Organizational Design

I discovered Ray Dalio’s Principles (Simon and Schuster, 2017) accidentally on a Barnes and Noble bookshelf, and it has been a delight ever since. I’ve been learning a lot, and am finding that Dalio has articulated some of the principles which we have been discovering. That is encouraging, yet one exception stands out. Dalio argues against changing organization design to accommodate people’s skills (439).  Our orientation is the opposite. I am always ready to change organization design to capitalize on people’s skills. To me, that is the way of the Zen cook –  to utilize the ingredients at hand to create the Supreme Meal.

In our view, at ICS,  the project of maintaining system designs commits us to a strategy of replacing people. When a vacancy occurs, we must find the person who can replace the wonderful person who left (whether they are leaving our organization or moving to another position within the organization.) Instead, we have come to accept and embrace the reality that wonderful people can never be replaced. (See Everyone is Irreplaceable) New people will appear and our systems will adapt to take advantage of their differences and strengths.

This is an inevitable process of growth and change, as wonderful people keep growing.Individual growth requires continuous evolution of organization design to accommodate and support the ongoing change process. In a mechanical world of rigid systems and fixed job descriptions, individual growth stalls. In most schools where rigid designs are enforced through civil service regulations and union contracts, the growth of talented teachers gets halted as they wait for colleagues to die or retire.

We challenge all our people while challenging ourselves. To keep growing, we must continue to tackle new challenges; and to take on new challenges we need to shed each year about 10 to 20% of what we did last year. Otherwise, there is no room for growth.

Think – Which are the things you are so good at that you 

can do them in your sleep? How about turning those things over to a colleague for whom they would be a challenge?

Then you think – But not one can do them as well as I can.

Yes, but can they do them well enough so that you can free yourself to learn something new?

But I really enjoy that part of the job.

I smile.

For years, I took great pride in being the “the chief writer” for our schools. I could feel myself puff up when someone from outside the organization asked who had written this charter or that grant proposal. It was hard for me to let go of that role. I enjoyed writing, and I still enjoy writing. And yet, it feels very good that Erin Celletti is now our chief writer (Director of Communications), and I am just as busy and growing and we are accomplishing more.

I’m still smiling.

In our earliest years, I was also our “chief counselor”. In fact, I was pretty much the only counselor. I was using my years of experience in social work and mental health to help our team address some difficult challenges. I was good with families, and I enjoyed the challenges although, of course, we didn’t succeed with everyone. I was doing things that were most comfortable for me.

For us to grow as an organization and for me to grow personally, I needed to take on new challenges. Next year we will have a fully staffed team of professionals, headed by a director of counseling and eight full-time, top-notch counselors. We are doing a much better job with students and families than we have ever done, and the number of families we are working with will have increased from less than 200 to well over a thousand.

Could I make a greater contribution to the work of the counseling team than I do now, if I had the time? I guess so. But at what cost to us in terms of everyone’s growth and the growth of the service we provide?

Through this process (and there are so many more examples), my “position” in the system remained the same. My role and responsibilities have morphed and as they did others appeared, from within the organization and from without, to take on many, many tasks. For us this is the principle: To make sure that everyone has the opportunity and the support and encouragement to grow. To continue to adapt the organizational design in support of that growth is the ongoing challenge of leadership.

When we started out, we imagined that we would have a mix experienced and new teachers, all of whom shared our vision. We recruited an experienced principal because we were advised that that would help lend credibility to our first charter application. We didn’t fully understand the wisdom of that move, although we have come to recognize that becoming a principal for the first time is an intensely challenging growth experience. There is a level of leadership, “the captain of the ship,” which tends to evoke fears and fantasies not confronted by leaders earlier in their careers. To be dealing with those new leadership dilemmas while managing the challenges we couldn’t anticipate that we faced in the opening of a new charter school can be quite overwhelming.  We have continued to marvel at the fortuity of our choice while still observing, over the years, the struggles and failures of many new charter schools.

In that inaugural year, we also found that few experienced teachers were attracted to a new charter school, the first on Staten Island. We hired a team of new teachers, and the mix of experienced leadership and new, high-energy teachers turned out to be quite magical. Of our original team of nine teachers, one has succeeded our founding principal at Lavelle Prep (the founding principal became our first Vice President for Academic Affairs), one is the Assistant Principal of our newest school, the Nicotra Early College Charter School, and three have left for AP positions at other schools. They were not just an exceptional group,  they also responded wonderfully to an exceptional opportunity to grow and develop. Following Bernie Glassman’s Instructions to the Cook, we used the available ingredients to prepare the Supreme Meal.

Most recently ,we have recognized that our growth has led us to a place where even this now hallowed element of design is ripe for revisiting. Today, new experienced principals coming into our organization from outside bring not only a wealth of valuable experience, but values forged in very different organizational cultures as well. Are we ready to promote founding principals of new schools from within? As we have matured, so have our young leaders. Our key ingredients are no longer the same people they were ten years ago. How does this change the possibilities which the Zen cook confronts us in the organizational kitchen?