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New (Fiscal) Year, New Mindset

By Jeffrey Shields posted 22 days ago

  

CEO Notebook |

If we want to power forward with change and innovation, as we learned we could last year, we might try thinking more like a scientist.

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

I think we can all agree that last school year was one chock full of experiments, most of which were forced upon us. I’ve written before about my sincere hope that schools embrace the spirit of change adopted under duress, and continue to learn and grow from it as we find our way out of the pandemic. What struck my eye more recently was a call for business schools to begin teaching scientific experimentation, to enable business leaders to approach decisions with a more open mind.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Business Schools Need To Teach Experimentation,” the authors – business professors at the University of Utah – point out how large companies like Microsoft, Bing and Google regularly run experiments that help them improve their business. They test how customers react to new products, where advertising dollars have the most impact and what interview questions are most likely to indicate on-the-job performance, for example. This trend is being called the “experimental revolution.”

We can’t divide our classes in half and run an experiment to determine which has the best outcomes or offer one set of benefits to half the faculty and another set to the other. But we can embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry and collect feedback objectively as we seek to move forward with innovations.

Independent schools can’t replicate this model exactly. Companies operating this way invest tremendous resources to run randomized experiments and compute large amounts of data to discover what works. We can’t divide our classes in half and run an experiment to determine which has the best outcomes or offer one set of benefits to half the faculty and another set to the other. But we can embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry and collect feedback objectively as we seek to move forward with innovations.

“The value of experiments in nonscientific organizations is quite high,” the authors write. “Instead of calling on managers to solve every puzzle or dispute large and small…teams can run experiments and measure outcomes of interest and, armed with new data, decide for themselves, or at least put forward a proposal grounded in relevant information.” The scientific method is the “gold standard” of tools, they say, to combat bias and increase objective answers. It can weed out “faulty intuition, inaccurate assumptions, or overconfidence.” When I think of the amount of anecdotal data we often use to make important decisions, it always raises alarm bells. If we want to be the data-driven organizations we claim, this may be part of the solution.

For some in our schools, the tendency may be to maintain or resume the status quo. This assumption can be tested by looking at data that indicates which programs or initiatives have been successful, or by asking for feedback, from students and families, faculty, and staff. And simply approaching strategic questions with an experimental mindset – what would happen if we did it this way or that way? – can lead to more innovative cultures. “Experiments spur innovation,” the authors assert.

Large companies are struggling to find qualified researchers to run and analyze the number of experiments they want to run. That’s why the authors urge business schools to teach experimentation, to develop business leaders who can design and run experiments, interpret results, and use that information to lead data-informed change.

So, what’s a much smaller independent school to do? Some have in fact hired institutional researchers — Milton Academy in Massachusetts was the first I’d heard of a few years ago. Others, such as Roland Park in Baltimore, have more recently brought a data analyst on board and have found a return on investment. But if this move seems out of reach, as it will for many, perhaps the business leaders within our schools can take an initial step by bringing data to the table whenever possible and asking for data from others. They can strive to keep an open mind when deciding how to move forward – and when to innovate.

None of us have the energy to replicate the pace of change last year, but maybe we can learn from it and develop a culture that continuously questions, with open eyes and mind, like a scientist seeking new knowledge.

NBOA, as always, is here to help you. We provide optimized benchmarking tools through our Business Intelligence for Independent Schools (BIIS) data platform, because we know our members want to be able to measure their school’s performance against others’. But I’d urge you to also look to internal data – how your school has performed year over year, for example, to identify successes and opportunities for growth. The NBOA Dashboard and CFI calculator are tools within BIIS that can help you do this.

What if all independent schools adopted a “culture of experimentation,” as our peers in the for-profit world appear to be doing at a rapid pace? None of us have the energy to replicate the pace of change last year, but maybe we can learn from it and develop a culture that continuously questions, with open eyes and mind, like a scientist seeking new knowledge.

What drives your decisions, and how has that changed over the past fiscal year? In what areas might your school experiment and grow? As always, I’m happy to hear your perspectives and your stories.

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.

From Net Assets NOW, July 13, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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