Finding time to build a better future

A note to leaders of schools and other places of learning

Chairman and founder of Delivery Associates and Author of How to Run a Government

In these unprecedented circumstances, it is inevitable and right that leaders will find themselves focusing intensively on managing the crisis. You have no choice but to do that and your leadership can make all the difference. This note assumes you will do exactly that but then urges you to give a small amount of (high quality) attention to three or four other things, even at the height of the crisis.

The priorities

You had priorities before the crisis. They were important to you and your institution and community. After the crisis, surely, they will be important again? Pick the most important two or three of these priorities and set up a small team to focus on them and to drive them forward – progress may need to be slowed but aim to maintain momentum. Empower this team. Ask them to update you with a brief note (2 pages max) every week; it should tell you what is going well, what is going less well and what they are doing about the problems. They might finish with a question or two for you where they need your view. Respond promptly. All this should take you no more than 30 minutes a week; it will be a valuable investment of a small amount of your precious time.

The future

The crisis may dominate for months, perhaps longer, but there will, eventually, be a future beyond it. Can you find the resource to task a small number of talented people to start planning the future now? In 1940, just a year after Britain found itself at war, when London was being bombed almost every night, when France had been over-run by the Nazis, and when Hitler was planning an invasion of Britain, a small number of senior officials from the then Board of Education settled into a few rooms in a hotel in Bournemouth and set about their task – to design a school system for after the war. The war lasted another five years but the design they drew up provided the foundation for the 1944 Education Act and the post-War education system . Can you do something similar? If you had to build your system again from nothing, how would you build it better? For example, what have you learnt about digital learning that should become part of the new normal? See this as a moment of opportunity; don’t assume a return to the previous state of affairs. Time demands on you? Trust them, let them get on with it and come back to you in a month for an hour with radical options.

The lessons

The usual way governments go about learning the lessons from a crisis is to set up a Commission of Inquiry afterwards to examine what happened, how it was handled and what the lessons can be learnt. Often the reports produced are excellent – but often too, the inquiry proceeds slowly and by the time it reports the world has moved on and the lessons don’t get learnt. Can your institution avoid the trap of waiting till afterwards to learn the lessons? Can you find a way to learn the lessons as you go? At the end of each week, and again at the end of each month, ask yourself and your team: What have we learnt this week/this month? What mistakes have we made and what can we learn from them? What have others in other schools, systems or countries done that worked/didn’t work and what can we learn from them? Apply these lessons immediately if that makes sense. In any case, write them down in a page or two, weekly and monthly. You’ll find by the end of the crisis you have the first draft of a report on the lessons learnt. You’ll understand more deeply how to manage a crisis. Time for you per week? No more than 45 minutes.

A diary

Optional extra; can you find an hour or so each week write a diary? Just sit and write whatever comes into your head. The only audience is you in the future so write what you like, emotionally as well as factually, about people and situations. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling, unless you want to. You will make explicit learning (about yourself as well as the crisis) that would otherwise remain implicit.

I make that between 2 and 3 hours a week. If you can be disciplined enough to find that time as the crisis swirls around you, I think you’ll find it turns out to be an outstanding investment in your leadership capacity and your impact on the world around you.

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