On a recent trip to the west coast, I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with a start up CEO – someone who walked away from corporate America, leased office space (the company name was not on the building registry) and followed a passion to create a product. This company works in the K-12 space and is doing great things to support education. I never let an opportunity to sit down and talk to these leaders go by. The return of knowledge I receive far outweighs my investment of time.
In the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the idea of entrepreneurial leadership, it’s definition(s), and how the ideas can be applied to educational settings. I’ve written other blog posts about the qualities and traits that are common among entrepreneurs and it is quite interesting to me that in the first few minutes of my conversation with this start-up CEO, one of the main ideas of entrepreneurial leadership was front and center in our discussion.
The CEO was telling me about a new feature of their product. I questioned the CEO as to why this particular feature became the newest update of the product, as it seemed to be less of a robust solution for customers. The CEO indicated that listening to their customers, it became crystal clear that this is a feature was desired, so the company provided the feature. And then the CEO said (paraphrased): “We need to listen and to be agile.”
There it was: agile. I see this word used in just about every article piece of research that I read that discusses the art and science of entrepreneurial leadership. The ability for CEOs and startups to be agile and responsive is the key to their survival. It is also the key to our survival in education – I’m just not sure we either realize it or if we do, know exactly how to create agility in our organizations that seem to be beholden to the ghostly chains of mandates and statute.
As I read and try to define this notion of agility, I find other words consistently used as descriptors: flexibility, planning, quick identification of issues and circumstances and decisive action. Leaders who are agile develop multiple pathways toward solutions and can anticipate several potential scenarios and outcomes. Most importantly, agility in leadership means staring down fear and making bold decisions and course corrections for the organization. I am also reminded of the lessons taught by DeWitt Jones, the famous National Geographic Photographer and leadership speaker, with regard to answers. There’s always more than one right answer but the best answer moves the organization from ordinary to extraordinary. At the end of the day, it takes a commitment to agility to find that answer that will transform the organization and catapult it forward.
Complacency is the enemy of agility. Complacent organizations tend to think they have figured out the key drivers of success and stick to those drivers no matter what. Complacent leadership leads to the death knell of groupthink. Groupthink . . . well, we know what happens when we all think the same thing and act accordingly, even if it is wrong. What complacent leaders fail to realize is there is no such thing as usual or normal, especially in the business of education. Every day, every month, every year, children change. Again, one of my favorite quotes comes to mind: One cannot solve problems with the same mindset that created them. (Albert Einstein). Leaders who exhibit agile qualities and reinforce them in their organizations subject their businesses to constant revisions, continuous improvements and reinvention. Constant re-imagination is truly agility.
But it’s more than just about the work and how the work is done. It is also about the space in which work is done. New designs in workspaces have become a component of agility in business and need to become a component in the agility of schools. The environment in which students learn and teachers teach needs to be creative, imaginative and agile. Teachers need and desire flexibility. They need to be able to regroup and rethink lessons on a continuous basis. The positive byproduct of formative and creative assessment is the ability to use that assessment to not only drive instruction, but to modify and redesign the environment in which learning takes place…agility.
The idea that the space in which we work promotes creativity and agility is an interesting concept. I look at the warehouse school designs of the industrial era and begin to understand why we cannot seem to get ahead of the curve with regard to student success. So much time, energy and resources are spent on teaching and learning ideas that there is little left to apply toward the ideas of the space in which this work must happens.
Our ability to understand and respond to conditions within our business of education is critical to our agility and our ability to meet the needs of our ever-evolving customers. All of this starts with agile entrepreneurial leadership. Agility in leadership and the true embracing of change and new ideas must be the model by which we redefine and re-imagine education. Leading an organization that is agile means continuous change and improvement. It does not mean lighting a candle at the altar of hope or the status quo. We as leaders need to be able to deal with the resulting chaos that promotes new thinking and the expansion of success.
When you have an opportunity to become agile with regard to redefining the work that you do and the space in which you work or the space in which students learn, grab that opportunity. If the space in which we do our work is agile, our organization will be agile and responsive. If those things happen, our bottom-line, that being student learning, will improve.