Tag Archives: organizational design

Re-Design, Don’t Reopen

Are we going to be the same but different post-Covid?

I read a post recently that said re-opening is going to be like playing three dimensional chess in a hurricane on one leg.

Ok, maybe in New York public schools.

Besides that, it’s really not that dramatic.

Use common sense. Social distance. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. It’s not rocket science.

We didn’t have IB exams this year. Did the world stop spinning? Maybe for schools that overpredicted, yes. Otherwise, did we learn that maybe summative exams don’t determine the course of our lives?

This is a real opportunity for school leaders to make a difference and to stop making excuses 21 years, yes 21 years into 21st century learning. What is truly amazing about this pandemic is that it has literally created classrooms without walls. Now let’s step into the void and create something special.

If you are opening full virtual, then you have a huge opportunity (sorry primary) to get students out into the field to do things they’ve never done before, to have an impact on their communites and environment, to interact with nature and their surroundings rather than the four walls of a classroom and to do something. (With masks, social distancing and handwashing of course).

If you’re opening hybrid then you can do similar things now that the learning spectrum has expanded, bringing back their experiences, redesigning timetables to accomodate this work, and developing interdisciplinary teams across subjects to

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO said, “Creative confidence is the ability to come up with great ideas and the courage to try them out.” Pundits have called Covid-19 ‘the great accelerator.’ In other words, innovations that would have taken 10 years in normal times, such as in healthcare, online shopping, food service, travel, and yes, education, are happening now.

Re-opening cannot simply mean putting all of our energy into temperature checks and cafeteria grids. It has to mean so much more. The line ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ has been bouncing around and it’s incumbent upon leaders to understand what this means for schools beyond returning to status quo.

Yes, it’s unsettling to introduce new things when everyone just wants to revert back to September 2019. Yes, it’s tempting just to make everyone feel stable again by lining children up in 2 meter separate rows. But, what does this disruption tell us about the fundamental role of schools? Why do we gather in a space to learn? Do we really care anymore about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand for crying out loud?

I have too often enabled the comfortable boundaries of investigating uncertainty through the academic lens. All of that important stuff, whether it be socioeconomic injustice, environmental collapse, racial divide all through the relative ease of a formative assessment.

But now we cannot even go to school because of something that has called everything into question.

What an opportunity.

It is our responsibility to realign the WHY of what we do (thanks Simon Sinek) and connect it to the HOW. It’s no longer good enough to proclaim exceptional IB scores on LinkedIn or brag about university admittance. If we value things like learners having the “mental agility to solve problems we’ve never seen before,” or to “see the big picture, zero in on minute details, and move things around to make a difference,” (Vivien Luu, HR Vision, 2016) then we have to do a much better job of connecting the world to our schooling than a CAS project that hardly scratches the surface.

We continue to train kids to do school. Now that this has blown up, it has exposed a lot of shortcomings (well beyond access to WiFi). We act like we are teaching resiliency and adaptability, but this crisis has really shone a spotlight on the fact that we can do a LOT better (this goes for teachers and admin too). We act like we are building capacity for problem solvers and creative thinkers, but we panic when a student falls short on a conditional offer in HL Math. I don’t get it.

Don’t waste this crisis when you go back. Take care of the hand sanitizing and the temperature checks and the socio-emotional learning, but most of all, resist the temptation to restore order. This is your crisis to move forward on the type of learners we are going to need to save the planet.

Don’t waste it.

The Tao of Escalators: A Culture Story

Two things fascinate me about the institution of schooling: 1) How the environment around the school impacts the culture of the school and 2) The structure of the school management and how it makes decisions.

I went out for an alumni dinner from my alma mater last week and had some fascinating conversations with people that had very different careers from my own. One, a fresh graduate, was a management consultant for Ernst & Young. He told some stories about the cultures of certain businesses and how it was his job to realign them to be more purposeful. “The oil industry is all compliance driven,” he said, “So it’s tough to build in any creativity or things out of the norm. It was my job to untangle their complex and clogged systems of compliance to allow more flexibility in a rapidly changing market to allow for adaptations before things went into the tank.” Schools hire strategic consultants to come up with all sorts of things like new technology programs, NGSS, literacy initiatives, accreditations, and so on. A few take symbolic gestures at governance structures but they are mostly compliance driven and address things like whether or not the procedures for updating the policy manual have been reviewed. Very few allow someone to come in and look under the hood to see what’s really driving the work flow. (or not).

A second man, a Singaporean who had attended my university for banking and commerce, told an equally fascinating story when I complained about how awful school mission statements were. “Did you know,” he said, “that the MRT in Singapore supposedly had the fastest escalators in the world? It was part of their mission to grow the fastest and most efficient economy on the planet.”

“Really?” I said. “Faster than now because they’re really fast.”
“Oh, way faster. This is nothing.”

