In the third instalment of his Driving School Improvement series, Stephen Mitchell, chief operating officer at the Spencer Academies Trust in Nottingham, looks at shared vision – the second aspect of the ‘learning organisation model’ – and how to achieve it in your school
Few – if any – forces in human history are as powerful as a shared vision. What do most great orators have in common? It’s the ability to help us buy into a vision, to visualise what it is they’re believing in, and to get us to respond to that – be it mentally, emotionally or even physically.
The ability to articulate your vision is a powerful one, and one that is oh-so-important for helping staff and students get around what it is we’re trying to achieve in schools. It can transform teams of disparate people – all collecting monthly payslips relating to divergent targets – and silo mentalities into a force which creates miraculous progress for children – an environment where innovation flourishes, one where people literally smile when they think about it, and one that people long to be part of.
A shared vision is not an idea…it’s not even an important idea; it is palpable. People see it as if it exists as an actual entity, as if it is something alive.
Find your ‘Why?’
Simon Sinek is famous for his TED talks and I’m sure many of you have seen his talk about ‘golden circles’ and finding your ‘Why?’ If you haven’t, I recommend that you pause reading this article for five minutes while you have a look at this link.
Finding your ‘Why?’ is a great way of getting your personal vision – and a shared vision is many personal visions that are common between people. Few – if any – forces in human history are as powerful as a shared vision. I know I’ve repeated my opening line, but it was worth saying again!
We know shared visions can exist and, when they do, great things can happen. At the risk of alienating probably 99% of the readership of this magazine, consider the Liverpool football match against Barcelona in May. Liverpool were 3-0 down after the first leg in the European cup semi-final, against what is, arguably, one of the world’s greatest teams: Barcelona. The second leg should have been a formality for Barcelona, and no-one with a sane mind was giving Liverpool a chance. No-one…except for that group of players and their manager. They had a shared vision – they believed. They had a plan, and they stuck to that vision. They inspired hope in the crowd – 11 players suddenly became a force of 50,000 and, 90 minutes later, millions of people were agog at what they had witnessed – because a shared vision had become a reality.
Your school’s vision
“That which is most personal is the most universal,” Karl Rodgers, an American psychologist, once said. If this was not the case, there would be no shared visions.
What’s the vision for your school? Is it shared amongst all of your colleagues and students? Is it something that exists solely in your prospectus, or in your annual business plan? How do we get towards that elusive shared vision? How many of us have sat in staff meetings where there are post-it notes and flipcharts, and where iterations of words and phrases are used until a common denominator is found?
The secret of finding that shared vision is not to try and force it – it is to listen, to let people talk. So much time and money is wasted on trying to create one; let people talk and reflect on what it is that matters to them. Create an environment where people can be continually reflecting on what matters, and be in conversations about this with each other. You will start to discover elements of shared visions emerging; harnessing these, and being able to collate them, will give you a starting point which has a powerful human driver innately built within it.
As people talk, the vision grows clearer. As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grows. When we are ourselves – when we really connect and we have confidence to be forthright – we find each other. We discover a deep, innate commonality in our aspirations.
Within academies and schools it is very easy for us to fall into silo thinking – just working within our own areas – be that subjects, faculties or even the ever-present divide between ‘teaching’ and ‘support’ staff.
One of the challenges of silo working is that our visions may not always be aligned. Therefore, we need to find ways of working such that we can get colleagues talking across silos, and finding the common ground. Technology – more than ever – can help with this by, for example, keeping all of the relevant people looped-in and on track towards common goals and targets.
I’m also conscious that I need to improve my ongoing communication with colleagues, both up and down the organisational chart. When times get busy – and they really are at the moment! – I tend to lock myself away and just get on with loads of work but, in reality, perhaps these are the most important times for me to be lifting colleagues up with conversation about what it is that all of this really busy work is achieving – and communicating my vision of what it is that we’re trying to achieve.
In this series we are looking at the learning organisation model and mapping these aspects onto how we can work in schools. I am of the firm belief that this model can – and will – bring huge benefits for those schools which can embrace it. It is important to recognise that each of these aspects – or ‘disciplines’, as Peter Senge calls them – are interlinked. I know that it’s hard to figure out where to start work on these; some people will say they want to do ‘systems thinking’, others, ‘Let’s get a shared vision in place’. The trouble is, you can’t just do one, because they are interlinked. However, the positive effect of them being interlinked is that, by working on one, you will have a positive effect on the others.
So, how does shared vision fit in with the other aspects of the learning organisation model? Can we really achieve it if we haven’t started having better conversations (team learning)? The answer is, yes, you can…there’s nothing wrong with working on one or two of these at any point – and then picking the others up in due course.