Thursday, February 10, 2005

Good to Great

Our principal started the school year with a whole powerpoint presentation on the theses of the book. I was disqusted that we were attempting to model our school after corporate America, including a tobacco company! What is successful isn't always right.

Even though there are many lessons to be learned fromt the business world, schools are not corporations, and kids are not commodities.

While I agree schools are not corporations, I believe they have a lot to learn from the corporate world in terms of using best practices and replicating what works in other similar situations.

My first reaction* to Good to Great was similar to yours: why are we studying what businesses do?

But being reflexively anti-corporate isn't going to help our schools, just as being reflexively pro-corporate won't help. There are important differences between the work of public schools and the work of businesses, yet the challenges of running an organization well in a sustainable way are faced by all.

Good to Great is all about creating a "culture of discipline." The companies they studied, which went from being average or slightly above average to being way, way above average (in terms of their stock value), all had "Level 5 Leaders." I'm going to skip describing this kind of leadership, since it seems like a difficult thing to intentionally create, but it might arise organically from some of the other ideas in the book.

It's important, according to GtG, to "get the right people on the bus, in the right seats." That means hiring carefully, waiting for the right person before hiring, and if someone isn't working out, moving them to a position where they will help the organization or firing them quickly, rather than putting up with mediocrity in order to spare yourself the pain of conflict.

We talked about this on Monday. One difference between schools and businesses is that once a person is "on the bus," it is pretty hard to get him or her off the bus in a school. My school discovered this first hand when it took us about two months to fire one of our teachers this year, someone who really wasn't working out. I've spared you the details. Suffice to say that this person sat around for about a month doing random chores and reading his book because we didn't want him in the classroom and we couldn't yet fire him. So the question is, given that some red flags were raised when he applied, why and how did we end up hiring him? How can we prevent this in the future? How can we improve the interview process so that we find people who going to be a good fit for our school?

Another important idea in GtG is the "Hedgehog Concept" - taken from a fable in which a fox tries a hundred clever ideas to catch the hedgehog, but the hedgehog always protects itself by doing one thing really well, rolling up into a spiny ball. Instead of going after every interesting opportunity, GtG advocates finding the one thing your company can do best, and putting your energy and resources there. This rings true for me as a person and for me as a member of an organization. The Hedgehog Concept will be
  • something you can be the best at (not second best, not among the best, simply the best)
  • something that makes economic sense - they focus on figuring out what your denominator is - for example, for Walgreens, it was profit per customer visit, which allowed them to cluster stores to great effect... schools, naturally, aren't in it for the profit, but could we find a simple way of expressing the most fundamental indicator of our success? thinking per student/hour? learning per teacher/minute? I'm just tossing out ideas....
  • something that you are passionate about (schools have that one nailed - or at least, we SHOULD have that one nailed).


That doesn't seem too scary and corporate to me. It's a good way to live a life, and a good way to run an organization - making your decisions align with one unifying idea. The hard part, of course, is how you figure out what that unifying idea will be that will make everything else fall into place. GtG cautions that you won't figure out your Hedgehog Concept in one weekend retreat or even, most likely, in a year... it takes time, dialogue, revision. So, it's a great description, but what's the prescription? If you have the right people on the bus, will you eventually come to a Hedgehog Concept? Or is it not that easy?

Overall, the book isn't likely to revolutionize my schools or any school. But it renewed my commitment to the idea that we need to find people who work hard because they care about doing the best possible job, and then, we need to stay focused on "the bottom line" (to drop another corporate phrase).

*Ok, my first reaction was, "Crap! I have to read another badly-written corporate self-help book full of cheesy anecdotes about Enron!" But it turns out that while that describes The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork perfectly, Good to Great is bearably-written and not cheesy. In fact, it's based on data gathered from financial documents, interviews, etc.

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