“So, what happened?” I asked. “How come they no longer have the fastest ones?”
“Too many older people were getting hurt. They would hesitate at the top and be afraid to get on like a carnival ride. And a lot of times when they stepped on they’d fall or something would happen. It was like an out of control conveyer belt.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

“Yeah, they only go about half speed now.”

It made me reflect on what a critical thing such as cultural attitudes towards work can impact something so operational as escalator speed. When we work in a hyper competitive environment, we don’t pay attention to the big picture, whether we are ‘compliance driven’ as the management consultant described, or even the people trying to step onto a whizzing escalator. We pay attention to the output, the outcomes, and the pressures that force the escalator to move faster or the oil company to be more compliant.

The young graduate told me that he simply crunched a lot of data and pointed things out for them to decide. He’d highlight the time for supply chains to reach their destinations, for invoices to be approved, for policy decisions to be made, all of the meat and potatoes of managing large companies. It was fascinating to think about the similarities to schools. And the escalator speed? Fascinating parallels. I know a lot of people (including myself) that have gotten tossed from that high speed staircase.

There are actually some really bold attempts to break down the compliance driven, top down, creativity, risk averse, and fear driven hierarchies that many educators work in now. One is The Mastery Transcript Consortium, (mastery.org) which is looking to redefine the way we think about and record high school academic work, and the other is the ACE Accreditation from NEASC, a bold initiative that is going to reshape the entire structure of oil company compliance that drives many schools.

So, whether you’re working in a bureaucratic and inefficient environment such as one where the post office closes during lunch (a very maddening experience) or one that is so efficient it is tossing retired folks off the conveyer belt like potatoes, you have to acknowledge and accept that the culture that surrounds you will have a direct impact on the place you work and the expectations placed on you, regardless of how high your gates are or how bold you believe your mission to be.

Think culture. Think mission. Think environment. And most of all, think relationships, they are the root of everything we do.

Sustaining Excellence Over Time…

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People at my last job gave me feedback that I was too enthusiastic about sport, maybe even too “American” in that respect. Looking back, I think it was because it provided the clarity and focus on a goal that I needed in challenging times.

International schools have a real problem. They have high expectations and in many cases such high turnover that it is virtually impossible to reach the lofty goals of the mission statement. I have worked in such environments, and I can guarantee you that the culture ate the strategy for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. It can feel as though the place is literally re-inventing itself every time new people come in. Throw in the average three year tenure of Heads and you have a place that will struggle to achieve excellence, no matter how strong the curriculum or great the facilities.

The New England Patriots won this incredibly over-hyped game called the Super Bowl this past weekend in such an environment. It was their fourth such victory over the past 14 years which is some kind of a record. They did it in what the critics call “an extraordinary time” of free agency in which players are constantly moving from team to team instead of staying together as they did when previous records were set. It makes it very hard to win one big game under these circumstances, let alone four over fourteen years. So, how can international schools win the big game?

1) Have a clear vision of what you stand for and what is non-negotiable in an authentic sense of the word. This does not mean “create lifelong learners.” What it means, for example, is that we use student work to inform best practice and will create systems to promote that.

2) “Do your job.” This one is from the coach of the Patriots. It sounds child-like in its simplicity, but how many schools have people who don’t know their jobs? Or like to do other people’s jobs? Or don’t even have job descriptions that are updated for relevance? This is critical toward building excellence.

3) Interchangeable parts. One of the astounding things the Patriots do is that they have an expectation that people understand the system in which they work so that they can contribute in a variety of ways. Although “do your job” is #2, understanding the big picture and being able to step in is critical. This does not mean that a math teacher should be able to teach English. What it does mean is that employees have a clear understanding of the systems and overarching expectations of the school so that they are part of a larger ethos and can sustain that foundation over time, not just in their isolated silos. This is hard, but it’s critical.

Of course there is also the opposite problem where schools with not enough turnover get stuck and cannot seem to move forward. But for me, the high turnover issue is compelling because it causes schools to default to the issues directly in front of them (scheduling, I.B. training, constant hiring), rather than the critical work of improving teaching and learning. Maybe this is a bit of a broad brush, but it’s common enough. There’s no magic cure for all of these challenges but it raises the issue of leadership capacity in creating systems that are effective and can be sustained over time rather than taking the easy way out and leaving after three years. For example, how are teams organized around learning? What schedules are put in place for staff reflection and collaboration to learn excellence? Where are the feedback loops? How is appraisal designed and implemented? And most importantly, what structures are put into place to remove the distractions that get in the way of people doing their jobs. (Is anyone ever going to fix the attendance software?)

These are complex issues and it’s still very hard to maintain excellence over time in a high turnover environment. But bringing in the best people and putting them in a position to succeed, having people understand their jobs, and creating an environment in which people can contribute in a multitude of ways can sometimes win championships.

Not sure if it’s from the 80s, but we’ll play this one out with the theme song. the Patriots use when they take the field. (And has some nice symbolism for high turnover environments).