Escaping Death Valley

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Sir Ken Robinson's talks on education and the importance of creativity are among my TED favourites. He's a great speaker, and the subject matter clicks for several reasons. First, because I worry about how our structures, norms, and rules may stifle creativity, pretty well systematically. Second, because quality education - and children primed for critical thinking rather than assembly-line duplication of information - are essential for the well-being of our democracy. And third, because many of the problems, and possible solutions, in educational systems apply broadly to many types of organizations.

I was thinking mostly of the third piece as I watched his most recent, How to Escape Education's Death Valley. I found myself thinking that you could take the transcript, replace “education” with “organizations” and “teachers” with “employees” and have a seriously intriguing approach.

Robinson compares the U.S. and Finland, a country that regularly gets top marks in math, science, and reading. Finland, in his view, is excelling for three reasons:

  1. Individualization, rather than standardization
  2. Attribution of a very high level of status to the teaching profession
  3. Decentralization of responsibility


It's well recognized that many of our management practices still cling to their roots in command and control, mechanical, factory-based processes. We are transitioning ungracefully into different paradigms built for different work and possibilities.

Robinson talked about personalized education, with strong community links, a broad curriculum (recognizing that time spent on arts and soft skills is as important for long-term math and science effectiveness as time spent on math and science), and programming inside and outside of school.

“But what all the high-performing systems in the world do is currently what is not evident, sadly, across the systems in America -- I mean, as a whole. One is this: They individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it's students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That's how you get them to learn.”

Many organizations are realizing the importance of the “soft” elements of the workplace, such as  engagement, team building, and fostering relationships between employees. Zappo's, renowned for customer service, encourages managers to spend 10-20% of their work week outside of work, with their employees. It's actually an example of standardization designed to result in individualization and the establishment of deep understanding of relationships, at the tips of the organization's tentacles.


“The second is that they attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can't improve education if you don't pick great people to teach and if you don't keep giving them constant support and professional development. Investing in professional development is not a cost.”

I agree completely, obviously. A while back I wrote a piece in Canadian Government Executive magazine called The Public Service and Varsity Sports:

“Every morning, students are waking up pre-dawn in campuses around the country to run themselves into the ground, practice drills over and over, and compete fiercely with their peers for the positions of greatest responsibility on sports teams. They do this because in exchange, the organization to which they belong affords them status, challenge, and unparalleled developmental opportunity.”

And the research backs this up. Challenge was the top answer for 20,000 IT employees surveyed by InformationWeek about what matters to them about their jobs. Status and development opportunity are natural corollaries of a challenging job.

I have some discussion fodder for status in our organizations. For another post, this one may get long.


Neither individualization nor status is possible without decentralization. Without responsibility, one can scarcely believe in their job, their role in the organization's mission, or have the capacity to act on the good ideas that can only work at ground level.

There tension between control and empowerment has been growing, in my view. Standardization carries with it the virtues of economies of scale, reliability, measurability, and easier learning curves as employees move around the system. In the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, one of the anecdotes is of an employee noticing that every factory buys different gloves, at a range of prices. Through standardization – avoiding the high-priced outliers, and through pushing the price down by buying in bulk – he could save his company a ton of money. Score one for standards.

On the other hand, Finland's education system is based around responsibility at the school level. As Robinson says:

“Education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working.”

In a recent post I explored case studies on the pitfalls of decisions made at 10,000 feet, too far from their implementation to capture and take advantage of feedback loops obvious to those on the ground [see: What We Don't Know].

Those at the heads of organizations must command and control. But they can command tasks, or they can command missions, principles, and structures that enable capable decision makers, controlling the 3% that goes wrong, rather than the 97% that is going right.

Why is This The Road Less Traveled?

“It was hard, man.” - Kid President

For many reasons. Chiefly among them, because it's hard.

In turning around the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Isabel Blanco faced major backlash to her proposed changes. They had a massive case backlog, partially because they took far too many cases, and they weren't performing well. As described in Stephen Covey's Smart Trust:

“Because of the visible and serious consequences of a child being harmed by being left in an abusive home, the overwhelming tendency of a state or any low-trust bureaucracy is to develop a rule-based system to eliminate human error.”

On autopilot because of the judgmentless sytem, and facing too many cases, caseworkers weren't engaged, picking up cues, and truly understanding their clients. The solution, which worked wonders, was to loosen the rules and put the caseworkers back in charge. But Blanco's boss had to field calls from frantic citizens concerned that her approach would put child lives at risk. For many, the incentive is not to trust Blanco or the caseworkers here – it's rules and policies. That's hard.

In Robinson's view, individualization, status, and decentralization are working for high performing educational systems. In short, trust is working. It is frequently the answer for organizations.

It is frequently not the answer for individuals in the organization.

A divide that will hang as a question for now.