Ross Peters is a lifelong educator, poet and photographer who leads school strategy for Explo Elevate, a global learning cooperative. He writes frequently about education at jrosspeters.com/blog/.
It is striking how many times and in how many different contexts school people use the word “culture.”
It is everywhere. From my vantage point, we do not seem to operate with a commonly held definition of “culture”, and it also seems apparent that we don’t know what to do with it or about it no matter how we define it. I find it particularly fascinating to note how often in one moment someone calls culture out as an intractable obstacle and in the next moment someone else calls it the best tool we have in our toolbox. Strangely, I think they are both right.
It would be naive to attempt to provide any comprehensive insight into culture, in this case school culture, in a single blog post. I do, however, have a couple of rough observations:
- School culture seems to crave stability or stasis, but it is ill-equipped to create or to maintain either. A school’s culture holds together separate individuals and groups, and as such, the friction internally between those individuals and groups is certain to produce tension resulting in evolution punctuated at times by revolution.
- Additionally, the forces external to a school’s culture, including importantly and powerfully, the larger elements of culture surrounding the school (local, regional, and national, etc.) create a mixed bag of forces bound to push and pull a school culture. External forces can affect a school’s culture for good or for ill, often at the same time.
- School leadership at the administrative and governance levels faces two frustrating conundrums. Conundrum #1: leaders grown from within the school’s culture have a significant challenge in accurately seeing or developing perspective on the culture, for they are borne of it—a tree in a forest cannot see the forest, yet leaders grown from the culture are most likely to have the greatest potential to lead cultural change as they have the credibility and sense of nuance necessary to create a landscape for change.
- Conundrum #2: someone brought in from the outside of the school culture often cannot get enough of a feel for a school culture to lead school change despite having a vision for what might be necessary to move the institution forward and perhaps having experience from other schools that might inform progress toward that vision. Adding to the challenge here is that building cultural credibility within a school is most often a slower process than creating a vision for where a school should go.
- For both conundrums, confirmation bias adds a layer of significant threat. For the leader grown up from within the school culture, the tendency may be to deny the validity of new evidence if that evidence challenges cultural norms or presents the prospect of cultural conflict. Leaders brought in from the outside may be too quick to find parallel between past experience and the current milieu, and such prejudice may lead to a critical misread of the current school culture, particularly in terms of change readiness.
- Defining a school’s culture is difficult to do honestly, particularly perhaps for those who are most deeply initiated within the culture, yet storytelling from that very group is essential in getting a clear sense of culture. Nostalgia, wish-fullness, old wounds, recent successes and far more get in the way of truthful assessment of culture. Interestingly, the culture of a school can interfere with the rational attempts to define that same culture.
- Our metaphors for culture’s relationship with strategy can be scary—take for instance Peter Drucker’s oft-quoted statement: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I like the idea that we should seek to have strategy and culture live in a kind of symbiosis—they should need each other. Ideally, strategy is a kind of oxygen for cultural renewal, while culture should create a foundation for strategy and at times serve as a governor of it.
- Strategy should nudge culture, leverage culture, challenge culture, and preserve culture for generations to come. Culture and strategy should exist in relationship, if not always in equilibrium.
All of these observations about culture relate to my work describing Progress Culture, as well as the “Two, Five, Ten” approach to change management. My takeaway: in order to rise to meet all the challenges either arrived or headed our way in schools, we have to find, put in place, and establish ways to make strategic thinking both an expression of and an accelerant for cultural progress.
Strategy should nudge culture, leverage culture, challenge culture, and preserve culture for generations to come. Culture and strategy should exist in relationship, if not always in equilibrium.
Over the last few months we have found that the relevance of and interest in Progress Culture and TWO FIVE TEN central to our work at EXPLO Elevate. With that in mind, we offer the definition of each in broad strokes
Progress Culture is a defining characteristic of a healthy school in which normal includes the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world.
Our job in a transformative moment is for our schools to become progress cultures. A progress culture will:
- Always make what is best for students the alpha and omega of the conversation.
- Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school.
- Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the school.
- Be thoughtful in defining what progress is. In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change in a school. For example, if we are “college-preparatory,” we should not take steps that would diminish our ability to do that well. In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.
- Develop a faculty community that will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.
- Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents. Part of our goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a progress-culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.
Deeply linked to Progress Culture is a change management approach called TWO FIVE TEN,. As we deal with both heightened demand for change and for increased expediency and transparency in our approach to change processes demanded by the stunning challenges of 2020,, TWO FIVE TEN offers a route that prioritizes both the role of leadership and the importance of inclusion. There is much to TWO FIVE TEN that can’t be shared in brief, and I have discussed it at greater length in other blog posts and in webinars (some of which are archived through the EXPLO Elevate webpage). However, we thought it would be helpful to share the general concept here (see blow). I love conversations about change management–never hesitate to contact me if you’d like to talk. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
TWO-FIVE-TEN: A Change Management Framework
There is room for two priorities that are non-negotiable. These are the goals that, if not met, should result in abandoning or re-starting the process. The TWO is an opportunity for leadership to create the all-important frame for the process. The TWO is the CHARGE. Leadership should not define more than the TWO, but the TWO allow leadership to provide the larger compass for the scope of the work.
FIVE: “Critical Ingredients”
There is room for five critical items. The hope is that all five will be largely intact at the end of the process; however, there has to be a recognition from the start that compromise and a kind of horse trading is likely. The FIVE create an opportunity for the larger community to impact the direction and purpose of the process without the possibility of high-jacking it to a role in conflict with the TWO. In this way there is clarity from the beginning that while the FIVE are hugely important, there is no doubt that they may have to undergo some compromise to get to the ends of the process described in the TWO.
TEN: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice If” Group
These are the items that capture other hopes for the initiative. Getting all of them would be like hitting the lottery, getting six of ten would be good news. The TEN provides the community with the chance to dream about what would be ideal. A community conversation involving the TEN can also provide leadership with unique insight into what the school community values. Thus, it is important to give this aspect of the conversation enough breathing room even though there is little chance the process will lead to a place that accomplishes everything on the TEN list.
APPROACHING A CHANGE INITIATIVE THIS WAY:
- Creates appropriate and manageable expectations for progress.
- Prevents an organization from overpromising and under-delivering.
- Positions the people leading the conversation to maintain focus on what is most important. Nothing is more important than the TWO, nothing on the list of TEN should stand in the way of getting as much out of the FIVE as possible.
- Provides a disciplined framework with some flexibility. While it is important to stick with TWO and FIVE, the TEN may indeed be a slightly shorter or longer list.
- Gives the community affected by change a vitally important voice in that change without giving them a veto.
Two, Five, Ten Change Management Framework, Copyright 2020, J. Ross Peters