Posted - June 2016

Diagnosis for Team Complacency

By Michael Iannini, International School Management Consultant & CIS Affiliated Consultant

“Companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.”

A concept I love introducing to school boards and senior leadership teams is BHAGs, Big Hairy Audacious Goals. I don’t love this exercise as an example of how to set goals, but for the visioning process that was outlined in a Harvard Business Review article by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Building Your Company’s Vision. The above quote is from this article and is as true for schools as for Fortune 100 companies. The process outlined in the article outlines a process for identifying transformative goals that are grounded in shared values and purpose that drive teams within schools to improve student learning.

Transcending Transactional Collaboration to achieve Transformational Outcomes[1] begins with discussions that identify a team’s core values and purpose. These discussions usually take place at the school board and/or senior leadership team level. The discussion, however, doesn’t need to end there. Department (academic and non-academic), subject and grade level teams that take time at the beginning of each school year to reflect on their members’ beliefs and values will find it much easier to build consensus on how to align the work of the team with the school’s vision and strategic goals. The process and practices that teams choose to adopt can be unique to their team, but the goals they choose should reflect the school’s values and reinforce its core purpose.

It is important to note that a school has a Vision and a Mission, but this doesn’t mean that teams within the school shouldn’t also engage in the same visioning process. The protocol, Our Task Is, inserted below, is an example of how mission statements at the team level can be developed within 45 minutes, provided the team members have a common understanding of the schools vision and strategic objectives, as well as shared values.

Team members should be given the platform and time to share beliefs and build consensus on their core purpose.  Each team should be encouraged to draft a mission statement, as connecting beliefs and values with purpose is the heart of Transformational Collaboration. Collectively, each teams’ mission statement should be aligned with the school, but specific to each teams’ purpose.

If all teams are able to align with the school’s vision and strategic objectives, it will be easier to bridge differences and collaborate based on mutual interests and shared goals. All teams, and their members, will now be stakeholders with vested interests in seeing the school achieve its strategic objectives. The individual teams will also have a greater chance at achieving their transformative goals because of the collaborative culture that has developed. A collaborative culture looks and feels like this:

  • Staff hallway and break room chatter will include constructive ‘gossip’ about respective team challenges and ‘boasting’ about progress;
  • Teams talk about the work of other teams;
  • Senior Leadership periodically sit in at team meetings;
  • Team members look forward to the 45 minutes each week they get to spend with their team;
  • Team members seek each other out to share successes and seek feedback on challenges; and
  • Professional confidence increases.

The school, as well, will have a greater chance of leveraging the work of its teams to achieve Transformative Outcomes. An example of this multiplying effect would be a school that sets a strategic objective to ‘meet the needs of all learners’; to effectively increase the scale and scope for inclusion. If a school has a history of turning away students that have low English language proficiency or may require learning support, the staff may initially reject any changes to admissions standards. Reasons for rejecting changes shouldn’t be attributed to the staff’s unwillingness to accommodate senior leadership’s strategic objectives. If teams are given time to reflect on how admissions changes may effect their work and the resources or additional support they may require, they become invested in the decision and will be more forgiving during the implementation phase. Teams will have time to adjust and identify resources required to support their work as a team.

Barbara Mui, a Secondary English Teacher, put it this way:

“In my personal experience, I find that teachers are very often on board to promote the school’s objectives but what we lack is clarity and consistency in the message. We want to help build and vocalize these objectives to the wider school community but often feel frustrated because we don’t have a firm and clear understanding of what these objectives are.”

If, however, there is a sense that senior stakeholders’ actions do not reflect stated values and serve the core purpose of the school, then the visioning process can seem very superficial. Teams will default to setting goals that are the direct and measurable products of their work, or what I refer to as Transactional Goals. Transactional goals require the least amount of investment in time and relationships to agree upon, and are the easiest to get approval for, such as planning units of instruction or identifying targets defined by time, cost or scores. Transactional goals often fall short of increasing understanding or improving desired behaviors or attitudes; they fall short of achieving Transformational Outcomes.

Additionally, schools that use the visioning process as an exercise for accreditation or marketing, or as a means to initiate change, will also struggle to motivate teams to achieve Transformative Outcomes. The snowball effect from a poorly-supported and communicated vision statement is immense, as it leads to a superficial sense of purpose that will discourage teams from aligning with the stated values and purpose of the school. Teams will then default to working solely for the purpose of executing their primary responsibilities.

If you are a school administrator, in a Senior Leadership position, an easy way to diagnose if your school has fallen prey to a superficial sense of purpose is to:

  1. List what you are passionate about.
  2. What is your school’s greatest strength or differentiator.
  3. List 3 reasons why parents choose your school.
  4. List 3 reasons why teachers apply to your school.
  5. Compare your lists to the School’s Vision, Mission and Strategic Goals. Do they align?

What level of disparity have you noticed between your lists and what the school states as its values (what it is passionate about; its Vision) and why people choose to apply to attend/work (the core purpose) at your school? Now, try to imagine how that disparity can grow as management and staffs are further removed from the operational drivers of the school. By operational drivers, I mean having buy-in related to decisions for strategic objectives, recruitment and admissions.

