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“If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the father of cooperation. And we’re cooperating like never before.” (John Ashcroft, former US Attorney General)

Facing a massive shortage of ventilators to save precious Italian lives, Dr Franceso Minardi at the Maggiore Hospital in Parma saw an opportunity to adapt a snorkelling mask using an innovative 3D printing hack. So, in cooperation with engineers at ISINNOVA and the sporting goods retailer, Decathlon, they went into production to create the makeshift ventilators, so saving hundreds of lives. And in the spirit of cooperative invention, they made the 3D printable design, as well as the product itself, available free of charge on their website.

While we have all felt many difficulties and challenges of this year’s COVID-19 crisis, there have been many stories such as this one, in which necessity has created the conditions for amazing innovations. Whether it is school graduation ceremonies held on ski lifts or within Minecraft, socially-distanced music concerts, PPE vending machines or the ‘Goodnight Zoom’ project, creating opportunities for isolated senior citizens to connect with young children for remote story time, inspiration and community innovations have arisen out of extreme challenge.

Doing more with less

As we have reopened schools for an academic year like no other, we know that we face very real challenges as educators and school leaders. We have critical budgetary challenges, prompting many very tough decisions about staffing and support for families in difficult economic circumstances. Our agility is being tested to the limit, as we plan for the unknown, respond and adapt to perpetual change, and communicate clearly in the midst of great uncertainty and anxiety. And our duty to continuously improve the standards of support and teaching and learning that we offer to our students is still being closely monitored and scrutinized through on-going inspection and accreditation processes. Just surviving is not an option!

The good news is, there is a silver lining to these challenges too! Like so many other COVID innovations, out of necessity will spring educational invention too.

We have heard for decades now that the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) poses profound questions for the future of work and the future of learning. The need to prepare our children and young adults to thrive in the face of challenge is also a compelling reason to reflect deeply on the way that we operate and structure our schools.

Since we went ‘remote’ and started Distance Learning in March, we have learned a lot of useful lessons about the way that we work. As many organizations and companies are reflecting, there have been some unexpected benefits to this shift in working practices. For some, productivity has increased as time has been more intentionally allocated to ‘getting on with the job’, rather than wasting time in endless meetings! The work has also become more visible and transparent, for those using great tools like Slack channels, Glass Frog, or Trello to track workflow and facilitate team collaboration. For others, innovation has increased as face-to-face brainstorming or planning meetings, often dominated by the HiPPOs (the highest-paid person’s opinion) or the extroverts, are replaced by online forums where everyone can contribute equally, in their own way, and after careful reflection. What if we could keep and purposefully develop these advantages as a permanent change rather than just a temporary response to crisis?

As Jeff Sutherland, the founder of Scrum, describes in his book ‘Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time’, making simple but significant shifts in the way that we work can have massive impacts on our productivity as well as our ability to adapt, respond and improve our outcomes. But schools are already among the busiest workplaces anywhere, and teachers are among the hardest working and most committed professionals! So clearly, this is not about working harder, but smarter.

Think about your normal school improvement, or strategic planning process. Too often, we front-load all of the ‘thinking’ before we get to doing the ‘doing’. Of course, we want to make sure that we’re putting our efforts in the right places. But when things are changing so rapidly, lengthy and detached Self Evaluation Form (SEF) and School Improvement Planning (SIP) processes mean that often plans are out-dated before they even get started, and within a few weeks new information and new priorities have emerged! Here are three fantastic benefits that using a more agile way of working can bring.

Firstly, a great way to keep ourselves focused on continuous improvement in the right places is to work in short cycles of planning, doing and reflecting known as ‘sprints’. This means that teams from across the school are empowered by a clear structure to get going on the real work of improvement. By formalising reflection in the sprint process, we also make sure that we get regular feedback from students, parents, and colleagues when we need it. This makes sure that everybody remains focused on the right things at the right time; the 20% of things that have 80% of the impact.

Secondly, by making things transparent, Scrum and agile ways of working hold teams accountable for their outcomes. Work in process is made visible as it is displayed on online platforms (like Trello) or on wall displays (e.g. Scrum boards) and team members and managers find it hugely beneficial to see their progress and remaining priorities clearly. Rather than being hidden away on a document that was carefully produced but rarely if ever read again, key performance targets are out in the open for all to see and be held accountable to. We all see intentional change and adaptation happen.

Thirdly, as we know, teachers and school leaders are a phenomenally hard-working bunch! But sometimes the structures and systems in schools don’t enable this energy to flow effectively and be translated into great outcomes. We sometimes lose productivity in long and time-consuming decision-making processes, or by inefficient organizational structures and unclear expectations. One of the biggest and most immediate advantages of using a more agile way of working is that it quickly highlights where the blocks and inefficiencies are in your systems. Are all of your workflows designed to have positive impacts on learning, as quickly as possible? How do teams know when things are ‘done’ and they can move on? Are managers spending too long in individual meetings detailing work assignments and following up to check on progress – pulling staff away from the real work of improving? Are colleagues spending more time writing about the work they are doing (in reports to line managers) than doing the work itself?

Studies have shown us frequently that time is our most precious commodity, so let’s create systems that prioritise and maximise it.

The other resource that we often waste are the human capacities and abilities in our teams. By creating very rigid systems of job description and responsibility allocation, we sometimes miss opportunities to benefit from the diverse skills and insights of staff members who may see a problem from a different perspective. Agile ways of working also support this by focusing on the effectiveness and outcomes of the team, so multi-talented team members are empowered to collaborate and use their various combined skills to achieve their goals as effectively and efficiently as possible, adapting quickly whenever needed.

As Graham-Brown Martin told me in a recent interview about reimagining products and service for the new economy, we need to make the most of this ‘global pause’ to reflect. Will we see a ‘great transformation’ or a ‘great depression’ as we come out of this current crisis? The answer may, in fact, be both. It may be the schools willing to be inventive that thrive in the face of our current challenging economic necessities.

If you would like to talk more about how to make the most of these positive innovations in your school, please do get in touch.

By: Tim Logan

Tim Logan is a consultant and principal supporting schools in the Middle East to drive improvement and evidence-based innovation through advisory, management and training services. Website: Email: