Can schools go from good to great?

Can schools go from good to great?

“What is Level 5 leadership?”  I asked.
“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).”
Pensive: Jim Collins

Pensive: Jim Collins

Collins set out to examine how a few organisations make this move, by examining eleven American companies which went from average or poor results to outperforming the stock market consistently over fifteen years.  He identified direct comparators for each company, and six unsustained comparators – which headed for greatness but failed to maintain it; then he tried to establish why some failed and other succeeded.One factor was that all his companies had ‘Level 5 leadership’: great leaders who added humility to their skill and determination.  The other factors driving the success of good-to-great companies had:


  • 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’?

“The executives who ignited the tranformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people ot take it there.  No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it (p.41).”  “The good-to-great companies paid scant attention to managing change, motivating people, or creating alignment.  Under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation, and change largely melt away (p.11).”You might point out that this is easier said than done in schools, but Collins notes that even in academic institutions where it’s “very hard to get the wrong people off the bus”… “the same basic idea applies, but it takes more time to accomplish (p.217).”  For a moment I felt grateful that the school I now work for has been ruthless in applying this, running rigorous selection days and refusing to appoint unless they felt the individual’s ‘fit’ was perfect.

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’?

Cute animal pictures attract readers

Cute animal pictures attract readers

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’?

“The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline  – a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.  Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus (p.121).” As someone who has tended to feel that I work best when left alone by school bureaucracy, ‘the hierarchy’ and performance management, I felt a little better for reading this.I felt less comfortable as Collins went on to explain how companies enacted a culture of discipline.  One case study, Abbott, had a rigorous bottom line against which you were measured.  “Every Abbott manager in every type of job was responsible for his or her return on investment (p.123).”To return to the ‘hedgehog concept’, one of the ‘three circles’ is finding out what the basis of your ‘economic ‘engine is (the others are passion and ability to excel).  All of the companies “discovered the single denominator – profit per– that had the greatest impact on their economics.  (It would be cash flow per in the social sector) (p.96).”  For example, for Abbott it was profit per employee, for Nucor, per ton of finished steel, for Fannie Mae, profit per mortgage risk level (pp.106-7).

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).”

A flywheel

A flywheel

I can just about run the ‘flywheel’ in trying to improve my lessons (relentlessly pushing gradual improvements – like introducing particular bits of assessment for learning).  Even then, I get side-tracked by other worthwhile things.If we don’t have that focus, can we really achieve this gradual improvement?Can a school with a sole focus on students’ grades ever provide them with a full education?Can a school which attends to all aspects of a student’s needs be great at what it does?
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]