“We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost,” says the CEO of Nokia, while crying during a press conference. A similar version of this comes up in many of the schools across the country when we talk about improving outcomes or transforming schools. “We didn’t do anything wrong (we did everything as planned), but somehow, we lost (we still didn’t improve achievement like we planned even with endless nights and weekends).”
Thankfully, this is not a story of all that is going wrong, but instead one of looking at what is going right. When 13,000 school districts and 100,000 schools are all trying to achieve similar goals with teams of similar training, what makes the difference? This is an exploration as to why some schools or districts are more successful than others are when they are trying similar tactics, programs, and tools. After observing hundreds of schools and thousands of teams over the past decade, the only differentiating factor seems to be how the teams actually work.
I was fortunate to collaborate with Alexis Gonzales-Black, who has been coaching and redesigning organizations to operate more responsively, to write The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices to Thriving and Responsive Schools. Her technical experience working with organizations and teams globally, along with my experience with change management in district systems, allowed us to integrate the promising practices of successful teams within the context of education. We were inspired by the possibilities, especially after seeing that large organizations like Zappos and the military’s Joint Special Operations Task Force were able to implement similar systems.
We concluded that highly functional, thriving, and agile teams are learning organizations. They are capable of creating organic systems that cultivate these five ideas:
- Better prepared over better planned – teams are ready for changing conditions
- Teams trust each other and as a result they are able to distribute authority for quicker action
- Roles and accountabilities are clearly defined so people know who to approach for which needs
- Individuals are allowed to make decisions when well-informed, instead of exhausting energy on consensus building
- Information is shared frequently and at the right level to provide transparency that is useful for decision-making
I know it when I see it. I visit close to a hundred schools a year, and within five minutes of talking to a school team, I know it when I see it. Immediately I get the sense that the team is in sync. I get this gut feeling that they are getting good results, both academically and culturally. I can tell how well they function by how team members can finish each other’s sentences or how clear they are about who has which skills on the team. I quickly realize they have a common understanding, a shared vocabulary, and an ability to share information quickly. This is the type of team agility I see in successful school teams. They are the ones who can adapt to the complex and continuously changing learning needs of each of the hundreds of children teachers interact with daily.
With close to 5 million educators in the country, most are working exhaustingly hard and trying to eke out efficiency in a largely inefficient environment. These heroic efforts to implement new programs, products, and teams often don’t get different results. The challenge is not rooted around the lack of effort, but the need to find ways for teams to work better together. We know from physical science that the shape of the vessel is as important as the effort of the engine. In essence, every organization is a vessel that needs to be shaped.