Post #2 in a series of seven: big takeaways from the pandemic year for school leadership teams.
When the pandemic hit a year ago, most schools and districts created some kind of a “war room”: a place and time for people across a wide range of responsibilities to meet and make decisions, often in real time, and often with little confidence that they had enough information on which to base those decisions. Despite overwhelming disruption and uncertainty, many school teams made good, fast decisions, even if subsequent events necessitated that those decisions be dramatically changed.
Cross-functional strategic and tactical collaboration is no longer an option. When the world moves quickly, we don’t have time to move up and down highly vertical reporting structures. People need to communicate and make decisions, even if there is a risk that those decisions will be wrong. And, as I have often cited from the work of Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams, it is not always the department heads who should be involved. Decision making must be vested in front-line workers, not just those with the big titles.
This kind of cross-functional collaboration must not be convened only when the house is on fire. As we learned in the soon-to-be-shared collaborative deep dive into lessons learned on long-term disruption amongst 80 Canadian schools, school leaders are begging for this kind of collaboration to become the norm, not the exception.
Regular meetings amongst leadership teams should not be a time to share “this is what we are doing”; that can be done in emails or shared docs. Those precious meetings should involve wrestling with pithy problems and longer-range proactive thinking that touch on multiple departments. They should increasingly be open to wider groups of department members who don’t have the big title but who are responsible for front line operations. Time should be split between dealing with immediate issues and longer-range challenges and opportunities.
We have been talking about busting silos in school operations for more than a decade. Breaking silos means a whole lot more than meeting weekly as a leadership group. It means operating as true cross-functional teams where we share strengths, knowledge, and capacity, and build a culture of “one school, one team”. Yes, the pandemic will be gone relatively soon, but successful schools will build this core of distributed leadership into their long-term practices.