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The Secret Behind Productive Teams

The secret to an effective organization is empowerment and ownership.

Imagine that you had a bunch of money to invest in one of four companies. Each company claimed to be really close to developing a cheap, simple COVID test that could differentiate between the common cold, influenza, and COVID-19 in mere minutes. When you ask each founder what their company is like, here’s what they say:

  1. Star Tech: “Our employees are the cream of the crop from Ivy League universities. We pay them very well and give them the freedom and resources they need to excel.”

  2. Bureaucracy Tech: “We run a tight ship with rigorous project management and oversight. Everyone knows their role and responsibilities which makes us highly efficient.”

  3. Engineering Tech: “We only employ the most skilled engineers. They love being at the cutting edge of innovation as part of a tight-knit team.”

  4. Commitment Tech: “Our company is a lot like a big family. People join and stay because they are committed to one another, love the work, and are in it for the long haul.”

Which would you invest in?

Before answering that question, consider a slightly different question: Which would you prefer to work in? Over the course of my career, I have been part of each.

Graduate school at UC San Francisco was a vibrant Star culture. I was surrounded by self-motivated, brilliant scientists. It was amazing intellectually, but lonely. We were all hyperachievers that were constantly critiquing and judging one another’s work. I remember the anxiety of sharing new data because I’d never know whether I’d get heaps of praise or be torn to shreds and sent back to the drawing board.

I was miserable in a Bureaucracy culture. It took forever to get anything done because of all the layers of oversight. The top-down, management style was demoralizing. One time, my colleagues and I poured days and days into selecting a new hire -- screening paper applications, interviewing a dozen candidates by videoconference, then hosting multi-day on-site interviews with our favorites -- only to have someone higher up in the ladder offer the job to our least favorite choice because they thought they knew better.

As a curriculum developer, I was part of a vibrant Engineering culture. There was a fabulous team of dedicated, creative people who were passionately interested in the work. You felt free to go to anyone in the organization to get advice and guidance. It was a great place to work...

...but the Commitment culture at Chrysalis makes it not only a great place to work, but a place that feels like a precious cathedral we built together. The work we do there reminds me of a story told by Nicole Johnson about a visitor to an unfinished cathedral. “He saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, ‘Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof, No one will ever see it.’ And the workman replied, ‘Because God sees.” The message I take away from this is not about God, but about the pride of ownership and responsibility that the workman takes towards the cathedral, his cathedral. That passion is only possible in a Commitment culture.

Chrysalis is organized as a teacher-powered school which means that the teachers collectively call the shots for everything from bell schedule to budget to personnel to curriculum. The people closest to the work are the experts, and trusted to find solutions that work best for them. The Administrator/Superintendent is a servant leader who is hired by and evaluated by the teachers, not the other way around.

For example, Chrysalis used our Commitment culture to decide whether and how to reopen this fall. Staff was torn between worries about their students losing ground academically and emotionally and competing worries about their own health and safety. Administrators and board members were worried about liability, local COVID-19 rates, and the ever changing requirements coming from the Department of Education and the Department of Public Health. For big decisions like this, we use a fist to five voting method to build consensus and ensure everyone has a voice.

Teachers and administrators met toward the end of July and couldn’t decide between all kids on campus all day versus dividing each class into morning and afternoon cohorts for smaller groupings. So we released a survey to our families to collect more data. The following Friday, we met again, analyzed the data alongside our own intuition and the collective sentiment, and ultimately made the call to reopen with morning and afternoon cohorts. To alleviate the concerns of teachers with preexisting conditions, we took the extra precaution of requiring all students K-8 to wear masks in the classroom even though Public Health only mandated masks for grades 3-8. To relieve some of the burden on staff, we decided not to have kids on campus on Fridays so that all the staff had extra time to recharge and prep.

One of our teachers, Laura Bowie, says: “It takes a great deal of work to do this. And you have to trust one another and respect one another. I’ll carry your part of it, and you have a much stronger staff that way.” Another teacher, Corinne Aberg says: “The buy in is so great. You are making policy. You are determining how things run in your own classroom. You’re choosing curriculum that is passionate for you, and that passion ignites the children’s passion.” We are not workers, we are owners. It’s the difference between how you treat somewhere you rent versus how you treat and think about a place you own. That mindset shift makes all the difference in the world.

The Commitment culture model is a hallmark of many of the most successful organizations in the world -- the ones written up as case studies in business school textbooks. For example, Toyota is world-reknown for their culture. “The two pillars of the Toyota way of doing things are kaizen (the philosophy of continuous improvement) and respect and empowerment for people, particularly line workers.” Even the lowliest employees are empowered and treated as experts in their own work, and given the autonomy and responsibility to contribute to the whole. At one car factory, experienced line workers stayed on task an average of 45 seconds out of every minute. After they transformed to a Commitment culture the Toyota way, workers averaged 57 seconds on task out of every minute. Absenteeism dropped from 25% to 4%. Productivity more than doubled. Those workers are carving a beautiful bird on the backside of a rafter because they are committed.

Similarly, agile methodology is now the standard for software development. The agile manifesto states: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools... Responding to change over following a plan.” And then there’s Pixar, whose culture of passion and innovation is largely driven by teams empowered by the leadership to innovate, collaborate, and own the result.

Leadership researchers, Baron and Hannan surveyed over 200 Silicon Valley start-up companies at the cusp of the dot com boom. They found that organizations with a Commitment culture outperform others. They were by far the most likely to reach an initial public offering and least likely to fail outright. Moreover, they had the least administrative overhead costs.

So which of the four organizations should you invest in? Choose the Commitment culture. Treat everyone, from the leader to the custodian, like an expert with true autonomy and authority over their piece of the puzzle. Invest in the soft skills of collaboration and psychological safety. Allow people to own their work, and ideally own the organization. Then watch your team commit to each other and achieve things that no individual could alone.

Read more

For more on how to be a servant leader in a bottom-up Commitment culture, read Collaborative Leadership for Thriving Teams. I co-authored this guide with a visionary group of other administrators at other teacher-powered schools. While it’s written for school leaders, the ideas within, and particularly the discussion questions we recommend to guide a conversation with your team, are applicable to any setting that’s trying to establish a Commitment culture.

Going Further

Would you like individual support to develop a Commitment culture for your organization? I would love to help! Sign up for a one hour initial consult. At the end of that call, I will ask you, “Would you like me to continue serving you?” and you can say “Yes” or “No”, no hurt feelings either way. It’s always my pleasure to support do gooders and their amazing work in this world.

Would you like to part of a community of like minded educators who are moving forward on a teacher-powered journey? Join a Learning Collaborative. I am facilitating a support group for school leaders, but there are other groups geared towards teacher preparation programs, student teachers, and current teachers. In these Learning Collaboratives, cohorts of 6-8 educators meet virtually every month to share successes, brainstorm, and get advice on challenges facing your team.

Finally, join me virtually at 2020 #TeacherPowered Odyssey: Rethinking Power in Education, October 19-29. I'll be offering a virtual tour of Chrysalis as well as co-leading a session on thriving as a teacher-powered leader with the amazing Buffy Cushman-Patz. Register today.

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