How To Run Your School Like a Startup
While doing research for my thesis a while back, I studied more than 230 school leaders to identify the key practices that explain why some perform better than others on enrollment growth. I found that four key methods explain a whopping 66% of the difference in performance among leaders in the sample.
Today, I run what some may characterize a 'startup' in the world of education. We have grown significantly over the past three years and are now helping over 200 schools, colleges and preschools nationwide to grow their enrollment. We remain, however, committed to 'agile' management principles. Over the summer, I wanted to analyze in a more profound way how a startup management style may overlap or even benefit school administration.
1. Embracing uncertainty
Startups are distinctly different from schools, yet there are also similarities. Many established schools today are experiencing unprecedented levels of instability, brought on by technological disruption and increased competition. I've found that the best performing school leaders we've worked with in established schools are constantly innovating in their work. They look for ways to redesign their jobs to add more value, and they keep on learning new things. That means that they experiment and pivot from time-to-time, just like startups.
A good example is a principal in one of our schools who has been leading a severely underperforming school in Detroit where 80% of students are on food stamps. He started experimenting with new ways of teaching, which led his school to be the first in the entire United States to flip the classroom for the whole school— homework at school and, lectures at home via video clips. He applied the 'startup way' inside his school. He had a very tight budget, not unlike a startup, and began by A/B testing his hypothesis around flipping with a minimal viable approach (using some basic videos and teaching plans) to see how it would work in two social studies courses. We find these kinds of innovators and learners throughout the world of education. We simply need to give them tools, frameworks, and the right encouragement.
2. Keep a short list of priorities.
In my experience, startup teams and school leaders obsess about their work — they go all in and fully commit. More often than not they are hyper-focused on their work. When they slip, however, the consequences are tremendous. I recently spoke to a founder of an online education marketplace. He had a laser-like focus on his key for-profit segment. Some high-profile investors approached him to extend this to a non-profit area. Flattered by their attention, he re-allocated resources to that new effort, only to encounter problems in his core business. After a while, he realized that he had prematurely branched out and had to re-focus his efforts. It’s a real concern given startups (just like schools) have very, very limited resources. Doing less, and sticking to a narrow scope is key, yet the temptation to prematurely expand to new audiences, new features, new services, and new geographies is very strong. Similarly, successful schools niche down and focus only on their ideal prospective families. They accept that they cannot afford to be everything to all families. It requires real discipline to master this principle when little is known and resources are scarce.
3. Passion is a prerequisite - necessary, but not sufficient.
I initially thought that school leaders who do very well did so because they “followed their passion.” What this implies is that passion should dictate what you choose to do, regardless of other considerations. Having passion and purpose in one’s job is essential. When one inspires oneself, it becomes easier to inspire others. In today’s workplaces, whether in schools or startups, you need to get others excited about your initiatives and projects—you can’t just rely on the old style “command and control” management style. However, it turns out that passion is necessary, but not sufficient. After thoroughly thinking this through I've come to believe that top performers go about it differently: they match their passion with purpose. Passion is about doing what you love, while purpose is about doing what contributes to our fellow neighbors. Passion asks, "what can the world give me (a hedonistic view)?" Purpose asks, "what can I give to the world (an other-orientation)?" In both a school and a startup setting, leaders who infuse their work with both passion and purpose perform much better than leaders who have just one or the other.
If you’re a school leader, a founder, or working in a startup, don’t just follow your passion. Try to formulate how you can take your unique strengths and find ways to contribute to the world.
Ask the following: What’s your personal purpose statement? What value do you create for others—staff, parents, teachers, co-workers, students? Is this value also meaningful to you personally? What societal benefits does your work bring?
4. Learning in Loops
One of the great virtues of the startup mindset is the focus on learning empirically - constantly testing and measuring results, evaluating and pivoting if necessary. I've found in my research that the best school leaders apply a similar process of “learning in loops.” They try out a new way of working (say leading a staff meeting), then they try to learn from the experience (say getting feedback on the meeting's effectiveness), then modify their behaviors, and repeat.
It has also been striking to discover how few school leaders do this while working. Many become competent at a particular skill, and then they stop improving; they stop stretching themselves. Startups and schools that continuously "learn in loops" have a huge advantage over others who are not learning at the same rate.
Agile management is certainly a great method for lean startups, but it can have a powerful impact on PK-12 schools, too. By setting small attainable goals, making rapid changes, reviewing progress, and receiving feedback on a weekly basis, you can begin reshaping your school in a way that eliminates obstacles and creates progress.