Your Brain and The Lions, Tigers and Bears: Protecting your Admin Team from Destructive Cognitive Load | Simon Holzapfel | 4 Min Read

February 13, 2024

January is an intense month in the life of an independent school. For Heads of School and other Senior Administrators, you are well into your Admissions cycle, your Annual Fund is a few months old, and, if you are hiring for Administrators, you are deep into your hiring cycle. So many things, so little time. At the same time, the market you are operating in is evolving, staffing is a perpetual challenge, and you still need to make time for the strategic work of your team and the school at large. What to do? 

At L-EAF Lab we recommend that school leaders who prioritize effectiveness take a minute at an upcoming Admin Team meeting to introduce and have a quick discussion about cognitive load and your team. If you are hearing about people struggling with decision making or planning, you are also probably hearing about cognitive overload. This is common and also directly remediated with a few simple tools. 

The easiest way to manage a team’s cognitive load is to make their work visible. Sounds weird, right? The rest of this article will show you how to help your team manage their cognitive load in a few simple steps. 

Step 1: Make a Space for Working 

There are many ways to make a permanent workspace on a whiteboard where you meet or using an electronic workspace like Trello, Asana, Kanban Zone or Miro.  Having this space, whether physical or virtual, reduces cognitive load by giving the team a place for everyone to work together and get their collaborative, collective brain going. 

Step 2: Break Up Time 

Your workspace needs to continue easing cognitive load by breaking up time into at least four distinct domains. In the example below, the Backlog is where team members introduce and discuss what to work on. Full group discussion is a must to ensure alignment across the team. To Do is work that the team has agreed to commit their energy and capacity to. In Progress is the work that has the focus of the team. Verify is to validate that the work is done to the standards that the team agreed upon when it put the item into the workflow. Done is after the validation has been completed. 

A simple start can look like this: 

By breaking up time this way you can focus the conversation on what has been done if you need to do a retrospective, what is underway now [a proxy for current cognitive load on the team], and what is coming up next.

Step 3: Break Up Work 

Almost any work that an Admin Team is talking about involves multiple people and multiple steps. Complicated work like this can be broken down into smaller pieces that are more easily finished. Breaking up work is most easily accomplished using a method like Kanban or L-EAF’s WorkFLOW. Leaders who help their team decompose their projects into smaller pieces demonstrate both their priorities and develop capacity within their team, while simultaneously demonstrating trust in their team to accomplish the group’s goals.

By breaking up projects into small steps you protect cognitive capacity by literally putting boundaries on the work. Tame the chaos of a spinning mind with discrete and visual cues for action that leverage our common innate skill for visual thinking

Step 4: Line Up the Work 

Once work has been broken down for ease of completion, you can then prioritize work items. Prioritization is a gift to your team’s total cognitive capacity because it focuses action and because it lets people know where and on what to start once they leave the Admin Team meeting. 

Step 5: Do the fewest possible number of things at a time 

The data about the waste of energy from context switching and multitasking is quite clear. When leaders focus their team and resist the urge to get everything done at once, they show how to really accelerate effectiveness. Don Reinertsen and other experts have shown years of data related to Work In Progress [WIP] limits and how teams perform better. WIP is easily seen on any of the work tools mentioned above and lets a leader know what their team is up to, has space for, and when to stop adding work. If you watch the video in the link above, skip to the chapter at minute 32 about how individuals’ effectiveness degrades sharply as their cognitive load is reached. 

Wait at Your Peril 

As a leader with many layers of accountability, the one thing that is fixed is the cognitive capacity of your Admin Team and your staff. Ignore their speed limits at your peril. Breakdowns are real. They don’t have to be permanent. If you want to see how a school leader puts each of the above recommendations into action, reach out to Todd Covert, Head of School at Montessori School of the Berkshires or Simon at People love their work when they can feel progress being made. When they can see their work moving, the positive feelings grow. Wasting time and energy is something few schools can afford. With the above steps and some extra courage to ask your team to think a little differently about their work, you can start to protect your team’s cognitive capacity and their ability to see positive change.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Simon Holzapfel for Intrepid Ed News.

Simon Holzapfel

Simon Holzapfel is an award-winning educator, thought leader, innovator, and writer. He is a co-founder and CEO of the L-eaf Lab, as well as a former Head of School, former Director of Studies, and current Board Chair of The Montessori School of the Berkshires. Simon was in the initial cohort of leaders trained at NAIS’ Innovation Strategy Lab and spent time on the Executive Board of Boston University’s Agile Innovation Lab. Simon is a certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified ImprovementKATA (LIK) & WorkFLOW (LWF) and a member of the Berkshire Innovation Center. Applying four years of experience on the New York State Association of Independent Schools [NYSAIS] Commission on Accreditation, Simon has spent years helping organizations and their teams improve their outcomes by applying lean system thinking and the agile mindset. He lives in Williamstown, MA, and spends as much time as he responsibly can each day on his skis or mountain bike.

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