The proverbial snowball quickly builds as our performance management and recruitment practices fail to reinforce the values and core purpose of the school. Staff will quickly retreat to the familiar instead of exploring the unknown. Staffs at all levels are hired to do a job and they want to do the job to the best of their ability. However, if we need staff to step outside their comfort zone to take on new challenges, they will need to have a shared belief about that purpose, which requires an understanding of the expectations for their role and buy-in to define the outcomes. There may be initial resistance to the expectations being placed on them or disparity in terms of how the outcome is defined, but acceptance and adjusting for that disparity is good. The difference in how we perceive our purpose and define the outcome, and more importantly the acceptance of those differences, is what leads to achieving Transformational Outcomes.

The snowball effect, however, does not necessarily mean that the school or its teams will be unable to educate students. Educators, including non-academic staff, are incredibly passionate about their work and will not allow it to be devalued by ambiguous objectives. The resilience of educators, and the fact that many tend to be so pragmatic, is ultimately the reason why teams never evolve beyond Transactional Collaboration. Leaders and teachers will persevere in the face of ambiguity and focus on their primary objectives. Focusing solely on individual objectives, and not those set by the school, ultimately will leave departments, teams and even individual staff isolated, or effectively working in silos. Team work will be limited to what they can control. Attention focuses on achieving outputs and not on how work can harmonize and align with other teams to produce Transformative Outcomes.

This regression to the familiar, and not aligning with the values and purpose of the school, is what I refer to as the Silo Dilemma. Explained another way, this dilemma is the result of leaders building up walls between themselves and other grades and departments, based on the belief that unless their peers share a subject, student or similar work task, they can’t collaborate. We can’t foster collaboration across teams if there are no common beliefs or values shared. These silos will make it even more difficult to support individual teams struggling to collaborate. The break down at the team level will most likely occur because of problems occurring in the silo, and the silo walls now act as an obstacle preventing meaningful intervention.

I have observed in many ‘Silo’ schools a teacher-led team’s ability to plan units of instruction, facilitate assessments and collaborate to resolve immediate concerns about students. The teacher-leader and team members are paid to do a job, they love their work, and they get their jobs done so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. This same team, though, if placed in a school that nurtured a transformational collaborative culture, could be more confident and motivated to investigate the root causes of mutual concerns and engage in dialogue that produces positive long-term outcomes. 

The story that follows is based on work I did with a Secondary Leadership team. It is an example of how this team began to emerge from the Silo Dilemma:

A member of a secondary head of department team was sharing his concern about a few students that he felt could not pass their upcoming A-Level Math exam. When this issue surfaced, other team members immediately identified with the same concern and instinctively knew who those students were; they also shared the same concerns that those students would have difficulty in other subjects. Immediately, members of the team felt connected and relieved that they didn’t have to confront the problem alone. The team began discussing possible intervention, but lamented they couldn’t have identified these concerns earlier. The discussion of intervention slowly evolved into creating hypotheses, such as: If we work with primary and successive grades to identify student-performance issues earlier, then we could intervene and shape this trajectory before it becomes an eleventh-hour emergency.

The discussion identified several challenges, primarily that coordinating such a feat would be beyond their means. Not only did the requisite relationship with the primary section not exist, but also a few team leaders would be leaving the school in the next year and there just wasn’t enough time allotted in the schedule to accommodate the number of meetings and research required to build those bridges. The meeting did conclude with a sense of progress, as the team member that initiated the discussion no longer felt alone in having to solve this problem. Additionally, short-term collaborative activities were planned to quickly intervene and provide additional support for the students. It should also be noted that this conversation only transpired as a result of the department heads’ participation in training. They wouldn’t have had enough time to collaboratively resolve a mutual concern, if it hadn’t been surfaced during a professional development period.

Several good schools fall victim to the above dilemma. The Silo Dilemma is also the result of two problems that drives teams to be complacent. The first problem is very transparent and openly lamented; it is a lack of time. The other problem, which is not so openly discussed, is leadership capabilities. Unfortunately for International Schools, even those that are able to ensure buy-in to the visioning process at all levels within the school, most fail to supply two of the most important constructs for Transformational Collaboration, leadership development and time.

