested that we embark upon a “Sectoral Review” which is an examination of all aspects of our school system. They wanted us to look at programs, facilities, demographics and to make suggestions for how we might proceed into the future in a large urban district. The end result was two things, the OurFuture website, and the final report on the Sectoral Review. But these items really are just products of the sectoral review. Again, I want to talk about the story behind the reports.

When the sectoral review was launched, the Board allocated a budget. With this budget, we hired 3 people full time to work on the process and the report and we reassigned someone else from within the organization to the team. We also took advantage of our “Field Services” division and formed really a bit of an advisory team to the vision for the sectoral review. Our first task – to develop an online presence for the Sectoral Review as a precursor to public consultation.

In our first meeting, we drafted the vision for what the sectoral review website could be. This was a leap for people as the timeline was short (October – December) and the vision grandiose. We wanted a graphical interface for people to be able to find out information about Vancouver schools, our programs and community and we wanted it up in 2-3 months. We wanted a one-stop-shop for information about Vancouver schools that was easy to navigate and comprehensive. Oh, and did I mention we wanted an online forum for public consultation as well as part of the site?

When we began, we met a few times and as we all grappled with the reality of what the vision might actually become. Everyone in the room was asked for input, guidance, and their own vision of what was possible.  As each member went about their own tasks, graphical design, programming, information collating and formatting, what we learned was that each member of the team really had valuable insights in terms of what could and could not work. The Field Services team and their knowledge of schools, programs, and what types of information the public would normally want to know was critical.

But in this process, I think the most important thing I learned (again) was how that if you craft a vision with people and empower them to be creative in pursuit of that vision, great things will emerge. The website, in the end, was more than I ever hoped it would be and the team met all timelines which in many ways were incredibly tight.

This success is completely because the team made it so. It is also because they had one defined task that they were trying to resolve as a small core group. As a leader in this group, all I did was help co-craft the vision many times with the team and then simply got out of their way so that they could do great stuff. I didn’t meddle too much, and I was there when they needed me.

Now that I look back, we have created a core team of experts. I look forward to their next task as they have not only solidified as experts in design, but they are a great team. So what did that capacity building look like? Just like my grandfather told me years ago, “just stay out of their light.” I said I added to his vision and I hope he doesn’t mind. I think that as a leader, it is also your responsibility to shine the light on things that matter. To the team, they probably never would have succeeded in the vision if they didn’t know what the vision was. I had to clarify, justify, mull, revamp, always with them so that they knew the thinking. They knew what we wanted as a district. So I hope that I shone light on the direction, then simply got out of their way so that they could take us there.

So what is capacity building? – it’s sharing in a vision, co-creating and empowering people in pursuit of that vision. It’s checking in with them to see how they are doing and if they need more guidance, support or just feedback on their ideas. It’s trusting that as a collective, the output is so much richer than any one individual can do. It’s holding each other accountable for results and celebrating our successes and being our own critical friends. In short, it’s like a team all pulling in one direction.

I believe we built capacity as a team and I’ll let the products speak for themselves. I encourage readers to have a look at what the team did through the links above.

In the end, I think that William Tinney from Langley and Carcross would have been proud.

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