What schools can learn from the tech sector: More freedom, fewer processes

Teacher retention. It has been a buzz word for quite some time now. Research shows that the most significant factor in student success is a good teacher in the classroom, so the path to school and district success is obviously through the recruitment, training, and retention of highly effective educators.

But how do we do that? Working in a school where approximately 1/3 of the teaching staff turns over every year, I know it is much easier said than done. Recently, though, I came across what Sheryl Sandburg has called one of the most significant documents to ever come out of Silicon Valley. It’s a no-frills PowerPoint presentation from the HR department at Netflix, featured here on the Harvard Business Review blog site. One quick look at the presentation is all it takes to realize how we’ve got it all wrong in education.

There are a few simple yet powerful principles that Netflix uses to recruit and retain top-notch employees, including paying people at the top of the market for their particular positions, but I’ll focus on just one: freedom and responsibility.

Netflix operates under the assumption that “responsible people thrive on freedom and are worthy of freedom.” They strive to maintain employee freedom in order to attract the most innovative, talented people and give them the space they need to flourish. While most companies become more rigid and bureaucratic as they grow, instituting 100s of procedures and protocols to manage the work of their employees, Netflix is adamant about carrying their small-firm approach forward even as they expand.

Think about it: An organization usually starts out small, with just a few founders who are “all in” on a common dream. They don’t need to clock in and out, they don’t fill out elaborate expense reports or have their decisions “signed off” on by 5 different managers. They are committed to the goals of the organization and they are responsible, therefore none of these safeguards are necessary. As companies grow, however, it becomes harder and harder to guarantee that responsible, committed employees fill every position, so freedom shrinks as rules ands procedures are put in place to prevent the less-trustworthy from making mistakes.

However, when we increase processes and rules, we drive out best talent out the door. Creative, innovative, high-performing types thrive on freedom. High performing people rarely want to work in highly-controlled environments where they feel undervalued and uninspired as they spend tons of time cutting through red tape instead of achieving results. Consider this insight from Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings:

“As a society, we’ve had hundreds of years to work on managing industrial firms, so a lot of accepted HR practices are centered in that experience. We’re just beginning to learn how to run creative firms, which is quite different. Industrial firms thrive on reducing variation (manufacturing errors); creative firms thrive on increasing variation (innovation).”

While process-heavy organizations can minimize errors and run more efficiently, they prevent out-of-the-box thinking and confine the talent’s intellect instead of utilizing it. For some industries, minimizing error is the top priority (think hospitals, the military). But in others (think tech startups) innovation is the name of the game. In this case, it is smarter for an organization to focus on hiring responsible, committed people and getting out of their way than it is to safeguard everyone from mistakes.

The big question we’re left with is this: are schools places where we need to minimize error, or do we want them to be centers of innovation? If you read this blog regularly, you probably know where we stand – innovation is key to our vision of what school can and should be. If you agree with this assumption, then it seems we all need to take some cues from the tech sector.

What would it look like to eliminate all the procedural safeguards of school? I’m thinking daily lesson plans, elaborate incentive systems, prescriptive teaching models, grading requirements, and all their relatives would be out the door. Rigid sign-in and sign-out procedures would be no more. Think about all the systems we put in place to help the worst employees avoid mistakes! If we reduce these innovation-stifling procedures and instead focus on hiring the most responsible, committed, talented people (as Netflix and other tech companies do) and offer them the freedom the deserve we, too, will watch our stocks soar.

Check out the full PowerPoint presentation from Netflix here: http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664

 

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Categories: News and Trends, Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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