Clarify Canvas

A clarify canvas helps to unpack and improve an improvement idea by addressing four essential elements: impact; problem; change; and evidence.

Transcript of video

In this training, what I want to do is get right to the core of one of the most important improvement tools we use, and that is to clarify canvas. If I were to ask you and maybe members of your team to take 20 minutes out to do some strategic thinking that can help you to get to a greater level of clarity about what you’re really trying to do in your improvement work, I wonder what you would do. Would you take out pen and paper? Would there be some post-it notes up on walls? Would you just kind of have a conversation and open up some fresh thinking? Well, having coached thousands of improvement teams now over the last decade or so, one of the simplest ways I find to get people to focus in and to make good productive use of time is to use the clarify canvas.

Now, of course, within our model, we know that one of the biggest impediments to quality sustainable improvement work is strategic confusion. And one of the remarkable things is there’s almost no school on the planet that I’ve ever worked on that doesn’t have an improvement plan. But having a plan in a document uploaded somewhere doesn’t mean you’ve got a shared understanding of the nature of the work we’re engaged in. So how do we move from that strategic confusion? How do we get into a clear thinking space? Well, the four boxes of the clarify canvas or assure positive way to do that work, the four boxes represent some of the most important questions to ask in any improvement work, whether it’s small scale improvement work, making a tweak to something, whether it’s large multi-year commitments to a change journey, you can use this canvas to get clear about what you’re really trying to do.

The deceptively simple thing here that sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking. The more we write, writing out a whole PowerPoint deck of our strategy or a multi-page plan, we get all that detail in that. Somehow we will have convinced ourself that we really know what we’re trying to do. But I find it’s often the opposite that often it’s harder to write something short, precise, and clear. And so in the clarified canvas, there is an opportunity to take what’s in your head and to get it down on the canvas. And that’s the whole rhythm I want you to get used to. And if you’ve been using this before and trying to get back into the rhythm of using it, remember the first and foremost use of the clarified canvas is to capture what is in your mind or what is occurring in the conversation in your team and capture it down.

Get it down on the canvas, get it on Post-it notes, stick those post-it notes onto the canvas. Get someone writing. Live into the boxes. If you’re using a digital version, get it up there. Just focus on capturing. Once you’ve captured, you can develop it and after that you can sharpen it again. So when we’re capturing it, when we’re developing it, when we’re sharpening, we’re working in one of four boxes. The four essential questions for cracking the clarity code. And those four questions are these, what impact do you want to have? What problem you want to solve? What change could we make that will result in improvement? And what evidence, what evidence will help us judge whether or not we have been successful? These four questions help tidy up our thinking and to make sure we have the four components of a well-structured promising improvement idea.

There’s often one of these that we feel most confident about, one that we’ve already got a lot of answers to. Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing a lot of work in the problem and so we actually have a lot of thoughts about what’s the problem we want to solve. Maybe we’ve been doing some thinking about our aspirations for change and so we’re really, really clear about the impact. Or at other times if we’re honest, we’ve already kind of got our solution. And so we’re really clear about all the changes we want to make but don’t tell anyone, but we’re not quite sure about exactly the problem that this solves. And what I wanted to say is that the best way is the canvas is just, there’s no judgement here. Just be okay with the way you’re approaching it, whether it’s a new idea or an idea that’s been around for years.

Just try to get it down. Try to see whether you can get down some ideas about what’s the impact you want to have and hey, wherever possible here. Trying to focus on who are the humans you’re trying to impact. Is it about the learners? Is it about the teachers? Is it about mid-level leaders, it about parents? What is the real focus of the improvement work here? What impact do you want to have and on whom? And then you think about what problems are we trying to solve? Remember, we don’t want to just describe symptoms. We want to get down to what’s often called the root causes or the underlying reasons. Why is it that we’re not already seeing our impact given all the stuff we’re already doing? Well, there must be a problem or some problems in the way in the change box. What changes could we make that will result in improvement?

