Monday, March 17, 2014

SxSum Up: The StartUp District

I thought I would take a few sessions and merge their ideas here in one blog post. One of my favorite threads in the SxSW conference is the theme of workplace retention and design. As someone who provides professional development, I want my districts to provide more chances for innovative professional learning and SHARING. Often, the best one-day workshops are the ones that allow teachers to provide personal feedback on failures to develop better strategies as a group for going through obstacles. The feedback I generally receive from teachers is that this is the best part of technical training and they wish other pd opportunities gave them time to share and grow from the experiences of others. 

I remember in one district where we were all trained on appropriate email communications and we had to remove the all campus or all district posts about garage sales, items for sale, and those anniversary notifications to our colleagues. I decided to create an online space using a wiki to create a virtual "staff lounge" for teachers and staff to access where they could post the things that email would limit. It was successful for not only opening a dialogue place for teachers to share but also in showing them a tool like a wiki for creating a place for opening dialogue as a team or with their students. The focus wasn't on the tool itself but on using it in a desired way to encourage collaboration and communication. Teachers enjoyed having a place they could share (and yes, I only allowed staff in - principals and superintendents were not allowed in). 

In another district, the Human Resources director worked with me to find a way to connect new-to-the-profession teachers in a monthly group chat so they could share about what they were experiencing and feel free to ask questions for answers from the district leadership. It provided a way for them to get mentoring and learning after work hours. It gave them a channel for sharing. 

I was happy to see that the idea of "job retention" is now better titled "talent retention". Companies are focusing more on the talent they hire and what they can provide. In a previous post, I shared about the need for companies to learn to work with Millennials and the challenges they provide to the current work force. But overall, the message runs in similar veins across all generations and all types of workers. We need to be a more collaborative workforce with times to focus and times to discover. We need better feedback tools and ways to also provide feedback about the mission we are trying to accomplish. 

I want to stress the value of using my role to support what the initiatives of other departments are trying to do. I really support the idea of looking at the entire holistic view of our work environment - all factors including the digital, physical and philosophical to work together. Often in districts it feels as if departments aren't working well together even after the annual team-building retreats or book studies. It feels like we are all in silos and not working well together to improve the entire function of the district. 

I believe innovation should not be limited to the technology department of the district. In fact, the technology itself should never be the celebrated innovation in any workplace! And yet we see this celebrated only in education and it feels like a distraction from where we need to be focusing innovation in education. I don't think any newspaper raised a headline when a company gave everyone a laptop. ;p

What we celebrate is an artifact of our culture and when an item, a purchase, or a new initiative is the focus of innovation in my field of education, well I just get lost in my own purpose in why I am doing the job I am doing. And I believe it changes the culture of the entire district when the focus is pushed on the success of implementing an artifact. 

To me the best part of SxSW culture is focused on the startup company. It is what attracted me to attend the conference in the first place. I wanted to know what the difference was between their work organization and my own. I wanted to find people to ask them what their meetings are like, what their conference rooms look like, what their times merged as a team with creatives and business staff look like. I could see that a startup was a different culture and I hoped that by being in a conference with them, it would help me bring back that energy into my own workplace. 

Startups are vibrant, fresh, and innovation-focused companies. We see pictures of their workplaces with brightly colored walls, interesting furniture, and sometimes specially crafted food and eateries in their work areas. Startups have drive. And when drive is paired with innovation, it never stops. 

What if schools adopted a startup culture? 

I read about how Dropbox teaches every employee about the company's vision and culture by the CEO. An exercise for hiring new talent was to verbalize the characteristics they look for in new hires. What are the written, expressed values? Then using this to create the culture for the company based on the talent they acquire. The values list changes as items are altered, stretched or added at any time. 

5 Core Values:

1. "Have the drive to do important things"

2. Achieve a high quality standard on everything - from hiring to customer service to product design.
(Applied to schools - every department, every campus).

3. Break new ground; be inventive. "We want to do things better than any company ever before."

4. Push the limits: "No matter how hard we've done something, you want to do it better."

5. We, not I: "We frown on any activity where people take credit for something. We only want you to be successful as an individual because the company is successful. 

I don't know about you but I would love to work in a culture with those values. What can we do to move to startup culture in our schools? 

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