A leader's guide to management innovation

Simon Leicester

My name is Simon Leicester. My day job is working full time as the director of finance and business at an Ofsted-rated Outstanding single academy school in North London called Hendon School. I sit on the senior leadership team and have management oversight of five functions – Finance, HR, IT, Premises and Governance Support (clerks to the committees) as well as oversight to manage some significant contracts – school catering and school lettings. I am also a school governor for Whitefield School, a peer secondary school in London.

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Image credit: Flickr // usnationalarchives. Image credit: Flickr // usnationalarchives.

As the external environment becomes more complex (law changes, penalty increases, more vocal and critical stakeholders, technology changes), more demands are placed on the leadership teams in schools. Coordinated crisis management in the short term is all very well. But is the training investment by the organisation keeping pace with the future needs of the school?

In easier times, senior school leaders with teaching backgrounds could rely on hiring specialist support managers to manage things like finance, HR, IT and premises in a relatively standalone way. This allowed those senior educators to concentrate largely on improving the “Recent changes require schools to adopt a universal culture of good practice.”teaching and learning in the school. However, recent changes in tax law, employment law, data protection legislation, academy handbook requirements and health & safety requirements have challenged that ‘us and them’ mindset. Such changes now require schools to adopt a universal culture of good practice on these things - in all departments and stakeholder interactions. They also invite a ‘bring in the auditors’ approach, to provide objective feedback on progress made. Meanwhile, financial and time pressures push schools to become more efficient in managing their core processes, and force senior educators to increasingly see themselves as information managers too.

The combination of rapid changes, growing complexity and rising penalties for non-compliance force schools to spend more time on data capture, data analysis, integrated planning and progress monitoring. When plans and expectations aren’t met, the senior leaders may be left wondering what went wrong.

The following is a novel framework that senior leaders might find helpful to improve their management in schools. And overcome the limits to progress made.

Firstly, think of a diamond-shaped wheel with four evenly-spaced points on the rim. At the first point are Skills. Information is the second point. Incentives are the third. And Funding is the fourth point.

Regarding the diamond-shaped wheel, forward progress and pace of the wheel are hard to achieve without strength in all four points (the wheel will collapse otherwise).

Secondly, forward motion happens, starting with one point (Skills) and moving via Information and Incentives to Funding and beyond.

Under Skills, some of the ‘brakes’ encountered that hold a school back from success:
Poor stakeholder expectations management. The internal service provider perhaps lacks skills in explaining the problem to the stakeholder and in managing their service expectations (what can be done by when and what to do in the meantime). The service provider may lack skills in coordinating a solution quickly.

Inadequate operations management. The service provider perhaps lacks investigation and analysis skills to identify the operations problem causing the failure. No one manages a school process end-to-end. Teams get overtaken by events. Fixes backfire. There is a failure to launch.

Inadequate strategic management. The service provider perhaps lacks investigation and analysis skills to identify the strategic problem causing the failure. Teams get out-played in a competitive environment, eg in 6th form recruitment & retention. Potential funders step back and keep their hand in their pockets, unconvinced of the realism in the school vision. No one explicitly manages school flexibility as a tool to counter uncertainty.

Under Information, some of the brakes encountered that hold a school back from success:
Fake news. Data isn’t validated. There are conflicting versions of ‘the truth’, or ‘the plan’.

Flying blind. The school leadership many have great skills, but lack crucial information needed for insightful decision-making. Not all of the necessary experts are invited to the project meeting.

Drowning in data. Raw data is being captured well, but then not unified and summarised into insightful formats that decision-makers can make sense of and act on.

Under Incentives, some of the brakes encountered that hold a school back from success:
Scared to commit/fear of the unknown. There is ingrained resistance to change. There is inflexibility and complacency, because the school incentives just aren’t right. There is a lack of drive to innovate, or take calculated risks.

Working at cross-purposes. Staff are passionate and dedicated. But because of their incentives, they end up working at cross-purposes. One team may be tasked with reducing the running costs. Another team may be tasked with improving the equality. If there’s a cost-quality trade-off and the incentives are strong, there will be conflict. There may be a clash of values (greatest good for the greatest number, or every child matters no matter the cost).

Under Funding, some of the brakes encountered that hold a school back from success:
Failure to launch. Insufficient time was invested building up a pre-funding relationship with the potential funder. There are plenty “There are plenty of worthy projects, but not enough funding.”of worthy projects, but not enough sources of funding. A suitable compromise can’t be reached between the school and the funder on how the funding will be spent. Repeat funding can’t be secured, because the funder report on the previous project didn’t meet the funder’s expectations.

Victim of your own success. The change programme is too ambitious, causing excessive disruption to core school activities. Projects then become delayed, costs escalate and funders become disappointed.

A final thought. The way to make the diamond-shaped wheel run more smoothly and faster is to convert it into a circular one. This translates into two things. One is to flow smoothly from one point to the next. The second is don’t just treat the symptoms of problems encountered within Skills, Information, Incentives and Funding. But address the causes too. Skills solutions likely include leadership, effective problem solving and partnering. Information solutions likely include integrated plans and designing better operations information capture and reporting. Incentives solutions likely include values alignment and top-down incentive-setting. Funding solutions likely include pre-funding relationship building. And building a reputation with funders for doing what you say.

[The views included in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of their employer.]

Which tactics do you employ? Let us know below.

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