Monday, March 10, 2014

Reflections on Jim Collin's Latest Book- Great By Choice and How It Applies to Educational Leadership

I have to start this off with a confession.  I adore Jim Collin's books.  I've adored them since my time at the Bergen County Academies when I was first introduced to his work by Danny Jaye, Good to Great.  I have read that book both in paperback and listening to it via audio.   It's a book that has very much shaped my thinking on effective leadership.  I often find myself using phrases like "level five leadership" and "getting the right people on the bus" often without any inclination that anyone around me even knows what I am talking about and then I've found the need to define the terms I use.  When I first came to Magen David, I asked my principal if we could purchase that book for all administrators.  He delightfully obliged.  Many have read it since and remarked to me how influential it has been on them.

The premise of that book, Good to Great, was one in which I believe rings true to many organizations and people regardless of mission.  The notion of the enemy of great being good, of never being satisfied with being "Good" when you really want to be "great" still rings true.  The concept of an almost laissez faire leadership that is accelerated by finding and putting the right people in your organization and allowing them to do what they do best is something I have come to fully embrace.  The notion that a mission of an organization must focus on what it does and can do best and not be all things to all people is perhaps one of the most profound lessons of that book.   It is also a lesson I myself have tried to implement in my life.  I am not good at many things.  Instead, I try to focus on areas I am really great on.  If I tried focusing on everything, I would do nothing really well.  I'd just be "good."

I should mention that this notion of focusing on specific areas of potential greatness to fine tune them and really go from being just good to great is accented in the writing of Muhammad Yunus.  He discusses why a small country off the coast of Italy whose native population has mastered the ability to become fairly competent in a variety of crafts and become somewhat of their own "fix it' people is not as competitive a nation as the US.  He explains this lack of specialization is exactly why that country is not a first world nation, not rapidly successful.  Former head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernake, in his book on microeconomics explains that this is precisely why the US is so successful.  That specialization leads to success.  We go to a doctor with a specific specialty for specific focus.  Even Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional intelligence, recently crafted an entire book on the topic aptly titled, Focus.

What Collins does in his latest book is take this concept further.  He claims there are three elements that make up the trifecta of what it takes to be a wildly successful company and CEO.  Yes, they had the clear focused vision, yes they had the right people on the bus, but now they also have something more. He claims this trifecta is: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia.   He talks of the concept of  a 20 mile march regardless of weather as a metaphor for being focused on success at a certain level and being willing to contain success to a certain level when times are good and maintain success when times are more complex.  The concept of stability and discipline is emphasized.

In chapter 4, Collin's talks about the notion of throwing out bullets instead of cannon balls.  He uses this metaphor to describe the concept of testing the waters with new ideas in a low pressure low risk situation first before going "all in" and testing new ideas in a big way with big risk.  I love this idea.  I think one of the hardest tasks for a leader is knowing how to analyze the empirical data and decide which innovations to then adapt and make into cannon balls from bullets.  Furthermore, the hard part is knowing how to roll out that change globally.  In Apple's case, Steve Job's brought in someone he knew was successful at the implementation at the Gap to do just that.

I think the key here is to recognize when you need advice from others and when you need to trust your instinct to analyze the empirical data and decide on your own.   He uses the example of a person who found out they had a form of cancer that was potential life threatening.  Instead of simply taking the prescribed course of action his doctors suggested, he investigated the field more.  He read the journal articles on it.  He learned about the conflicting views.  He then decided what course of action he felt was best based on the data he evaluated.  In this situation, one might be tempted to speak with experts in the field and simply follow what the most trustworthy expert one found was suggests.  One might be intimidated by the notion of looking at the critical research because of their lack of expertise.   It sounds brazen to make a decision of that caliber with precisely those stakes when one realizes he/she is not the expert.  The trick here I believe is that Collins is suggesting one become the expert by "owning" your situation and taking all necessary steps to investigate what could be done and the consequences for each.  While I don't doubt there will be situations in one's lifetime where relying upon other's expertise will be vital, I think the trick here is limiting the reliance or at the very least making the reliance based on empirical observation and not simply emotional feeling alone.  That I can hear.

I do think though that part of his advice here is a bit counterintuitive and even contradicts his previous example of bringing on an expert from another company to learn how to do something.  That notion involves allowing a leader to recognize his/her limits and act accordingly.  I think any major decision needs both a deference to experts and also the true delving into the empirical data.  I think this is possibly what he is getting at, but it is not so clearly written.

Another element of these level 10x companies or leaders is their fanatical constant discipline willing to do whatever it takes to make something work.  Trying exceptionally hard and following through.  They also tend to be people and companies that are always asking "what if" preparing and even over preparing for every scenario.  For this I often remember fondly my grandmother storing up excessive amounts of canned food in the basement for the "you never know" day when she might need to eat and there won't be food in the stores.  That depression era mentality, the survivor in her, made for decision making looking at the what if the glass was not full.  She fully embraced the good, but was always prepared for the bad, if not over prepared.

We as schools need to prepare for the "what ifs" in life instead of being tempted to simply and hastily reacting to the whims of educational and societal forces around us.  Innovation is key, but innovation for the sake of innovation is reckless and simply not good practice.  We need to innovate or steal the best ideas from those who do so successfully in a methodical and well thought out process.  We need to never sacrifice our mission or integrity to do so.  This is hard for all private schools because, like one head of school at a southern elementary school during the NAIS conference remarked to me, "If I don't make something flashy happen at our school, the families will think they are missing out because of all the flashy things going on at the school down the road."  I hear that.  While I think the yeshivas have other factors that draw parents and students to flock to them, this could be an issue.  Competition does exist.  We'd be terribly in the dark to discount it.  However, that is precisely when we can succeed best, by being uncompromising on our vision, by holding on to what we believe is best and by implementing new initiatives that work with our core values and enhance our programs because they are empirically shown to do so.

So what do we know empirically in the education field works? Where can we innovate with bullets and safely try new things with low risk?  What type of expertise do we need to know become acquainted with to be super effective?  How can we make sure people who are on our bus are methodically dedicated?  What "what ifs" do we as educators need to be worried about?

These are the questions that have been buzzing in my head since I began this book.  I think our task as educational leaders is to survey the data and constantly be reading the latest material and studies in education.   Yet, we need to sit back and set target goals that are tough, manageable, and reachable each year and related to the research.  We need to be audacious yet willing to not go too far in the "good years" and willing to go just far enough in the "tough years."  We need to be willing to try a few new things without going all in before we jump head into something that looks great.

This is especially useful for yeshiva leaders whose budgets are limited.  It enables us to try a few things without bankrolling something in full and totally using up our entire budget on one idea.  It makes sense financially.  We need to be willing to hire people who might not classically be educators if we believe they can add something to our school that no one else can provide.  The "what ifs" could vary regarding the school in the equation.  However, I think many of us can think of several "what ifs" that are relevant to our individual school.  As a constant worry wort, I won't deny that is probably one of my biggest strengths (it's ironic I never thought of it as such).  I am always planning what if scenarios and am fanatically worried about the ramification for any actions taken or not.  This doesn't stop me from acting or amending previous actions, but it does make me think quite a few steps ahead.  I have lots to learn, no doubt, as we all do.  This book serves as a great guide towards that direction.  I'm sure I'll have more to say once I finish it.

Here are some links to information on the books I mentioned: