Learning From Zappos: Why Every School Needs an Organizational Mindset

In many ways, being the head of a school is like being the CEO of a company. Over my 20+ years as the head of Beaver Country Day School, I've frequently looked to the business world -- not just the education system -- for inspiration on how to innovate the way my school is structured.

Take Hewlett Packard, for example -- their famous "Rules of the Garage" appeared in an ad campaign in 1999 and still serve as the company's guiding principles. W.L. Gore & Associates, best known for developing Gore-Tex fabrics, is recognized for defining itself as a "team-based, flat lattice organization." And just last month, Zappos announced it will be replacing its traditional corporate structure altogether with Holacracy, a new organizational structure where there are no job titles and no managers. According to Zappos executives, the move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy and too bureaucratic as it grows.

Now, I'm not recommending that schools go out and adopt holacratic structures -- the jury's still out on whether the change will be a success for Zappos. However, the company has something that most schools and businesses do not: something that makes change much easier to initiate, a clearly defined organizational mindset.

Simply put, an organizational mindset is the aggregated mindset of an organization's members. Historically, schools have not placed much importance on defining these, which I think is a mistake. At Beaver, we have taken great care to identify the three key components of our organizational mindset:

  1. We are a both/and school, not an either/or school. For example, we reject the notion that we need to be a content school or a process school, a pen and paper school or a tech driven school, an exam assessment school or a project based school. At Beaver, it's always both/and.

  • Our teachers and administrators are not afraid to be beginners. That mindset has moved us forward rapidly in design thinking, technology, and now coding. Our mantra for faculty and students (taken from Dan Pink): Make excellent mistakes.
  • We embrace a launch/test/refine/relaunch/test/refine way of doing things. If we have an idea connected to design thinking or a technology resource, we don't plan it to death; we try it out and see how it goes.
  • Over the years, we've initiated a couple of large-scale changes at Beaver -- the most recent one was becoming the first school in the U.S. to implement coding into its core curriculum. The common denominator in making these changes? Ensuring they aligned with our school's organizational mindset, and that everyone at the school is on board with this mindset.

    When the idea for a coded curriculum first arose, we didn't know what it would look like. What we did know were our goals. We wanted students to use code as content creators -- not just content consumers. We wanted to break down stereotypes about who writes code, and excite kids who never thought they could write code. As a both/and school, we wanted to reach students who were interested in both coding and poetry -- not limit students to one or the other.

    Keeping this in mind, we ruled out the idea of teaching coding as a standalone course taught by a computer science teacher. This meant the responsibility would fall to the rest of our teachers -- English, art, science, you name it -- most of which were beginners in coding. To prepare, many teachers spent their summers experimenting with online tutorials from Khan Academy and Code, attending training sessions run by fellow teachers, and enrolling in programs like Bootstrap. When September rolled around, we embraced our "launch/test/refine/relaunch" mindset and went for it.

    Our math teachers got in on the fun first, teaching students how to write code to use it as a problem solving tool in geometry. Before we knew it, classes from all sorts of disciplines were using code. The movement simply spread organically across the school:

    • A global studies class wrote code to analyze data and run simulations for a project on surveillance, even though the teacher had never written a line of code in his life.

  • One English teacher launched a project where students used code to create imagery for the poem "Invictus." She had never written a line of code in her life.
  • In a ninth grade drawing class, a student used code to produce animated drawings like this one for his end of term portfolio -- and ended up teaching his entire class and teacher how to use Pencil Code. He was the coolest kid in the class that day.
  • Inspired by this student, Beaver's entire Global Studies department has decided to attend a Pencil Code Hackathon this spring in order to design lesson plans and project ideas around coding.
  • If you asked me what our coded curriculum will look like at this time next year, I wouldn't have a solid answer. While that may sound scary to some, to me it's what education is all about. It all goes back to Beaver's organizational mindset: be a both/and school; don't fear being a beginner; and test and refine initiatives. Try things out, see how they go, and tweak accordingly. Don't be afraid.

    Does your school or college have a strong organizational mindset? Have you had difficulties implementing change due to lack of organizational mindset? Sound off in the comments -- I'd love to hear what you think.