Is Changing Culture Really the Answer?

I’ve written a lot about building culture and community recently.  Through some of the conversations I’ve had and articles that have been shared with me, I’m starting to wonder if “culture” itself is what needs fixing, or is there something larger?

My philosophy about developing a successful school environment has, for a long time, been based around the idea that “culture” is the most important ingredient and that focusing on building a positive culture will pay huge dividends.  In fact, my theory was reinforced at my past school when we focused hard on improving the culture of the school with very positive results.  It all made so much sense to me, build a strong culture with happy and engaged teachers, students, parents, and community members and everything will be better.  I guess when I simplify it that much it seems a bit silly to think that “culture” is the be all, end all.  

Reading an article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) called Culture is Not the Culprit I’ve been forced to question my philosophy on “culture” as the main ingredient for success.  Despite the title of this article, the authors (Jay Loersch and Emily McTague) don’t write off culture as a non-issue but rather show how culture is a PIECE of the puzzle.  I think that I agree with the title of this article if it is read with the right emphasis.  For example, if you read it, “CULTURE is not the culprit”, then I don’t agree.  However, if read, “culture is not THE culprit” then I think we’re getting closer to what I’m starting to believe.  What I’m coming to understand is that “culture” itself is not “THE” culprit, in that it’s not the ONLY thing that needs to be addressed.  Rather there is much more to this puzzle than I had previously been examining.  

The authors of the HBR article are out to shock people with their title, for good reason.  They argue that too many major corporations blame “the culture” and try so hard to fix “culture” that they aren’t looking at the other important pieces necessary for improving/growing a company.  This hit home with me, hard.  I have been so focused on the idea of “culture” lately that I’ve essentially isolated it as THE area for improvement.  The reality is that it is only a part (I will still argue that it’s a big part) of what we need to focus on in order to improve as a school community.  

I mentioned my past experiences earlier and I want to share more about how we improved the school overall while focusing on culture.  See, the trick is, that while I’ve been focusing on culture so much I’ve almost forgotten all the other important things we were doing to improve the educational experience for our students.  The HBR article’s main point is that instead of focusing on culture, companies should focus on improving their business structure and how they can be better at what they do.  THEN, as companies improve and become more successful the culture will follow along with it and improve naturally.  In previous schools I’ve seen so much focus on culture that I think that is what gets all the credit for improvement.  However, if the authors of this article were to look at that situation from the outside they would suggest that it wasn’t the focus on improving culture but rather the focus on improving the educational experience that really affected change.  Which makes me ask myself a lot of questions and completely reconsider whether we should be spending time on building culture at all!

When I read articles from a source like the Harvard Business Review I have to remind myself that while schools can often times feel and operate like a business, our “client” base is very different from that of the traditional business.  This means that we need to focus our “product” in a very different way from what a traditional business might do.  So while culture might be something that can come along naturally as the business model improves and customer satisfaction grows, as a school we need to look at it differently.  In order to increase “customer” satisfaction as a school we need to not only focus on culture but we also need to remain focused on improving as educators.  If our “service” is education, then we need to continuously look at our practices as educators and find ways to improve.  

Apple is on version 9.3.2 of iOS, the original version was released June 29, 2007, almost nine years ago.  That means they have upgraded to a new version (on average) once every year.  What about education, when was the last time education upgraded to a new version?  When was the last time your teaching practice upgraded versions?  We’re all experienced educators and we’ve all attended numerous conferences, read books, taken masters classes, and done countless other things to help ourselves grow as educators.  I know that every one of us has improved, but by how much?  In “software versioning” each number means something different.  As I understand it (based on this wikipedia article) the “9” is the “major number” and means that a significant improvement has been made, something like changing the framework.  Continuing with this example, the “3” is a “minor number” implying minor modifications or features added, and lastly the “2” is a “revision number” meaning small bug fixes have been made.  When I think about education as a whole and try to use this system I wonder where we’ve made real change as a profession.  Are we still on version 2.0, maybe 3.0?  We’re most certainly not updating our entire framework every year like iOS, nor do I think we should be.  However, when you think about your educational practice I’d like to ask you to think about what kind of upgrades you’ve made during your career.  Have they been “major”, “minor”, or “revision”?  

Next year we are working to make big changes to the culture at AC.  I’m not sure if I would go so far as to say that we’re changing the entire framework but I think we’re going to be close.  Adding a House System while improving the handbook, assessment manual, and reporting practices along with establishing clear and effective communication tools, are all changes we’re excited about for next year.  Together I think these improvements will go a long way toward helping us reach our goal of improving culture.  However, when I look at these things individually I realize that they’re not all “culture” pieces by themselves.  It’s not until taken together that they become a huge shift in “culture” at AC.  

Culture isn’t the ONLY thing that needs to change, nor is it the magic pill that will automatically improve everything within a school.  Culture is a (big) piece of the overall puzzle.  It is something that we need to build around and use as the focal point of our growth.  Working to  improve our educational practices, while building a positive and caring culture, will lead to rapid growth both in our teachers and, most important, in our students!

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2 thoughts on “Is Changing Culture Really the Answer?

  1. Often times we oversimplify what it means to have a strong culture and down play the daily individual labour that goes into transforming culture organically. Your example hits it right on the head: we can make changes to the processes like schedules and teacher handbooks, but ultimately it really boils down to each and every single member to create an ecosystem that’s vibrant and thriving. Thanks for sharing this Bret.

  2. I agree with this. For me culture is not a piece to the puzzle, but part of the image of success that shows up in the puzzle, when all the other pieces are put in the right place. 🙂

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