Last week I read a series of interviews with author Gary Hamel on his new book What Matters Now, conducted and posted by Steve Denning on his blog on Forbes.com. Hamel is an expert on change management and innovation and I thought a number of the points he made in the interviews are highly relevant to why schools need to address fundamental structural issues, and why it is so hard a nut to crack.
Hamel argues that the principals of management in almost all organizations are primarily a function of control. Managers are deemed to be good at their jobs if they control variables in ways that are favorable to a set of assessment and operating results. Frequently this is most efficiently accomplished by managing those variables right out of the workplace. In an increasingly competitive environment, one stressed by increasing ranges of options for our goods and services, we need to introduce freedom as a counterbalance to the principles of control. Freedom requires people to have the resources to experiment.
Hamel admits that innovation led by experimentation is hard; I add that it is risky, and that risk is concentrated squarely at the top of the organization. Hamel cites two primary reasons that organizations are late in responding to existential threats from the outside. First, the threats have to be really big to gain the notice of top leadership. Second, many top leaders are heavily invested in the status quo and fight to preserve it rather than looking for opportunities to become more nimble.
Schools need this shifted perspective. Like other industries, the barriers to competition in our traditional niche are dropping (changing demographics, online courses, free courses offered by universities and the Khan Academy model, for example). Schools also are susceptible to going partway down the path to real change. As Hamel says, one-shot solutions do not tend to be sustained over time; changing the organizational DNA takes real commitment.
In order for true freedom and experimentation to take root, employees at lower levels need to be provided the resources for sustainable work outside of their day-to-day responsibilities. This means they need time, a bit of capital, and the support of the organization. If well designed, this yields a balance between what we have always done that made us successful in the first place, and what we need to attempt to keep us competitive in the long run.
Schools are highly overweighed to preservation of tradition at the expense of innovation. If you think of this as an investment portfolio (and what more important investment do we have than the future of the system of education) a good portfolio is generally balanced between conservative instruments that preserve capital and more risky investments that generate a greater return. Schools need to re-balance their portfolios to allow more experimentation and a bit more risk that will generate long-term growth. Hamel’s argument is that our conservatism is rooted in the principles of management that we have all grown up with, and if we do not tackle that core issue, our organization will be left behind as others with a more rapid pace of experimentation lead the way in terms of customer satisfaction.