The Innovation Connundrum

More are more boards are pushing their heads of school for “innovation”, often bemoaning the slow pace of change in our very conservative field. At the same time, we often observe what Linda A. Hill and George Davis write about in the Harvard Business Review when summarizing a survey of corporate governance:

“Most board members report that the lion’s share of their attention around innovation goes toward improving the organization’s capacity to execute its current strategy—that is, innovation to sustain the core.”

This is often where boards focus: how to do what schools do faster, better, or cheaper. Yet the combination of these three–faster, better, and cheaper–won’t happen with incremental or marginal improvements. That’s not real innovation! Real innovation will come from new business models, new ways to teach and to learn, and to finally making the school experience render obsolete our dependence on a fixed number of students and teachers and classrooms.

Maybe it is time for our governance to look beyond the incremental and push management not to fix problems, but to invent new models.

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Talking Tech and Boards

Technology bedevils boards of independent and international schools. Board members rightly expect a technology play of some sort, but struggle to find the right way to engage with school administrators around the topic. It is very easy for he conversation to migrate from “What is our technology strategy?” to “I think we should start coding classes in middle school,” to “My sister’s kids attend a school in Pittsburgh that lets students do coding internships at Google and we should start something like that.” Heads of school bristle in response and the discussion goes downhill from there.

In my interview (video available at the link) with Rod Berger of MindRocket Media in the Huffington Post, I describe ways boards (and board members) can engage management in important conversations about the school’s technology strategy. Some might wonder why a school even needs a technology strategy? If so, then the audio interviews are a good place to start.

The interviews are part of Matt Harris‘s Blueprint for Technology and Education project.

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When Something Goes Awry

Within seconds of the end of last evening’s Super Bowl American football  game, the chatter, both systematic and ad hoc had begun online and in living rooms everywhere the game was watched. The chatter was not about the game, engaging as it was throughout the evening, but about the annual spectacle that is the Super Bowl television ads. Tide was a clear winner, as was Doritos/Mountain Dew, Amazon Alexa, and the NFL itself, but the target of much of the chatter was the Dodge Ram ad featuring the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. Even as I watched the ad, all I could think about was whatever led someone to green light such a crass and tasteless ad?

I mean, those things (Super Bowl ads) are never the solitary work of one person; rather, they get designed by a bunch of smart people over multiple iterations. And for what those spots cost, they get vetted and approved at multiple levels. Did everyone think it was a good idea? I don’t believe it! Someone, in one or another meeting, had to be sitting there thinking that mixing MLK and selling trucks had to be a terrible idea. Yet somehow it got produced, shown, and Dodge got pilloried (as it should).

We could just chalk this up to corporate stupidity, unwillingness to speak truth to power, or just too much alcohol at the ad agency meetings, but we see examples of the same thing happening all over from airlines, retail stores, and yes, private schools. We need to make it a requirement that someone other than the person who thought up the idea spend some serious time thinking about how it could all go seriously wrong. And those in charge need to pay attention.

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Getting a Handle on Premature Leadership Changes

We are picking up on a trend toward a trifecta of factors that bode ill for independent schools: (1) schools in or bordering on extremis, combined with (2) hair-trigger boards with (3) a severe allergy to any perceived misstep on the part of the head. The net result is unplanned abrupt head turnover, often during the heads first year or two at the school, creating further stress on already strained finances (that’s the extremis part). By our math, even a carefully planned and timely head transition is likely to cost a school $150K-$200K in direct expenses, not including the opportunity costs associated with transition. An unplanned transition can easily cost $450K-$1 million, depending on contract buyout terms, legal fees, and interim placement costs.

To take each factor in turn, following a decade of softening demand due to demographic factors and increasing unfunded financial aid, many schools are near the financial break point. The brutal fact is that many markets (perhaps most outside of a handful of golden areas) have a excess of capacity in independent schools, something we will take up in a future post. The response so far has largely been to marketing harder and faster and discount more heavily. Since the problem in many places is structural–baked into a cyclic decline in the number of school-age children–heavier marketing has paid meager dividends and discounting has evaporated margins, thereby decreasing the head’s and board’s degrees of freedom to operate. One wrong step seems to have disastrous potential.

Some boards have hair-trigger responses in their DNA–they have seemingly always been this way–while others have come by their hyper-vigilance via the stress of governing a school on the ropes. Regardless, we see a sort of PTSD-like tendency to over-react to almost ever provocation, not taking time to discern the important from the trivial or to calibrate the proper level of board involvement. We recently shared a “Goldilocks-and-porridge” graphic below as a way to illustrate that there is a proper level of board involvement in any particular issue: too hot, too cold, and just right. No board should abdicate its responsibility to govern; doing so would be to function in the “too cold: zone. But the solution is not to be “too hot”, for this crosses over into micromanagement or worse. The whole point is that the board discuss before it acts what constitutes the proper range of reaction.

The “ready, fire, aim” tendency we see on the rise is likely a culprit in many recent head dismissals (and, to be fair, “dismissals” actually undercounts the problem, since some heads leave of their own volition after being propelled out by over-functioning boards). It is as if some boards practice a Leo Durocher-type of governance, to bring a baseball metaphor into the discussion. Durocher, a major league baseball manager in the 1930’s through 70’s, was famously intolerant of mistakes by pitchers. A single misplaced pitch could be enough to get Durocher to change pitchers, just as a single unfortunate event in the school can be enough for some boards.

The reality, apart from the expense, is that great heads are hard to find and that the turmoil caused by a premature departure is seldom worth the cost. Not enough independent and international school trustees recognize this very salient fact.

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Levels of Board Involvement

Board involvement in school issues follows a Goldilocks-and-porridge continuum: too hot, too cold, and just right. Too hot leads to micromanagement and the turmoil associated with frequent school leadership changes. Too cold is too distant, reflecting a near-abdication of oversight and missing critical issues until it is too late. The trouble is that “just right” is a subjective space sorely lacking in definitional precision.

This schematic illustrates how these concentric rings merge into each other on the margins. The important part is for boards to discuss what constitutes the “just right” space before tackling the actual issue. There is unlikely to be a unanimity of views, but achieving consensus helps keep the discussion from veering too far one way or another.

Sometimes, the most important step is the talking-about-talking part.

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The Value of Strategic Foresight

This item from the Herman Trend Alert points to research showing the performance value of looking forward when setting strategy (as opposed to merely fixing the immediate problems of today). Yes, it is from the for-profit world, but one rarely sees such solid evidence for a business practice in any sector.

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