Comforting Complexity, and a Broader Purpose

Good to Great Social SectorsAt the NAIS Annual Conference, I attended both the keynote and a follow-up panel discussion with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and other books. I was able to read most of the recent monograph he published that attempts to tie the ideas of Good to Great to the Social Sectors (schools, non-profits, etc.).

My first reaction was that about half of what he presented was interesting and reassuring (having more discipline, having a clear focus, technology as an accelerator, right people in the right places, Level Five leadership). The other half of his content seems to miss the mark:

— Good is the enemy of great.
— Slipping from great to good can happen instantly, without clear indicators.
— Plan for, and even hope for, disruptions that will reveal your strengths.
— The simplistic hedgehog and flywheel concepts.
— Instead of profit, the measure of success of a social sector organization is reputation.
— Being “neurotically productive” is the best state of existence.
— In effect, live in and for the future, not the present.

In many conversations afterwards, we focused on both the positive and the confusing aspects of his presentations, and it became clearer that school environments can be much more complex than the business environments that have been the subject of his research. In addition to leadership being more “legislative” than “executive,” it is also true that independent schools still have a social service calling. That might be why technology coordinators, school financial officers, and others are much more likely to share information with each other than hide it. In many ways, our missions are linked, instead of competitive.

All of that messes up his good to great premises, including the “hedgehog” investment to be “the world’s best” at one element in your organization. Resources, time and investment in schools is a subtly changing balancing act with multiple fulcrums and measures of achievement. We need to act with discipline and with an eye toward the future, but in the end we’re looking for the greatness in our students and not our organizations. In effect, that’s how we serve the current and future community.

Collins is correct that a country filled with successful companies may be prosperous but not great. That “broader sense of purpose” is what attracts many of us to education to begin with, but those goals are too complex to simplistically match with corporate structures.

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