The Need for Discontinuous School Improvement

It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. – Russ Ackoff

In a recent blog post, Will Richardson poses a thought-provoking question: “do we do the things we do because they’re better for kids or because they are easier for us?” Richardson ascribes his return to this topic to his discovery of a 2001 interview with noted systems thinker, Russ Ackoff. In this absorbing short video, Ackoff suggests that schools – and other systems – are often guilty of doing “the wrong things right”. Central to this contention is the distinction Ackoff makes between efficiency and effectiveness:

“Data, information, knowledge and understanding are all concerned with increasing our efficiency. How can we get more efficiently what we want? Wisdom is concerned with effectiveness. … Doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency.”

As we embark upon significant improvements to our school program, I am assured by the engagement and enthusiasm of colleagues. There is a shared belief in a schedule that provides for an increasing commitment to deeper learning, mindful engagement, personal choice, digital presence, design thinking, creativity and online learning. Some of our parents, naturally, – just a few, to be fair – are a little nervous and point to the data of efficiency to express their desire that we maintain the status quo. After all, our students are quite successful in our current system.

What, some ask, if my child’s learning is negatively impacted while these changes are being implemented? The question is a valid one, a fair one, and it comes from a good place. The words of Russ Ackoff offer reassurance in the context of change management: “It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.” So how does a school manage to discontinue current practice? It is an unusual aspect of our school systems: people tend to question proposed changes more than current, redundant practices.

Given that there is compelling and overwhelming evidence of the need for change in schools, there would appear to be two essential elements that will enable an organization to make the leap from doing the wrong thing right to doing the right thing (even if not perfectly at first) with confidence. These are: (1) an organizational culture that embraces change, and (2) an organizational conviction to break the status quo.

An Organizational Culture That Embraces Change
In learning about the life and work of Russ Ackoff, I was not surprised to discover that he subscribed to much of the philosophy of Peter Drucker. It was Drucker who once famously asserted that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The critical importance of organizational culture was perhaps best articulated by Edgar Schein, who asserted that, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the [critical work] of leaders is their ability to work with culture.” More recently, Michael Fullan has supported the notion that culture is the key issue when it comes to improving learning organizations. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what structures schools change, what technology they buy, what programs they adopt, or what data they follow; if the culture doesn’t change, nothing does. This is the essence of Ackoff’s philosophy and it explains why organizations fail to explain the behaviour of a system through analysis. The core issue, he correctly contends, is very simple: “It’s working together that’s the main contribution to systemic thinking, as opposed to working apart, separately.”

An Organizational Conviction to Break the Status Quo
Doing the right thing for students is what every teacher I know believes in. I have yet to meet a teacher who wants to do the wrong thing for students. The challenge that preserves the status quo does not emanate from the teaching profession or parents, but from a fear that the process of change will damage the misleading goal of education: an elusive college place, a safe, secure future. The things we should want for our children are much bigger than those offered by a traditional education. As we embrace change we will encounter parents in the deep end of the swimming pool of transformation, clinging relentlessly to the side of the pool, nervously hankering for the bygone days of certainty. Their children, we should not be surprised to learn, will also struggle initially with the break from tradition. If the truth be told, we are all a bit nervous. It is much easier to play the game of school than engage in the reality of a rapidly changing world. Schools have become accustomed to making the noises of change while careful not to upset the status quo. What we need is best summed up by Ackoff: “Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. A creative act breaks with the chain that has come before it.”

We need to be ready to break that chain, to embrace change for students. To be wrong, but still not afraid to take the risk. In the end, it’s the right thing to do.

Will Richardson. We’re Trying To Do “The Wrong Thing Right” in Schools.
Russell Ackoff / Studio 1 Network. 2001 interview.
If Russ Ackoff Had Given a TED Talk. 1994 presentation.
Values, Leadership, and Implementing the Deming Philosophy. 1994 discussion featuring Ackoff.
Russell Ackoff, Daniel Greenberg. Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.