Good To Great to . . . not-so good

MATCH founder Michael Goldstein, now blogging on Starting an Ed School, looks at what happened over time to the companies praised in Jim Collins’ influential management book, Good to Great.  After analyzing 1,435 companies, Collins 11 that had gone from “good to great.”

Corporate transformations don’t rely on a “miracle moment,” Collins wrote.

Instead, a down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process—a framework—kept each company, its leaders, and its people on track for the long haul. In each case, it was the triumph of the Flywheel Effect over the Doom Loop, the victory of steadfast discipline over the quick fix.

Doom Loopers “launch change programs with huge fanfare,” then change direction. “Disappointing results lead to reaction without understanding, which leads to a new direction—a new leader, a new program—which leads to no momentum, which leads to disappointing results. It’s a steady, downward spiral.”

Many people in the K-12 world use Collins’ “ideas for how a school might go from good to great,” writes Goldstein. “Or mediocre to good. Or crappy to mediocre.” Yet urban teachers know the Doom Loop all too well.

Doom Loop is why my teacher friends in some traditional large urban schools have indigestion when they hear about any sort of “reform.”

In their direct experience, all they’ve seen is Doom Loop. More precisely, Doom Loop masquerading with claims that this time it would be Flywheel. This time. Righto.

Only two of the 11 companies in Good to Great, published in 2001, are still Great when measured by stock prices, Nucor and Philip Morris, Goldstein discovered. Five have posted average performance. One, Gillette, was bought out. That leaves three that went from Great to Lousy:

Pitney Bowes is half its market cap of 2001.

Circuit City is defunct.

Fannie Mae (securities fraud, delisted by NYSE, contributed to gigantic financial meltdown)

So does that mean Collins was wrong — or that well-managed companies couldn’t keep it up over time?

Being right isn’t enough

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

“A superintendent walks into an honors composition classroom, and sees students copying the school rules into their notebooks.  He turns to the teacher and says…”

The punchline took place last fall, but I only read about it today in the LA Times.  Apparently what the superintendent says in this particular joke is something along the lines of:

That’s why Deasy blew his top last fall when he encountered students in a 12th-grade English class copying a list of classroom rules into their composition books.

Busywork, he called it. An insult to their potential. A disrespectful waste of time in an Honors Composition course.

He told the students as much, then asked their teacher, Patrena Shankling, what they were supposed to be learning from this.

Let me just say that from the limited amount of information I have, he’s absolutely, 100% right.  It is busywork.  It’s a disrespectful insult to almost any high school class.  And, frankly, it’s probably (rank speculation alert!) the sort of thing that happens all the time in high schools.  (The mindless, stupid copying, that is, not the superintendent walking in.)

But as right as he might be, as righteous as his indignation may properly burn, he’s also a bit of an ass for going after the teacher in front of her students.  That’s not good management.  It’s not good leadership.  It’s not good manners.  If you really want, you can lean on the teacher, force an apology to the students later.  But going after someone in public is just going to end badly.  It’s the sort of thing you only do if you absolutely have to.

So in light of this criticism, it turns out that the teacher was also right when she objected…

Shankling was a substitute. It was the second day of the fall semester, and she was following the teacher’s lesson plan. She didn’t appreciate being scolded by Deasy in front of the students in her class.

But of course, as we know from seeing the superintendent in action, being right isn’t enough.  You also have to avoid acting stupidly, which seems to have been remarkably difficult in that classroom that day for several parties…

They wound up in a shouting match. She ordered Deasy to leave, he threatened to have her removed, she said.

One day later, Shankling, substitute No. 970595, was banned from teaching in L.A. Unified.

Let me say it again: being right isn’t enough.  You should also  be decent, and wise.  And being right is definitely not enough if you’re in a giant bureaucracy like the LAUSD.

On the other hand, when it comes to LAUSD superintendents, given the district’s track record, I might be perfectly happy with someone who’s just right.