Resilience is the ability to hold onto what is core to the identity and character of an institution while also nurturing an ability to react to changes in the ecosystem of the community in which the institution exists. Like so many things, institutional resilience deepens when it is a BOTH/AND. It is BOTH keenly aware of what to preserve at all costs, AND it is willing to make changes, at times bold ones, in order to adjust to and thrive within a fast evolving operational and cultural context. The extent to which this polarity balances between the need to preserve and the demand to change defines resilience for educational, non-profit, and for-profit enterprises.
When institutions go astray in a fast-moving environment, it is likely a result of tilting too far in one direction or the other. When the preservationists dominate, an institution may become particularly brittle and thus vulnerable to outside threats—it is simply not able to adjust to or respond to challenges. When the soldiers of change dominate, corrosion is likely to occur from within as the core identity of the institution presses back against what it perceives as an existential challenge. Equilibrium is the therefor the key to institutional resilience.
Creating, and then sustaining, a Progress Culture is increasingly imperative in all sectors to achieve the institutional resilience necessary not only to survive but to maintain the potential to thrive in our world where the needles on our data dashboards are swinging back and forth with increasing drama and speed. What follows is a description of Progress Culture:
When we talk about creating a transformative moment, the goal is to move institutional operations and culture to a new place. What is misleading about this kind of talk is that it sounds as if the place where the institution lands will represent a new stationary normal. But in fact the goal is to transform into a culture in which normal will include the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world.
If we are to help create institutions that can both withstand and excel within a forever choppy socio-economic context, we must be open to reimagining the means by which we strive to accomplish that our goals.
So many of our schools, non-profits and businesses are repositories for the way we used to do things in the larger culture. For instance, the academic schedules we use are by and large artifacts of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. Place the daily schedule of a student in 1910 against the one most of our sons and daughters navigated last week and you will be startled by the similarity. The goal of the schedule from the early part of the twentieth century was to deliver content. The emphasis was rarely on trying to help students become critical thinkers—the focus was centered obsessively with rote memorization. In the non-profits and for-profit worlds similar examples are surely easy to spot.
What we are trying to accomplish or perhaps better, the means by which we would best accomplish it, has changed dramatically, yet the cultural and operational approaches we take have too often remained almost completely intact, leaving us trying to get to the moon in a Singer Sewing Machine.
A progress-culture will:
- Always make what is best for our strategic success the alpha and omega of the conversation.
- Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision.
- Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the institution.
- Be thoughtful in defining what progress is. In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change. For example, a school should not take steps that would diminish the ability to do prepare students for college well. In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.
- Continually invest in the employee community so that it will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.
- Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents. Part of the goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a progress-culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.