Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Reorgs and Spaceships

There are two common (and commonly ineffective) approaches civic leaders use to address persistent challenges within their communities.

The first approach is to reorganize the institution that is deemed to be to blame. Superintendents of urban school districts are very familiar with this phenomenon as they've watch one wave of reorganization after another wash over their districts. Rarely is a school reorg tied to a community effort to eliminate economic poverty, even though numerous studies link poverty to poor educational outcomes. Yes, we need high-performing schools (and other civic institutions) as the Leap of Reason movement makes so very clear. But we also know that no single organization can change the outcomes within a complex system. Restructuring a single organization in the absence of systemic change will not result in the outcomes we desire for our communities. But we keep trying.

We also like to try spaceships. "Spaceships" is my term for the practice of transplanting a "successful" program/project/initiative from one community to another.

In the best case scenario, the new initiative is led by an emotionally intelligent leader who is able to adapt to their environment, build relationships, create connections and generate results that make the spaceship a valued part of the system and the community.

Too often, the champions of the new initiative let others in the system know that the spaceship is here to fix what others could not. Existing players cannot be engaged because they are part of the problem. The spaceship must not be infected. These champions are like the aliens from a bad sci-fi movie; here to save the human race from itself. The problem with this spaceship approach to civic change is that spaceships are expensive to keep up. They start off all shiny and new and attract a lot of attention. But over time, the luster wears off, the problems they are trying to address are complex and therefore beyond the control of even the fanciest of spaceships. Eventually the funders of the spaceship tire of footing the entire bill and try to persuade others to embrace and make their spaceship "sustainable." But other funders have their own spaceships to sustain.

This is when the really bad stuff happens. The spaceships agree to a merger and promise all will be well as soon as they finish their reorg.

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