Last week Anne and I drove up to LA to see the legendary Neville Brothers at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. The Neville Brothers have been performing together for thirty years. They started playing their own brand of New Orleans funk in the clubs on Bourbon Street and now play at jazz festivals and concert halls and venues all over the world. Wherever they want. If you have been to a Neville Brothers concert you know that they start with loyal followers standing around talking about where they last saw them play:  “I saw them with Carlos Santana” and “I saw them in a little club on the east coast” and “I saw them the last time they played at Preservation Hall.”  

And if you have seen them perform you also know they don’t leave until Aaron Neville closes the show by singing Amazing Grace.  And when Aaron Neville sings Amazing Grace, or anything for that matter, you are reminded that if all the angels in heaven channeled their voices into one human being… like some kind of celestial karaoke…  it would sound like Aaron Neville.  

I look for metaphors for excellence everywhere and of course if you can consistently make music like the Neville Brothers it’s more than just a metaphor. But as I watched them I thought about what we could learn from them.  Maybe we over-engineer our school organizations.  Maybe Mark Sanborn is right when he describes the “encore effect” in his book by the same title– “The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Everything You Do.”  

• What keeps these people coming back to watch the Neville Brothers perform? • What makes them so loyal?
• Why do they go away and tell their friends about this near-spiritual experience?
• Why are they so enthralled that they don’t notice the little mistakes… if there are any.
• Why can you hear the same song a thousand times and never experience it the same way?

Sanborn talks about five traits associated with high level performance: 

passion, preparation, practice, presence & polish

Aside from the obvious alliteration and convenient formula, Sanborn may be on to something. Schools–like so many organizations–  have complicated the process of creating consistency and excellence.  I saw a post on the same topic on Leadertalk  the other day and had to read it five times before I got the point.

As a Baldrige alumni examiner and a Six Sigma supporter, I thought I really understood processes. Our school system had flow mapped over 100 processes. We have in-process measures linked to strategic measures. However, what I am discovering is that I knew just enough to be dangerous. I have a number of examples where working on the measures of one process have actually negatively impacted other processes. Working on processes while continuing to manage the organization through a function based organization chart often leads to fragmentation, lack of alignment, and unintended consequences.

With a process management approach, our school system is moving away from a traditional function centered organization into a process centered organization. 

Holy smokes. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Just listen to Yellow Moon and recognize that people have a thousand compelling choices of what to do along Sunset Boulevard on Saturday night. And given all of those choices they are right where they want to be. And what they are hearing, however sophisticated, is not a by-product of Six-Sigma methodology introduced to the bayou. It’s passion and polish.  

Likewise, Mueller Charter School is a school of choice. We are El Milagro or nothing at all. Parents come back or they do not. They stand for the encore and take pictures with their cell phones and scream until the musicians come back out on to the stage. Or they walk away. And they take their children with them.

So prepare as if you are scheduled to play at the House of Blues tonight. You have to enjoy your own music. Play for the fun of it. And sing like the angels approve.  


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  1. Great post. I appreciate the mention of my latest book. I’ve seen and heard Aaron sing Amazing Grace and you’re spot on…it is extraordinary.

    Customer/clients/students/parents (given a chance) gravitate to the encore performers in any arena of life. I’m working with a pastor friend in Hawaii who is developing a book around The Encore Church. Truth is transferrable across context.

    Best always,

  2. Gina Lybarger

    Hey there Dr. Riley, I agree with Mark, a great post. I feel proud to be related to someone that you speak so highly of. Just as I am proud to work at “El Milagro”. I think I’ll borrow Sanborn’s “Passion, Preparation, Practice, Presence and Polish” as an inspirational motto and put it in print to share with our students.

    Thanks for sharing,

    p.s. My husband said your a great writer too! 🙂

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