“It’s doing whatever it takes – either you’re Level 5, or you’re nothing.”So my colleague Danny explained one of Jim Collins’ key theses. On turning to the original text, ‘Good to Great’, I discovered there is actually a hierarchy – a series of steps towards Level 5 – but if you’re less than Level 5, you are, in a sense, nothing: Of 1,435 Fortune 500 companies, only eleven “made the very tough cut into our study. In those eleven, all of them had Level 5 leadership in key positions, including the CEO (p.35).”
- Leaders who found the right people before setting the company’s direction.
- A balance between realism about the challenges facing the organisation and faith the organisation would overcome them.
- The ‘Hedgehog Concept’: Companies focussed on being great at one thing, something about which they were passionate, able to excel and could profit from
- A culture of disciplined people, rather than a bureaucracy and hierarchy to enforce this
- Used technology within an existing model, rather than relying on it for miracles
- Improved like a ‘flywheel’: Relentlessly and gradually, rather than through dramatic changes of direction.
Collins notes: “I don’t primarily think of my work as about the study of business… Rather, I see my work as being about discovering what creates enduring great organizations of any type (p.15)…. If we have cracked the code…. Good schools might become great schools (p.16).”
Much of the ‘code’ transfers quite clearly: technology is no magic solution (think Interactive Whiteboards), or the importance of relentless improvement. However, this post seeks to explore some areas of divergence, not for the sake of picking holes in the links between ‘Good to Great’ and schools, but because I think they are interesting questions in their own right.
How do we deal with motivation & alignment, when some people have reserved seats ‘on the bus’?
Then I thought more broadly – we may create a brilliant teaching team and not have to worry about their motivation and alignment. However, as a comprehensive school, we do not control the children we teach (nor should we dream of doing so). So for a school to move from good to great, the question of motivation and alignment must be hugely important in a way that is completely unlike what Collins describes. (You might position students as customers such as Collins’ businesses had – but I believe they are far too active participants in how a school functions for this analogy to work). How do good-to-great leaders deal with motivation and alignment among people with ‘reserved places’ on the bus?
What is our ‘hedgehog concept’?
Collins uses the analogy of a hedgehog: good at just one thing, rolling into a ball, but successful as such, to explain how great companies take one product or service and excel in that alone.
Contrast with this anonymous primary headteacher:
“Schools like mine are no longer simply educational establishments. We are health centres, social care hubs, social security and housing advisers, counselling services, parenting practitioners and adult learning facilitators. We also teach children.” How can you be excellent at all these things?
I don’t mean to question the headteacher’s rightness in arguing: “We provide these services because if we didn’t, the children and families would have no hope of breaking out of the cycle of deprivation they find themselves in.”
However, I wonder if that leaves us fulfilling many functions, the opposite of a hedgehog which excels in one. “I feel like I’m more of a social worker than a teacher, and I’m not a very good social worker,” a friend told me as she left teaching a while ago.
What is the ‘hedgehog concept’ of a good-to-great school? Grades? Student welfare? If it becomes something nebulous like ‘student improvement’ (incorporating grades and welfare), do we still have a hedgehog concept any more?
What ‘drives our economic engine’?
What do I want to be measured on? What is my bottom line? I want my students to get the best grades possible, of course. I also want them to love the subject, to know how to improve in it, to be happy and fulfilled people, to read for pleasure, to be happy and secure, to love learning…And of course, trying to do two (or half a dozen) things at once can be problematic, to say the least! If I had one extra minute in the class I know how I would spend it (I know what my hedgehog concept is, I suppose). Do schools as a whole know theirs?
And even if they did, how does that interact with Campbell’s Law:
“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor (1976, p. 49, cited in Wiliam, 2010, p.263).”
Can we as teachers or schools succeed without a hedgehog concept?
If so, what is that concept?
These are pretty open questions and I don’t pretend to have the answers to them. Let me leave you with one more:
Can we go from good to great in education without answering these questions?
(The latest version of the Teach For All Synergies magazine has some interesting ideas on this. Update, April 2014: Sadly, the Teach For All Synergies magazine is no more).
[Originally posted 2nd June, 2013]