Team leaders in schools rarely have any management experience and are often chosen because of their technical skills, or in some cases, because it’s “their turn to lead.” I seldom meet teacher leaders who are cognizant of what is expected of them from both their peers and senior leadership. Often, there is neither a written job description nor a mandate defining what authority they have. The job description naturally evolves into what the leaders wants it to be and any authority they invoke is more a reflection of their personal resolve. Team agendas, in this instance, will ultimately be decided by who ever establishes themselves as the most dominate. Agendas that are driven by one person, and not necessarily the appointed team leader, will fail to ensure buy-in to team goals and the work of the team will fall to one or a few individuals

Senior leadership often takes for granted that the role of a team leader is understood. They assume by taking on this challenge the team leader can step into these roles and manage peers. Those selected have great organization skills, presumably have good relationships with their peers and are respected. However, when ascending to the team leader role, the dynamics of their peer relationship changes, as well as the relationship to their immediate supervisor. The teacher-leader is now caught in between what is often two competing agendas. The less buy-in and shared beliefs staff have about the school vision and strategic objectives, the more pressure they will exert on their team leader to communicate their discomfort to team leadership. Unfortunately, senior leadership is also pushing for their agenda, which they expect team leaders to sell and deliver on. Negotiating between these two competing factions can be very taxing and time consuming, and the will to do anything transformative can be quickly diminished.

Lets now consider the issue of time. I have yet to visit a school where academic and non-academic teams will meet collectively for more than 40-60 minutes per week. The teams struggle to achieve any results during the meetings other than disseminating information and giving team members an opportunity to meet. These informational meetings are usually a result of team leaders being caught in between two factions, as noted above. Ultimately, most of the transactional work that teams accomplish is done outside the meetings. Weekly 40-minute meetings should be sufficient for teams to engage in more meaningful and transformative work. In order for capacity-building team leaders to become more effective, there needs to be time for the leader to plan and coordinate outside of the meetings.

Given time to plan and coordinate, team leaders can ensure their members are given an agenda and relevant materials to review in advance. Questions and comments can be dealt with before the meeting. The meeting itself won’t become an excuse to plan or negotiate the demands of competing factions. Agenda items requiring time for processing or reflection can be dealt with outside the meeting, especially considering that we all process information differently. Members should come to meetings having already thought through the discussion points and prepared to contribute.

Poorly planned and prepared meetings will end up with one or a few members dominating the conversation as they quickly react to agenda items, regardless if the actions proposed or feedback given is in the best interest of the whole group. This perpetuates an atmosphere of passivity among less outspoken members. These meetings tend to only end in agreement on how to achieve transactional goals, as input is limited and opportunities to connect beliefs to practice are not given adequate consideration.

Some agendas are doomed to failure, even if time and effort are expended to coordinate effectively, as school schedules and competing initiatives within the school impact the work of the team; i.e. accreditation, events and administrative directives. These outside influences, in addition to team members being late or not prepared, will eat away at the agenda and reduce the effectiveness of meetings. These factors can be debilitating to team leadership and dissuade team leaders from trying to accomplish anything more than transactional goals. Again, the will to do something transformative is diminished.

Let’s assume that our meeting has been planned effectively, team members come prepared and we have left a buffer to keep team members informed of those outside influences. One last obstacle to achieving Transformational Collaboration is the lack of time to debrief our work as a team. Transactional goals don’t require debriefing; they are either done or not done. If not done, we quickly identify obstacles and delegate accordingly. Transformational Collaboration requires time to debrief. The pulse of the team needs to be taken and difficult conversations need to be facilitated. Not every meeting requires time set aside to debrief, though. Debriefing is not an opportunity to check in. Debriefing comes at various stages of team development.

Academic teams that run on a fixed school calendar, should be debriefing their work as a team every 2-3 months. Non-Academic teams that operate throughout the year and experience fewer turnovers should, at a minimum, debrief team performance two times a year. Additional opportunities for debriefing should occur after the completion of goal milestones and the completion of large projects. Debrief meetings should answer four essential questions, relative to the goals that they set:

  1. What have we achieved to date?
  2. What are we doing well?
  3. What can we improve?
  4. What are the goals in the coming 2 months?

My purpose is not to castigate the middle management in schools. But without a common understanding and shared beliefs about the Vision and Core Purpose of the school, leaders at all levels in the school will remain complacent. To achieve alignment there needs to be a clear understanding of the team leaders role, demonstration of effective leadership, time for coordinating and planning team work, as well as a feeling that the work of the team will contribute to achieving the strategic objectives of the school. Without this alignment, teams will focus on their primary work tasks and pursue transactional goals, as that is what they excel at, it is within their realm of control and is where their professional confidence is nested.

To rescue teams from complacency and break down the silos senior leadership need to sow the seeds of Transformational Collaboration. A transformative school culture will exhibit:

  1. Shared understanding and beliefs about the school’s Vision and Mission;
  2. Consensus on team values and core purpose, aligned with the school’s;
  3. Leaders across the school are aware of the work and progress of other teams;
  4. Team leaders have time to plan, coordinate and debrief team activities; and
  5. Effective leadership is demonstrated from the top-down.

Greater attention to building an effective team will be the focus in part 3 of this 4 part series. I will examine in detail the dynamics of effective teams, the role of the team leader and how team leaders can leverage conflict, including intercultural conflict, to produce positive outcomes.

Michael Iannini is based in Hong Kong.  You can view Michael’s biography by visiting the Council of International Schools website, You can learn more about the work Michael does by visiting or following him on Twitter @PdAcademia or on LinkedIn,

[1] This article is part 2 of a 4 part series. The first article can be found at this link:

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