The Dangers of Good Intentions

Ad Age, in a December 28 post, captured a few of the high-profile ads from 2020 that, in attempting to capture salient sentiments of a challenging year, missed the mark by a lot. Worse, actually, the ads sounds in retrospect to be tone-deaf, totally missing (or mishandling) the emotionally-laden context.

While it is easy to chuckle and shake one’s head at such miscues, here is something to ponder: every single one of these ads was vetted by a group of agency and client executives, and every single one got the green light for production. The point is that, despite our best intentions and efforts, things sometimes go sideways. And when sideways and high-voltage intersect, the risks are compounded. Be careful out there.

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A Tale of Two Pandemics

The deeper we get into the COVID-19 pandemic, the more it becomes apparent that the deleterious effects of lockdowns, layoffs, business closures, and other restrictions are not borne equally by all sectors of the economy. Some, particularly those whose work can most easily be done remotely or do not require hand-to-hand engagement, are flourishing from a monetary perspective while others, particularly those who depend on human-to-human transactions, are falling farther behind.

This post from the On the Economy blog by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis illustrates this disparity quite well. Two datasets describing the same economy seem to suggest divergent trends. And yet both and true, meaning that the pandemic is simultaneously the best and worst of times.

Dickens, anyone?

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COVID is Beyond the Political Now

According to the data tracked by Worldometers and the Johns Hopkins University, the United States is poised to pass the 200K death mark from COVID-19 tomorrow. That is a staggering number by any logic. It is as if a city twice the size of Asheville, NC, died just in the last year. We are now recording more deaths per day from COVID than happened on 9/11 from the terror attack.

I usually avoid the political in this blog, but the coronavirus pandemic is not about politics; rather, it is humanitarian in nature. It begs the questions of whether there are limits to freedom, even in a “free” society (of course there are), and whether any of us owe the others in our society anything at all. Does our freedom give us the right, in effect, to kill our neighbor or our mother or our aunt?

It is past time to get real about the pandemic. I am staying home over the coming holidays, much as I would love to visit my son. How about you?

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Can the Means be a Mission?

Finishing a strategy workshop today for a school where one of the topics was about identity—what are we as a school—prompts a reflection on the overlooked importance of an animating idea for all organizations. An animating idea causes the school to exist; it is why the school does what it does to students (sometimes called its theory of change).

The “school people” at this particular place tend to describe its animating idea in terms of what the school does—IB, progressive, Montessori, whatever—rather than what it exists to accomplish in the world. This is almost universal in education and makes a sort of sense, even if it is ultimately a distraction. The deeper a person is immersed in a field, the stronger the tendency to conflate technique with impact. For educational technocrats, pedagogy supplants purpose as a reason to exist.

This would be fine, except that in the private, independent and international school world, “customers” buy purpose not pedagogy. How your school does what it does matters to those “inside baseball” (sorry for the Americanism, but “inside rugby” lacks the same tone), but it is the effect that the school has on students’ lives that keeps them enrolled. They (or, rather, their parents) are not connoisseurs for the most part; instead, they are after the impact the school aspires to have on graduates and thereby the world. This is why so much independent school marketing seems wasted: it simply focuses on the wrong stuff.

Almost every school begins with an animating idea or purpose. Sometimes, it is about social good or maybe elite university admission, while in other instances, it is about “sticking it to the man” by being counter-cultural. Regardless, the founding purpose inevitably seems to fade as the school grows and ages, and how-we-teach becomes the new raison d’être. This is a shame because it puts the cart before the horse. Pedagogies should not be ends in and of themselves; rather, they are the means whereby the school achieves its animating idea.

The irony is that teachers may gravitate to a school because of how it teaches (educational technocracy), but they stay and thrive because they align with a purpose that gives it life. The reverse is true of parents and students: they come for purpose and then become fans of how you educate.

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Don’t Turn a Crisis into a Catastrophe

As a new, but extraordinary, school year gets underway in the Global North, we want to remind board members of the lives their heads of school find themselves living. Education is one of the most rhythmic and cyclical of industries. The start of school, grading periods, sports, exams, theatrical productions, and, of course, graduation ceremonies occur at the same time every year. Until they don’t, such as last spring and now.

A recent study by McKinsey found some factories running at 90% production capacity with only 40% of the typical workforce. Much the same is true of schools. Even though we are not in person, every school is keeping a facsimile of learning up and running while teachers and staff learn how to work without face-to-face contact. Heads tell us they are working vastly harder and for more hours per week than ever. As one head said, his partner at home says she sees him less now that he works from home than when he was in his on-campus office.

This is a recipe for burn-out, plain and simple. Days, even weeks, spent at multiples of the usual effort are possible; months and years are not sustainable for ordinary mortals. We don’t have a solution, but we do have three recommendations for boards to prevent a crisis for the world from turning into a catastrophe for your school:

  1. Recalibrate your expectations for success–the world has changed and the way you measure school performance should as well;
  2. Don’t try to “fix” your head’s stress–instead ask what support management needs from the board now and as the crisis continues to evolve;
  3. Double-down on your advocacy on behalf of the school–relentlessly support the work that administration and faculty are doing to keep school going; remind complaining stakeholders that this is not business-as-usual because these are not the usual times and to reset their own expectations.
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How Long Is the Long Tail?

The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting some industries more than others. Arts, entertainment, recreation, and restaurants are among the hardest hit industries while technology flourishes in a WFH era. This chart, drawing on research by McKinsey and Oxford Economics, a forecasting and quantitative analytics consultancy, shows the COVID-19 impact through another lens: how long it will take for industries to recover to 2019 levels of contribution to GDP.

The analysis uses two scenarios—those deemed most likely to occur—one being “virus contained, slow recovery,” and the other a “virus recurrence, slow long-term growth, muted global recovery” model. Neither of these is considered best nor worst case; rather, somewhere in the range of “most likely to occur.” As of this writing, much of the world seems to be following the virus recurrence and muted recovery scenario.

The time horizon for recovery in the education sector ranges from early 2024 to early 2025, an astonishing and sobering 3.5 years from now. Even if the virus is contained sooner rather than later, the analysts see the “long tail” of effects stretching over at least the next three school years. We believe the long tail will be long indeed (Triangle featured the long tail in its recent webinars on “The Shape of What Comes Next,” and now the McKinsey/Oxford Economics research reinforces the point.

What does this mean for school governors and leaders? We have been writing about the importance of a strategy for your school to emerge from the pandemic stronger, where strength may not be measured in size. This is still very much an imperative, but we also suggest that schools combine an emerge stronger strategy with one to hold the enterprise together as the weeks of last spring that turned into months begin to turn into years. We will be writing more about this in the week ahead.

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