Simon Leicester looks a strategic and operating flexibility in schools

PART 1: Simon Leicester looks a strategic and operating flexibility in schools

There’s a storm a-brewing – and it’s to do with finance and funding in education. Those in the business of managing schools – everything from finances to HR – are well aware of this and we’ve seen some innovative solutions spring-up! In a two-piece feature, Simon Leicester, school governor and director of finance and business, shares his approach, looking at strategic and operating flexibility in schools  
Note: The content here is the author’s view alone and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the views of his academy school or the other academy school where he contributes as a governor.
Flexibility can be considered to have two meanings; a ‘physical measure of suppleness’ or ‘to be adaptable’. Being supple is about being lithe, elastic and springy; being adaptable is about being accommodating, open and variable. Arguably, being flexible is a desirable quality for both people and organisations – especially in times of great change and uncertainty.

Flexibility is a style of thinking that focuses on your ability to adapt to new situations, improvise, and shift strategies to meet different types of challenges

The perfect storm
How is thinking about flexibility useful or even relevant to a school setting in the 21st century? Most schools currently face a series of major challenges in a number of areas – curriculum changes, funding reductions, new competitors, local authority actions, a sector shortage of teachers, rising sick leave levels, changing stakeholder expectations, rising legislative compliance penalties and, of course, rising costs – what some might label a, ‘perfect storm’.
These challenges, arguably, also contribute to the creation of a ‘VUCA environment’ – an acronym which describes or reflects the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations – creating a need to manage uncertainty, manage change, manage risks and solve problems.
Given the perfect storm and VUCA environment, if new approaches are needed, flexibility thinking and flexibility creation may be able to help.
What are some examples of flexibility thinking and using flexibility as a deliberate tool?         
If, for example, dealing with DfE curriculum changes, applying flexibility thinking to the speed of those changes being imposed can help alleviate stresses.
Three avenues to pursue are:

  • Using a set of compelling arguments to negotiate a one-year deferment with the DfE re. adopting the curriculum changes;
  • Embracing the curriculum changes by entering a partnership arrangement for one year with a peer school nearby to provide these for referred students, or;
  • Simply ceasing to offer the changed curriculum for a year in order to ensure a more successful changeover.

The point is to plan early, control the implementation rate and create interim arrangements to preserve flexibility.
What about handling EFA and local authority per-student funding reductions?
Use flexibility thinking to clarify the funding changes early; then make rapid changes to preserve operating and strategic flexibility also.

Five enemies of flexibility to watch out for:
Task specialisation: Hiring and developing a narrow, highly specialised workforce decreases flexibility although it may improve efficiency in the short-to-medium term. Professor Bob Langer at MIT has avoided hiring single PHD specialists in favour of hiring top researchers with two PHD specialisms. The thinking is that twice the academic leverage will create greater impact in a shorter time.
Pre-programmed user choices and outcomes: Many people despair when ‘phoning up a large organisation, only to encounter layers of pre-recorded messages saying, ‘…press one for…, press two for …, press nine to hear all these options again’! A smart competitor will develop customer loyalty by investing in personalised (flexible) call interactions. If designing computer application software with ‘pull-down menus’, it’s wise to have a category called ‘other’ to account for issues out of the ordinary. The same goes for user surveys.
Fixed costs: Fixed costs represent finite capacity and dedicated use. Variable costs respond to change, scaling up or down as required.
Incentives favouring things that increase inflexibility: Obvious, but not so obvious, given how often these inflexibility incentives arise. Flexibility can be risky. However, opportunities worth seeking incur natural business risk, whether the organisation is a not for profit, government agency, SME or corporate.
The speed of business change: The faster change happens, the less chance there is to foster flexibility as a response.
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