Steve Denning at Forbes.com wrote an article about Valve, a high-tech company with a unique organizational chart: there are no managers. Everyone is free to choose what project to work on. They are green-lighted to risk and fail. They are expected to be creative and use that creativity. It is messy, chaotic, and very successful.
There is a lesson from Valve for schools. In both public and private schools, culture has allowed the key creative employees (teachers) to act autonomously; classrooms are nearly sacred places where each decides how he or she will meet a broad set of demands. In private schools this is much more the case, since we are not beholden to externally generated standards. The description of a Valve software creator sounds a LOT like the environment of many private school teachers, except for the big money. We feel we are part of a family, and everyone contributes in ways that are less structured than the world might think.
There is one huge difference, and this is where our education system is not adapting well to the lessons of how a Valve is creating success. Incumbent in the Valve model is that these creators are linked 24/7 with worlds of other creators and idea-generators. They have latitude, and they use it outside of a silo. Most teachers, on the other hand, have not reached that critical level yet. They still operate in very narrow universes of collaborative connection. They have the benefit of flatness when it comes to creativity, but not the leverage of connectivity that I am sure is critical to the success of a Valve.
In order to truly innovate schools have to become messier. Managers have to learn to let go, allow cross-divisional creativity, embrace a higher degree of risk. These are just blue-letter laws of innovation. We probably don’t need to adopt the Valve model, but we need to open our minds in this direction and leverage the strengths that lie somewhere on that path.