A Murmuration of Starlings – working together to drive improvement

By Gary Handforth, Director of Primary Education at Bright Futures Educational Trust

A murmuration of starlings is a breath-taking sight – a swooping mass of thousands of birds whirling in the sky above your head. A type of organised chaos as the birds suddenly switch direction in complete synchronisation with no visible sign of a single leader, but instead a successful collective behaviour that achieves the goal of the whole.

This type of flocking provides a good example of the way in which order can form without any central coordination. Collective behaviour emerges from some simple invisible rules, creating complex motion and a connective interaction between every bird. By working together, and not alone, the participants form an organised and effective whole.

Simple invisible rules. These words echo in my mind throughout my work on leadership. How often do we see simple rules in many different organisations that would rather insist on creating a complexity of rules and regulations and top-down, hierarchical pressures? Coordinated from a centre and fuelled by power and authority of the few.

How often do we see organisations trusting the people within them to make decisions at a local level and allowing these interactions to inform and develop the complex networks which make up the organisation?

Often, this is because when faced with deepening complexity, organisations insist on a form of hierarchical power and control. This means that rules created by a handful of people – often disconnected from the changing and complex needs and challenges faced by the organisation – can end up driving organisational activity and priorities and often in the wrong direction.

Our organisations end up being led by the few, controlling the many. Not the many informing the few. Leaders need to respond more and dictate less, to listen more, to tell less.

As human beings we are all prone to not doing exactly what we are told to do. We may, on the surface, behave as if we are doing so, but we crave to add our own creativity, our own worth and value – and we often do. This could mean that any top-down hierarchical system may inadvertently create a shadow culture in our organisations, where people add their own interpretations of rules and orders, which lead to the true causes of change going unnoticed, remaining invisible. Yet the authoritative rules believe the changes stemmed from the hierarchical commands.

The world of education appears to be run on similar principles. Great leaders, celebrity leaders who come in to ‘fix’ schools. An education system which seems determined to find the quick solution to failing schools, to copy and paste success onto other schools. We may often see quick results and the prescription seems to be working. However, the improvements are often temporary and short-lived and have no sustainable and long lasting solution. The patient soon returns to sickness.

With enormous pressure on schools to fix things quickly and a press picking up on perceived failings because turn-a-round hasn’t turned around, then it should come as no surprise that short term solutions have become regarded the main catalyst for improvement within schools. A safer, easily-implemented, ‘do it this way’ style of school improvement, which paves the way for the leaders who effect these changes to be praised as heroes.

What if we stopped for a while longer and questioned more deeply our short-term thinking and decision-making?

What if we questioned the types of leaders this environment may encourage and the school culture this might develop?

What if we shifted our thinking in schools so that dictatorial, top-down decision-making was not perceived as the sole driver for improvement?

What if we adopted other approaches and not just the quick-fix, prescribed approaches to problems?

This would require fundamental organisational change and a shift in mindsets, encouraged from the very top and extending throughout the whole organisation. A shift from an organisational structure that relies on a handful of disconnected leaders, to a structure that utilises the whole network, harnessing the expertise of each and every person in the system. Not just ‘distributed leadership’ which, at best, distributes the roles and responsibilities from a centrally created pot.

We don’t need bosses who distribute, we need great leaders who pay attention to the existing power in their own organisation and who are willing to relinquish their own notion of control, and to do so authentically. These leaders would need to co-create the basic rules for the system from the outset through participating with the very people who run the organisation – those that work in it. Once these basic rules are established, they will act as guiding lights for individuals or groups to make local decisions at the ground level, responding to the complexity of daily information they receive.

We need to move away from any one-size-fits-all approach and any notion that answers are located inside the heads of a few leaders who appear to ‘run’ the organisation. We need to focus on the invisible.

By identifying and releasing the potential talents and skills of each and every individual, by creating a climate of opportunity for individuals and groups to work together to identify and solve problems and for us to learn by tapping into a collective wisdom, we can create an organisation where every member is an active participant, developing a self guided and mutually accountable system for the general good of the organisation. In other words, a true and authentic self-organising, self-improving system; just like the starlings, no single dominant leader but driven by a collective will guided by simple rules.

And that is what we are doing at Bright Futures Educational Trust. As a group of education leaders we have sat down and practically worked out how we can actually do this – how we can affect change through collaboration across a whole Multi Academy Trust?. It has taken a while to work out and put into implementation – we never said it would be quick. And we have suffered from the relentless focus of the press and an impatient establishment. But we now are beginning to see the real benefits of this approach.

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Gary Handforth

Gary Handforth BA (Hons) MA is Executive Principal and Director of Primary Education. Prior to this he was the Head teacher of two schools in central Manchester. His particular areas of expertise are in organisational psychology, coaching theory and practice and in developing strong partnerships and networks between schools. He is also a Local Leader in Education.

He is involved in a number of school partnerships and is a Trustee of Challenge Partners, being the North West Hub representative leading on the work of 19 schools across 5 different local authorities.

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