The Culture of Better

Psychological studies seem to show that people given a choice between a loss and a gain of equal size will choose to avoid the loss rather than try for the gain.  As a parochial school leader, you must strive to overcome this bias.  In addition, you must strive to create an organizational culture that overcomes this bias.

The purpose of every parochial school is to solve an important problem in our world.  Rarely is loss avoidance a solution to any problem.  It might prevent the problem from growing.  Solving the problem typically requires innovation.

Innovation increases the probability that your students will be more successful more quickly.  Innovation increases sustainability because it makes something better or faster.  Loss avoidance reduces sustainability because it creates nothing new and nothing improves until something new happens.

Every parochial school needs a culture that strives for better.  When things are better, people achieve more, good things happen, and it is easier to fulfill the promises of the mission statement.

It is necessary for a parochial school to take risks if it is going to innovate and make changes.  Risk taking raises the probability of loss.  Therefore, loss avoidance is the enemy of both innovation and the desire to make things better.

Boards unintentionally create a loss-avoidance culture.  The average tenure of the average board member on the average board is less than 3 years.  It is hard to learn much about the operation, capabilities, and challenges of an organization and its environment in three years with only a few hours of training once a month (board meetings).  Most board members are conscientious and care deeply about the schools they serve.  Therefore, they want to do the best they can but because they lack experience and information, it is hard for them to willingly take risks.  Hence, they make the safe decision.

Creating a culture that embraces reasonable risk, experimentation, and innovation is impossible if the board is committed to loss avoidance.  One way you can help your board be more risk accepting is to remind them that their board service creates a lasting legacy for your school and contributes to their personal reputation.

Preventing loss sounds good when you say it but it produces nothing of lasting value.  Nothing to show for dozens of meetings and hours of work is unlikely to be the hallmark of a highly sought after board candidate.

Many school principals wish they had more engaged board members.  It is hard for someone to be engaged and excited about board service when they have nothing to show for their board service.

Next Step:

Create a culture that rewards taking reasonable risks

Encourage your board to make the mission, better outcomes, and increasing sustainability the priorities when choosing between two or more opportunities

Turn potential loss avoidance into an opportunity to make things better

Even when faced with a potential loss, find a way to present it to the board as a step forward.  For instance, “Program X is no longer effectively serving our students in the lower school.  If we continue to offer the program, we will lose $10,000 in the next fiscal year.  Our options are to scale back Program X to prevent the loss or spend $10,000 on Project Revamp in an effort to increase our effectiveness.”  In this simple example, the board is faced with three options:

Continue to operate Program X and lose $10,000

Scale back Program X and hope it saves $10,000

Revamp Program X and hope that the $10,000 investment will prevent the $10,000 loss

It is hard to imagine any board taking the first option.  Many boards will take the second option because it is the safe choice.

Given only options one and two, very few boards will ask for an opportunity to consider other options.  However, options one and two will lower the school’s sustainability because both options result in the school standing still or retrenching.  You want your board to always look for an option that has the potential to improve your school’s sustainability while concurrently benefiting your mission.

Option three is the highest risk option because if revamping is unsuccessful, there is potential for a $10,000 loss on the program plus the loss of the $10,000 spent on revamping.  Even though it is the option with the highest risk, it is the only option that has the potential to expand the effectiveness of the mission and increase the school’s sustainability.

Since serving the mission is the only purpose of a school, revamping the program is the only option for the board.  Train your board to place the opportunity to benefit the mission and increase sustainability over loss prevention.

Take It Further:

Recruit board members who have a history of successful risk taking

Ask your board development committee to provide your board with a basic understanding of the operations, capabilities, and challenges of your school and its operating environment

Ask your board development committee to train your board members to be risk accepting

Ask your board development committee to train board members to think about their legacy before they make decisions, cast votes, or present items for discussion

Encourage your staff to model the behavior you want your board to adopt


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