Reflecting on the Adaptability Project

Thursday was the fourteenth and final day of George School’s Adaptability Project summer seminar. The eleven faculty members of the group spent nearly three weeks of what would have been our summer vacations sequestered in the MDA Library. Our task was to develop solutions to the challenges that face schools like ours, and to do so with deftness. Two proposals were selected by the “shark tank” judges, and now we’ll spend the 2015-16 school year trying to get them approved by our faculty using Quaker process. The questions I’d like to reflect on are: Was this process successful? Was it time well spent? Does this innovation lab concept make sense for other schools? Was it personally and professionally rewarding for me?

I can’t truly judge whether or not our efforts were a success until the faculty weighs the two proposals. Even then, it could be years before they are fully implemented to the extent that they can be properly evaluated. I wish that I was more confident that they will “bend the cost curve” as we were tasked to do. My greater concern is that both proposals strike me as “me too” initiatives. We are proposing to make changes that imitate what other schools are doing, and while that might be good for us, it isn’t particularly distinctive or innovative. We’ll need to find ways to make these changes such that they are uniquely George School in flavor and character. That might yet happen during the implementation phase; I have faith.

As I’ve been pondering in my posts over the last week, I suspect that this “me too” quality results from the episodic nature of innovation at GS. Because we haven’t looked at these issues (i.e. technology in the classroom and course distribution requirements) in a number of years, at least not with this degree of concentrated heat, there was a backlog of pent-up potential change that needed to be addressed. I suspect that if we duplicated this Adaptability Project process again and again for the next three-to-five years, we would just keep working through this backlog. In other words, truly innovative ideas wouldn’t surface until we moved through all of the low-hanging fruit or obvious areas for improvement. (I don’t mean to minimize the serious work required to structure proposals for change thoughtfully, nor to minimize the challenge of reaching consensus on approving these proposals.)

We might have seen some funkier, oddball proposals if we hadn’t been pressured to work in teams quite so quickly. We initially had eleven faculty members with eleven different proposals, and I would have liked to have seen more of them stand alone. After all of the synthesis that happened, the four proposals that actually reached the shark tank had their sharp edges rubbed off, like the stylization that affected the ancient Cycladic sculptures after a millennium of repetition. For instance, I was initially interested in exploring the idea of joining an online consortium as part of a rather jagged menu of “unbundling” strategies. The consortium idea is now part of the larger “technology renaissance” proposal, but the logic behind it has shifted, and my ability to make a strong financial case is lessened as a result. Admittedly, the tech proposal in which it is just one cog has a logic to it that works beautifully with the other team’s proposal, so one could argue that some magic occurred in the process that will lead to everything working out beautifully.

There is no doubt in my mind that these three weeks were rewarding ones for me, professionally and personally. We have an all-star group of mid-career teachers at GS, and spending time with them working through challenging issues concerning the future of the institution that we all love is bracing stuff. My colleagues push me intellectually, and their passion often exceeds my own. I was determined to be an agent provocateur throughout the process, and I may have been too confrontational at times, both through my blog posts and my comments in meetings. Well, I have my own notions of what it means to be an innovative organization, and I want to see us evince those qualities across everything that we do, not just in a cloistered setting. For me, that means promoting transparency, challenging sacred cows, busting silos, and embracing new tools. We heard about schools that are doing some of these things when Heather Hoerle presented to us; maybe we all need to visit an altschool. Regardless, I’m grateful that my colleagues have patience for me when I am speaking like a prophet of innovation.

Next time, if there is a next time, we need to study innovative schools (and innovative businesses from other sectors) more actively and deeply. We did this a little bit when we Skyped with the senior administrative team from Kiski. They have a good system for nimble decision-making, but they are a smaller school and don’t have the expectations that come with Quaker process. If our HOS has one very provocative idea embedded in the Adaptability Project, it is this: With some rethinking and rejiggering of its structures, Quaker process at George School could help us adapt with deftness, not hinder us. It stands to reason that this could be true. The problem that many large organizations face is that they have layers upon layers of bureaucracy. We don’t. Our organization is very flat, and other schools actually envy this quality. So how did that become a perceived weight that pulls us to do things slowly? Much more reflection is needed on this topic.

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