The Most Consequential Work Starts Now


Phil Holcombe

Phil Holcombe is the Principal and Design Director at Form & Faculty. He has crafted communications for brands around the world, built curricula as a Program Director in higher education, and serves as a trustee of a Philadelphia high school.

Congratulations— you’ve made it to the conclusion of the most challenging and unusual school year in recent memory. I’m sure you need a few days to recharge. Please take them, because the most critical part comes next. Yes, you will need to make careful decisions about how to proceed this fall, but you will also need to zoom out and ask the bigger questions:

How will this pandemic push you to adapt? How will it make you more resilient? How might you assume a posture that prepares you for the next great disruption? How might you do all of this in a way that aligns with your mission, and retains the integrity and equity your school has accrued?

Clearly, there's no blueprint, but there are things all schools will need to consider. Here are five thoughts on assuming a resilient posture:

1. We already know that the healthiest schools are those that value coaction. They understand that everything is interconnected, and that changes in one area of practice inherently affect all others. Synergistic schools pivot faster in times of crisis because interwoven departments always move nimbly and in unison.

2. A related point: if everything is interconnected, the areas that require the most attention are the seams between these connections. In his book User Friendly: How the Rules of Design are Changing the Way we Live, Work, and Play author Cliff Kuang states:

"The dilemma lies in somehow convincing thousands of people to work in concert on the tiniest details so that the seams never show, and getting those details to reflect a unified experience. And yet their seams show nonetheless... The seams these companies are striving to hide away still persist, because they reflect how these companies themselves are built: the groups inside fighting for control, and the people inside those groups who may or may not understand how a thousand tiny trade-offs, all of them reasonable enough, might chip away at an experience until it's dust."

Kuang's example is about a company, but if you're employed by a school you may find it resonates just as well. In this post-pandemic world, there will be no space for team members who don’t value what happens at the seams because seams are inherently the least resilient part of any creation.

3. In addition, there will only be space for team members who embody the resiliency schools now require. This is certainly true for presidents and heads of school, but also across the organization: department chairs, deans, advancement professionals, communications directors, etc. Perhaps a new criteria in hiring is to verify a candidate’s resiliency and grit. Perhaps a new professional development goal is to nurture them continuously.

4. Schools with clear North Stars have the ability to reorient themselves more quickly than ones with murky missions, visions, and value sets. Strategic plans are as valuable as ever, so long as they are living roadmaps rather than rigid prescriptions.

5. Schools that embrace design mindsets, specifically continuous improvement cycles, will have the capacity to pivot and adapt more quickly. Despite being institutions of learning, many schools don’t have a culture that supports continuous self evaluation or perpetual iteration.

Many schools have made more radical changes in the past two months than they have in the past two decades, but the most impactful changes lie ahead. As each school looks to find its foothold in an increasingly VUCA world, the goal is the same: to ensure it is well positioned to offer improved learning experiences this fall, next fall, and the many that follow.

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