Are we thinking about changes here around how we allocate time, how we get roles and responsibilities? Are we thinking about professional learning and development? Are we thinking about forms of tools and resources that could make our work easier? What are we trying to do here? What’s our view of the change that could solve the problem? And of course, lastly, evidence in the clarify canvas. We’re not asking ourselves to come up with a detailed evidence evaluation plan. No, just a sentence or two would be fine. Thanks very much. How will we judge whether or not we’ve been successful?

How will we know whether we’ve got there? We’ve got to get a sense of the metrics that matter that will let us know whether we’ve ended at least this first phase of our improvement journey. Well, as you either begin using the clarify canvas again or by actually getting going for the first time, a couple of things to remind yourself. Firstly, just go for about 10 to 25 minutes and always set a timer. Even if you kind of get to the end of the time, allocate and feel like, Hey, I want to go again, just take a pause and then perhaps do another iteration, but be okay with doing short focused capturing and developing of ideas. Secondly, be okay with good enough thinking. You’ve got to be kind to yourselves. I often find it so much harder to do clarify canvases on my work versus someone else’s, and that’s normal.

Sometimes we’re so close to the work, we’re a bit confused. So just say to yourself, I need to just always, no matter whether it’s my first clarify canvas or my third for this improvement idea, just be okay with good enough thinking. Don’t judge your thinking on the way out at this point. You’ll want to just get it out and capture it in whatever you think might be the right box. And if you’re doing an iteration of the canvas, again, be okay just slowly and incrementally. Try to go with good enough thinking and let it improve over time. That is really at the heart of thinking in clarify canvases. That’s what I want you to do to get in the habit of not doing one clarify canvas that’s done. I want this to be a normal practise. When you are thinking about an improvement idea, when someone else brings an improvement idea to you or you’re playing around with ideas, I want you to think, grab a clarified canvas, get those ideas in there, and then over time, do another one.

Do another one, do another one. I had a member in our community the other day ask, should I keep all my old ones? And I said, yeah, I love the idea. Actually, if you’re working on one idea over time, why not? If you’re working in hard copies, why not staple them behind? And so you’ve got the track record of how you’ve been updating it. If you’re working on digital versions, why not keep some of the older versions? It’s a great way to convince yourself of the programme and logic that I’m suggesting here, which is actually, if you trust just to get your good enough ideas down, and then you are willing to do multiple iterations over time with a gap in between, you will improve and refine your improvement thinking. And sometimes keeping those copies is a really great way to prove to yourself that that’s true. So the clarified canvas is a really powerful way to think around how you’re actually going to have improvement in your context. It’s important to keep the clarify each canvas focused on just one improvement project or initiative at a time. Try to write some meta canvas that covers everything you’re doing.

The clarify canvas is designed to capture just one improvement project, one improvement initiative at a time. And sometimes if it’s too big, you might need to break it down into some smaller projects, some doable, actionable projects and refine them up around their impact, their problem, their change, and their evidence. When I find the timer goes off and I’ve done my 15 minutes, my 25 minutes, I ask myself, and you can ask your team, Hey, did we crack the clarity code for this improvement idea? Not is it perfect, but did we crack the code? Do we feel like there’s enough clarity here to take it into the next phase of action? If so, get after it. Go and get some action done and then update the canvas after you’ve done a little bit more work in the real world. If not, we might want to ask ourselves, Hey, which element of the clarify canvas do we need to spend a little bit more time refining in order to crack the clarity code?

Or we might hold off in deploying too many more resources or busying our team and our staff on things until we can be pretty confident that we’ve cracked the code, that we’ve got the impact, the problem, the change, and the evidence. I’ve done a lot of thinking with a lot of school improvement leaders across the planet, and I found the clarify canvas is one of the simple, robust and reusable tools that can shape how we think, capture, get it down, first up, develop, keep refining your thinking and then sharpen over time. And you’re going to find that you’re going to be able to lead improvement work with more confidence, more clarity, and more alignment. So let’s get back working with our clarify canvas. Get moving in any project you’re working on right now and normalise as you work with others who want to talk about improvement ideas. Just say, Hey, can we keep the conversation going, but I want to try to capture it in this tool so we’ve got a real way of checking our level of clarity, and we’ve got a way of having a tangible output from our improvement conversations.

💡Did you find this tool helpful? This tool is a part of the Agile School Leadership program curriculum. Learn more about this program here.