Culture still eats strategy for breakfast. Peter Drucker didn’t target this claim to schools, but it’s still true there. Most employees remain in schools for the majorities of their careers, and knowing school culture is at least as important as developing good strategy. I worked with a Chief Technology Officer that struggled to disrupt traditional school employee communications in an effort to improve the rationality of technology decision-making. Relationships that often spanned 25 years, however, were hard to disrupt.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Placing relationships ahead of structural or data-driven decision-making may not be the most efficient path to educational change, but human networks are the foundation for most real-world decision-making. Schools are human institutions, and sustainable school improvement requires cultural transformations to match. Every strategy needs to consider culture, not as an excuse for inaction but as an opportunity for the most powerful system-wide improvement.

Where to begin?

Thomas Arnett at the Christensen Institute highlights the four “jobs” teachers do, often unspoken elements of culture, that schools need to recognize:

  1. Help me lead the way in improving my school

  2. Help me engage and challenge more of my students

  3. Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student

  4. Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative

Building relationships is the best way to address all these jobs. Strong relationships help to identify and establish sustainable improvement. School leaders need to enjoy the company of talented, hard-working experts seeking excellence in their work. One of my colleagues spent significantly more time than his peers developing trusting relationships. Measuring the value of that time was hard, but he often succeeded where others failed. Knowing who can get the work done is essential to success in any project, and matching goals to the talented people who can accomplish them is the best path to strategic and cultural improvement.