Fluid Networks

Youth sports teams rarely make international headlines but last summer the world was gripped by the plight of twelve boys and their coach from the Wild Boars soccer team that had become trapped in the Tham Luang cave network in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. For eight days concerned officials only knew that they were somewhere in the caves, having discovered their bikes at the entrance. As flood waters rose and the rain kept falling, hope was fading of finding the boys alive until two British divers discovered them almost three kilometres inside the caves; scared, cold, hungry but safe and in surprisingly good spirits. What followed was an extraordinary rescue mission, fraught with complex challenges, working against the clock and the impeding rainy season. Against all the odds, one by one, they were brought to the surface to be reunited with their families and to receive the medical treatment that they so badly needed.

What struck me beyond the amazing feat of human resilience and the power of hope was the joint international response to solving this seemingly insurmountable problem. Divers and support teams from twenty-two countries, consisting of volunteers and professionals, worked alongside Thai Navy Seals and emergency services to secure the team’s safety. It was the very essence of collaboration.

This collaboration is even more impressive when set against the current backdrop of global politics and domestic issues closer to home, notably, Brexit. The rise of protectionism and nationalism yells from the rooftops ‘we must look after our own; we should reduce our reliance on others; we must pull up the drawbridge and we must focus our energies inward.’

At a time when schools are facing their greatest resourcing challenges in more than a generation with budgets tighter than ever and recruitment at crisis point, there is a danger that schools and those that lead them also become increasingly protectionist and inward looking. They have less motivation and bandwidth to look beyond their own school gates or Trusts; this carries significant risks to the individual schools and the wider system.

If we investigate high performing organisations and cultures around the world it is clear that they share a mindset of humility and wanting to learn from others. When UK Sport and Team GB looked to prepare for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, they consistently looked beyond their own walls to find out what they could learn from the worlds of the Arts, Music, the Armed Forces and Industry to drive improvements in their performance. Seemingly unconnected organisations, sharing their intellectual property for mutual benefit. The same is true of Microsoft where the CEO, Satya Nadella, quickly realised that he had to lead a change in mindset and culture from ‘know it all’s to ‘learn it all’s’; the humility and awareness that they needed to learn from others and celebrate naïve questions that challenged their current thinking.

The rise of start up tech companies on the West Coast of the USA was in no small part due to the café/ coffee shop culture that accompanied it. These provided the fertile work spaces that encouraged collaboration and ‘fluid networks.’ Fluid networks thrive as a result of the spontaneous collisions between people that would not normally find themselves in the same teams or working on the same projects. What occurs when this happens is the sharing of ideas, problems and solutions that, in turn, inspires fresh thinking and creative partnerships. The design of work spaces in some of the world’s highest performing organisations has sought to encourage this level of collaboration and mindset.

In good schools there is much talk of collaboration and it may even appear in self-evaluation documents or school improvement plans but the key difference in great schools is that it goes beyond the superficial level; it is part of the weft and weave of the culture. They live and breathe it, they proactively seek out ways to encourage it and they spend time nurturing it.

How can we encourage greater collaboration and fluid networks in our schools as well as between schools and why should we invest precious time and energy in developing partnerships beyond our immediate teams or areas of responsibility? It is not without its challenges but we must guard against the mindset that says ‘why should I invest in collaboration when I have enough to do here already with limited resources to do it?’ and instead ask ourselves ‘can I afford not to?’

Some key questions to consider:

  • How do we organise our staff working spaces to encourage fluid networks?
  • How can we change the way we work when we meet as a whole staff to encourage greater collaboration and fluid networks?
  • Who owns the professional learning in our school?
  • Who decides how best practice is shared and when?
  • At what layer in the organisation is collaboration most effective?
  • Where are the new ideas coming from in our school?
  • What could we stop doing so that we could invest our energy into something even better?
  • Who are we bench-marking ourselves against and what can we learn from those that are even more effective than us, regardless of their specialism or context?
  • How do we protect ourselves against ‘group think’ in our team/ organisation?
  • Where does the independent challenge come from in our team/ organisation?

In my next post I will share a selection of some of the good practice I have seen within and between schools to promote collaboration and fluid networks.