A Lesson From The Skies

This past year I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with dozens of independent school and association leaders to discuss struggling or imperiled technology programs. Amid the varied circumstances, a pattern has emerged: Frequently the default action is to assume fault with the technology staff, the teachers, or even the technology itself. More often than not, the overall culture of leadership, communication, and management is the root cause of a struggling program. The only way to make lasting improvements is to examine and address these cultural barriers.

Here’s a Lesson from the Skies

Consider this analogy: When a plane goes down, it’s easy to blame the pilots. Oftentimes, cockpit error is the direct cause of the crash. But underlying almost every fatal aviation incident are contributing cultural factors that when analyzed in hindsight portend a tragic ending.
Some readers may be old enough to remember the Pan Am / KLM crash of 1977 on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. This crash resulted in the largest loss of life ever from a collision of two airplanes. The facts seem straightforward. One plane, the KLM jet, took off without proper clearance while a Pan Am jet was still taxiing on the same runway. The Pan Am pilots had missed the turnoff to an unmarked exit, and unfortunately the runway was immersed in thick fog. Neither cockpit saw the other plane until it was too late. To make matters worse, the tiny airport had been overwhelmed by an unusual influx of jumbo jets, and the lone air traffic controller struggled to manage a high volume of planes.
It would be easy to conclude that the direct facts caused the crash: the premature KLM takeoff, the confused Pan Am pilots, the understaffed control tower, and the fogged in runway. But investigators decided to dig deeper and search for — novel for that day and age — underlying cultural factors that might have exacerbated the situation.
It turns out that the captain of the KLM jet was the airline’s chief flying instructor — essentially the CEO of all pilots. He was the one who misinterpreted the tower’s instructions. The two other copilots had managed to stop him from taking off once. After a second ambiguous message from the tower, however, the captain ominously insisted, “We’re going,” and his copilots chose not to stop him. The cultural factor in this case was the imbalance of power in the cockpit, which made the subordinates feel powerless to defy their boss.

Cultural Factors Can Imperil Our Schools, Too

Let’s turn our attention back to school technology programs. It’s easy to say that a tablet program failed because of insufficient resources or poor training, but should the program have launched in the first place? Was it suggested by an influential trustee, launched by a disengaged head of school, or not supported by a divided leadership team?
If you are facing a technology challenge, try to identify not only the direct causes but also the contributing human factors. For example, does your school have a trustee, senior executive, or technology administrator who fits one or more of the following profiles?
  • KLM captain: someone who “takes off prematurely” by going all in with tablets, digital whiteboards, or a system overhaul without getting buy-in from the necessary constituencies
  • Air traffic controller: someone who is unable or unwilling to manage a complex technology situation
  • Pan Am pilot: someone who feels lost when it comes to understanding best practices of educational technology
  • KLM copilot: someone who lacks the standing to speak up about poor strategic technology decisions
Notice that I didn’t mention students, faculty, hardware, or software. That’s because they are usually part of the collateral damage. Students who break rules, teachers who avoid technology, or systems that are misaligned with the school’s mission are more often the consequences of broken cultural factors.

The Period of Transition, or the Pivot, Is Crucial

How does a school resolve the core issues that are weighing down a technology program?  The solution boils down to two key points. First, leaders must recognize that a fix is not a 30-minute appointment at the Genius Bar. Rather, it’s a process that involves a period of transition — or as I like to call it, a pivot. As with any pivot, some elements remain unchanged, and other elements change positions tremendously. Which elements should change — staffing, strategy, systems, reporting structure, HR policies, working committees, or budgets — will vary from school to school. What’s more important is for the leadership to listen carefully to what community members say — for the clues surface in their words.
This leads to point two. As soon as a lot of people recognize that a technology program is struggling, chances are that a lot of people need professional learning opportunities. For sure that learning must reach beyond the technology staff. Trustees may need to learn more about how to balance risk management with experimental learning. Senior administrators may need to learn how to manage a technology department and set realistic expectations. Key positions, including the registrar or development database manager, may need to learn how to support a technology department by taking on additional responsibilities. And a head of school may need to learn how to play a vital role in technology decisions without feeling self-conscious about sounding like a tech neophyte.

Two Heads of School Tackle Their Technology Programs, Differently

Indeed, a head’s role in any technology pivot is critical. I talked with a director of technology who recently switched jobs. After he left, the head decided that everything was working so well that he chose not to hire a replacement director. Instead, he divided the various technology duties among three people. Now the school’s technology program is experiencing a slow decline.
Recently I worked with another head of school whose technology department was struggling. Instead of avoiding the hard issues, she left no stone unturned. She examined job descriptions, performance evaluations, exempt/non-exempt employee status, reporting structures, and even the physical placement of employees. Now she and the new director of technology are rebuilding the program from the ground up.

Don’t Be Afraid to Educate Yourself

When a school’s technology program needs to change, everyone needs to engage. Avoiding the tough discussions and decisions is the biggest mistake that an administrator can make. Why do people disengage? Common reasons are a lack of comfort or understanding about the basics and a desire not to look foolish. In reality, those who step aside often know strategy and culture better than the tech experts, so their absence is a double whammy to a school attempting to pivot. For administrators wanting a better handle on the fundamentals of all things technology in schools, I encourage you to attend the workshop “Making Sense of Technology in Independent Schools and Selecting the Right One for You” at the 2016 NAIS Annual Conference in San Francisco on February 24, presented by NAIS’s Vice President of Educational Technology and Learning Services Kawai Lai. Here you’ll gain increased confidence to participate in the next period of struggle.

All Leaders Need to Prepare for Technology Challenges

At the end of the day, the best thing all school leaders can do — not only heads and CTOs — is to prepare themselves for the inevitable crisis. We all know what happened when Captain Sully Sullenberger’s plane encountered a flock of birds that knocked out both his engines over the Hudson River seven years ago. He told the  copilot flying at the time, “My plane.” Then his glider-pilot instincts helped him land safely in the water. Trustees, heads, and senior administrators may never feel as comfortable with educational technology as Sullenberger did with a falling aircraft, but all school leaders should work to acquire the mindset of “I got it” rather than “you take it” when tackling the next technology challenge.