Enabling Change
Enabling Change

Next generation learning is all about everyone in the system—from students through teachers to policymakers—taking charge of their own learning, development, and work. That doesn’t happen by forcing change through mandates and compliance. It happens by creating the environment and the equity of opportunity for everyone in the system to do their best possible work.

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Can we actually design for an organizational culture or is it something that organically grows over time, in ways that cannot be architected?

Last month I wrote about a formula I was experimenting with that asserted that the key to transforming a new charter school's short-term viability into long-term viability and sustainability rested on that school's culture. The formula was:

Transformative Culture = Self Awareness + Belonging

'Self-Awareness' was described as not only the ability to see one's self clearly but also to perceive how others see you. 'Belonging' was described as the paradoxical blend of both being part of something larger and having the courage to stand apart in one's convictions.

But how do we actually design for self-awareness and belonging (or any cultural attribute for that matter)? Can we actually design for a culture or is it something that organically grows over time, in ways that cannot be architected?

Building architects design structures by taking into account how tenants will use the space. Architects will then try to marry form to function to create spaces that enable, enhance and sustain those activities. Could 'architects of culture' do the same when designing for a specific culture?

For this reason, I want to use the term 'culture architects' for this aspect of the position of any founder/CEO or school leader. What kinds of activities and experiences do our schools engage in that our school's culture could enable, enhance and sustain?

The key to the success of any organization's culture lies in how decisions are made. You can show me many organizations that are generous with employee perks (ping pong table, free snacks, after work socials, etc.), have amazing office space and foster a collegial, almost playful work environment. But these are fleeting, indirect attempts at sustainability. Show me an organization that has ingrained how it makes great decisions and you have a sustainable, long-term, thriving organization. Great decision-making can by systemized and when it is, the results are incredible (think of Pixar's string of animated blockbuster animated movies or Apple's run of product launches from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad, etc.).

Ray Dalio, the founder and now chairman of the world's most successful and influential hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, details this roadmap of culture building in his legacy book Principles: Life and Work.

According to Dalio, great decisions that stem from a great decision-making culture flow in a kind of waterfall:

Values > Principles > Algorithms > Data > Refine/Repeat

Great values lead to great principles. Algorithms can capture great principles. Those decision-making algorithms can be stress-tested and refined over time with actual data and experience.

Dalio has actually taken the time to write down the principle behind every decision he and his organization makes, and then compares those decisions to the outcomes achieved (versus what they thought they'd achieve) to continuously refine the decision making algorithm that is captured by that principle.

I am starting to explore what this might look like in education.

For example, we believe that by interviewing candidates on a set of five turnaround competencies backed by research to demonstrate and explain evidence of them, we'll conduct a more discerning interview. We plumb into the depths of determining whether a prospective candidate through two rounds of both single and team interviews has actually demonstrated these competencies. Finally, we hold a social gathering where we see how potential candidates interact with us and each other, to better understand whether they can be a part of our culture, socially, emotionally and philosophically. So you can say that our HR value is one of alignment. Here's the waterfall applied:

Value: Talent alignment

Principle: Hire those candidates most aligned to the competencies needed to achieve your school's vision.

Algorithm to test a candidate's alignment to our competency based model:

5-competency screen (Achievement + Persistence/Initiative + Directiveness/Monitoring + Flexibility + Teamwork) x (Single + Team + Social Interviews) = 95% recruitment success & 80% retention after year one.

(We of course will test these 95% and 80% rates with our actual data and then refine the algorithm accordingly.)

Here's another example:

Value: Parent empowerment

Principle: A successful parent in our school should move from initial involvement to engagement to empowerment of our vision and model in their child's success and that in turn will lead to high student attendance and retention.

Algorithm to test parent progression to parent success:

3 Parent Involvement Touch points + 2 Parent Engagement Actions + 1 Parent Empowerment Experience = Parent Success (95% attendance & retention)

We will also test this algorithm over time to see if we are over-investing or under-investing in any stage of parent progression to enable higher student attendance and retention.

What are the non-negotiable beliefs or principles by which you lead your life, organization and decision-making? Have they been captured in written form and tested? If the principles are true, then this process will help systemize it into your culture. But if the principles are false, the data will reveal ways to refine them, or you'll need to stop making decisions based on them. Either way, you will move closer to embedding a great decision-making culture in your organization, and who wouldn't want that?

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Sajan George

Founder and CEO, Matchbook Learning

Sajan George, Founder and Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning, is driven by a passion to realize the dream that all students regardless of background can learn and succeed in our society.