Lessons Learned from a Startup

Education is indeed a noble calling. Among and between the frustrations, red tape, glacial speed of change, monotony, and normal emotional fallout of “crucial conversations,” there are those wonderful, magical moments when we know exactly why we do what we do.

But, like anything, we sometimes find ourselves falling into a catatonic routine of stand up and deliver, of sit down and correct, of coloring within the lines. In essence our routines dominate and demotivate.

I had the luxury of spending two hours with the staff at an incredible startup technology company. I was brought in as a consultant to provide some insight to a group of talented, motivated Millennials. Yet I was the one who walked away with the insight.

The lessons I learned can be applicable to educators and change agents in every industry.

  1. The company is flat. Clearly, there was a pecking order in title and responsibility, yet I could not tell who was in charge of anything. People collaborated in one large open space without cubicles or doors separating people or preventing access. The energy was palpable; the structure of power or chain of command was not.Someone once told me that the legendary headmaster at Deerfield Academy had his desk in the main hallway of the school. Even if this is urban legend, it makes us wonder if school leaders may be missing an opportunity to be more accessible, more in the fray.

    Several years ago, I worked at a charter school where all the teachers worked in “pods,” where several desks were pushed together in grade teams in one large room. The energy was amazing.

  2. Questions are the drivers. I sat in a meeting where I was peppered with questions—specific ones, general ones, hypothetical ones, probing ones. Clearly, the work of these entrepreneurs is to seek solutions. Looking for the next big question seemed like a part of the ethos, the mission-led approach to providing outstanding customer service.Framing questions also helps organize the impressive amount of qualitative and quantitative research that goes on in this company. Honest feedback from experts, ordinary users, and “power” users is critical.

    Walls were covered with whiteboards, which in turn were covered with running conversations in marker—ideas, diagrams, more questions, some answers. The incessant scribbling was like an organic exhibit of mission, action, and collaboration on a canvas of dreams, hope, and sweat.

    Might asking clear, specific questions help educators improve the student experience? Might students be a great resource, since they are the ones “living” the educational experience?

    Maybe education leaders should set question goals per day and per week to gather as much data as possible. One must know what is going on to be able to change what is going on.

  3. Professional trust—not rules—is key. At this company, I saw staff putting golf balls on synthetic turf and wearing jeans and rock band t-shirts. The office would not have won any neatness awards. The creative energy in the place was overwhelming, and in between their short mental breaks from work, serious work was being done.It was as if the boss had said to the staff, “You are talented, you are trusted. Do your work well, and be who you are. Work hard and long. Have fun. Solve problems. Let me know when you want feedback.”

    Talk about motivating!

In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan address many of the same ideas: trust, expertise, autonomy. Perhaps there is a way to make education more entrepreneurial, to capture the spirit of the world I witnessed and recruit and hire some of its brightest people.

Jason Larocque is middle level director at St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts. www.stjohnsprep.org