Power and context.
This morning, on my walk with Lucy, I re-listened to Daniel Pink’s Office Hours with Gary Hamel. I continue to return to Gary Hamel’s session for a number of reasons, some of which are:
- I find that the information I internalize changes depending on what else is on my mind.
- The interview is super packed with incredible, thought-provoking ideas.
- Gary Hamel is exploring organizations that are not conforming to industrial-age paradigms for management and operational structure. He is interested in management 2.0. I see countless lessons here for school transformation in the next decade.
This morning, I was most enamored with the ideas surrounding the organizational pyramid – the hierarchical org chart that defines many companies, institutions, and schools. Of course, I am primarily interested in schools.
Hamel outlined that power resides at the top of the pyramid. For this session with Hamel, power seemed to be defined as the positional ability to set organizational strategy and direction. However, context resides at the base of the pyramid. The situational and conditional parameters for employing strategy and direction – through tactics and daily actions – lives at the classroom level, not the head of school level (in my immediate world). Obviously, this dynamic creates a tension. Those at the base – those with the richest context immersion – often feel that they have very little, if any, power to enact systemic change. Those at the top – those with the power to set the organizational direction and strategy – often lack the context needed to fully understand, in a learning-by-doing kind of way, if the strategy and direction makes sense in the daily operations and actions of the workforce – with the teachers, in a school setting.
So, organizational change and transformation is easy, right? We just have to figure out the most effective ways to move power down the pyramid and/or move context up the pyramid…that is, if we don’t want to replace the pyramid altogether with some other design. How might we move power and context through the pyramid?
- We could improve the pyramid’s ability to conduct communications electricity. One way to enact this type of conduction enhancement is to utilize the ethos and practices of a PLC (professional learning community). During my last five years as a school principal, the junior high established PLCs in multiple departments. I attended all of the PLC meetings as we began, but as the number of PLCs and participants grew, I was only able to attend one to two of every four meetings for every PLC. While I wish I could have been in 100% of the meetings, the 25-50% attendance (mostly as a co-participant) allowed me to get more of the context, and it allowed my teammates to contextualize the strategic and direction-setting power with which I was invested. Consequently, as one example, the English PLC was able to create significant course change in a few weeks because we could mix and mingle with context and power. The department chair was also a regular member of the PLC. As a result of improving the exchange of power and context, the writing program in grade 8 was revolutionized in short order.
- We could flatten the pyramid. By doing so, context and power would reside in the same neighborhood and play at the same playgrounds. Recently, I have been exploring such an idea with suggestions like bringing “Mutual Fun” to school faculties. Instead of using a top-down approach, engage more of a bottom-up methodology. Give more strategy and direction-setting power to those with the best context. Empower the faculty to generate and select the ideas that are most worth doing as a collective whole. I imagine some would consider this inverting the pyramid.
- We could build a new shape within the pyramid. (I picture a sphere within the pyramid, essentially connecting the top and the base through proximity to a common object.) Hamel said in his session with Pink that organizational change is directly proportional to organizational experimentation. So, an R&D (research and development) team could be assembled to investigate and implement various cutting-edge pedagogies and methodologies. Medicine uses R&D. The automotive industry uses R&D. Technology uses R&D. Heck, meat cutting and steak makers use R&D (I heard it on another podcast – NPR’s Planet Money). Many industries use R&D. Does education really use a systemic form of R&D? We should. By creating an R&D group and building it wisely, a school could synergize context and power by leveraging this iSchool group.
Of course, at a school that finds itself enmeshed in the world 1.0 hierarchical pyramid, it would take some very special and atypical leadership to disrupt the comfortable and familiar. Another thing that Hamel said that continues to stick in my mind – most leaders are not able to “depreciate their existing intellectual capital.” He earlier had indicated that “change is so hard, not because the future is unpredictable, but because it is unpalatable.”
So, I would definitely say that designing and strategizing the management structure – the power and context grid – must be a part of a school’s “pedagogical master plan.” Such is one of the primary engines that is charged to motor the entire organization. I imagine that purposeful alignment and integration must happen for the management dynamic to “fit” with the organizational progression dynamic. You simply must use the correct engine for your vehicle.
If you expect to get somewhere…pleasantly and enjoyably.