“Simply put, our approach to solving puzzles is detached and disengaging. Untying knots is engaging, immersive, and when pursued with others, transforming.” (Miller et al. 2014).
“Problems that were never seen as connected have become so interwoven that attempting to determine where one element begins and ends is now impossible.” (Miller et al. 2014).
Many years ago, when I was a high school soccer coach, I would train my team to play as a team rather than as 11 individual players. We worked daily so that we would be able to adapt to the fluidity of the game. We could never recreate specific situations, but we could train ourselves to think and act as one.
In sports, this type of unified group thinking makes sense. We understand the necessity of a team of players thinking and acting as one. Yet, in our workplaces, specifically in our schools, we typically operate as a collection of individuals. In particular, our leadership teams are often comprised of fragmented, isolated, and detached members, interacting and collaborating collectively once a week at best. We must change, and we must innovate, because the challenges facing Christian schools are substantial and complex.
At the Global Christian School Leadership Summit in Orlando, Florida, I spoke about 10 challenges to the sustainability of Christian education. The list included social, financial, global, pedagogical, and religious challenges. The needs are staggering and, frankly, threatening. We are nearly a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century and Christian schools, in particular, are struggling to respond to these threats. Why? How is it that Christian schools are struggling to adapt to the shifting landscape of modern times?
I believe one of many reasons is because Christian schools are not built to be adaptable. At the highest levels of our organizations, we are structured in a top-down, hierarchical model, much like we were 50 years ago. Most interesting, our office spaces are arranged as a reflection of our organizational charts and force our schools to operate in silos. The form of our offices determines the function of our people, and it is choking our organizations. But rather than negatively focusing on our challenge, it is time for Christian school leaders to focus on the opportunities for transformation.
At Monte Vista Christian School, we use space intentionally, as a lever for cultural change and as a representation of cultural values. Therefore, we are seeking to create spaces where the form of the space dictates the function of the space. In December 2016, we embarked on an ambitious project to transform our office culture. The centerpiece was the remodeling of the central office to encourage and celebrate collaboration, fluidity, adaptability, relationship, and community.
We have 14 people on our leadership team, and all of them were scattered in individual offices around our 105-acre campus. Several of the members of the leadership team had contiguous offices; however, most were detached and remote. As in most schools, the headmaster’s office was detached from the other office spaces and protected by an assistant. As our team began to evaluate our organizational culture, we noticed that our leadership arrangement was not only a reflection of our school culture but, most significantly, a main contributor to our school culture. The challenges we were facing as an organization mirrored the leadership team’s challenges, which in turn mirrored the isolated spaces in which we worked.
An Innovation Cascade
Radical cultural transformation begins with a small but significant alteration. A year prior, in studying the transformation and rebirth of Yellowstone National Park, I learned about how the introduction of wolves to Yellowstone altered the entire ecological landscape of the park. It turns out that the wolves began a trophic cascade, impacting every aspect of the park’s ecosystem, even altering the behavior of the rivers. In reflection, I wrote a blog article to synthesize my thoughts and coined the term innovation cascade. An innovation cascade is the result of a simple but substantial addition or alteration within an organization. Without force or coercion, innovation cascades through an organization, unable to be stopped or hindered, and changes the ecosystem of the organization along the way. Further, I considered the ramifications of Jesus’ words when he said, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17, ESV). In other words, fresh visions need fresh space. True transformation needs a new home.
Our Space Transformation
My goal is to lead an organization that is able to respond to the complex challenges of the digital, modern world. I desire for our team to be collaborative, fluid, adaptable, malleable, relational, and communal in its response. We viewed an office space that embodied these characteristics as a way to catalyze cultural transformation, and to start an innovation cascade within our organization.
The images below show the progression of change, in which we moved from traditional, individual offices to a hybrid of open space, flexible work stations, and group spaces (a conference room). We also continue to have private work spaces that staff can reserve at any time, for private meetings with other staff or students as the need arises. We’ve installed an iPad outside of each private space where staff can view rooms’ availability and also reserve a room and using a shared Google calendar, which they can also access from their own devices. Taken together, our office spaces are flexible and varied. We have been intentional in our design to allow for fluidity and transformation to meet the needs of the team.
The creation of flexible office spaces does not instantaneously or magically transform the school culture. If utilized properly, however, it is a catalyst for deep change. A flexible office is a new wineskin prepared to contain new wine. But there must be new wine. Traditional leadership behaviors in an open office will be disastrous. Leading in a flexible office requires a commitment to transparency and team building. Removing physical walls is easy. Removing the invisible political, personal, relational, and divisional walls within an organization is where the real challenge lies. While altering the landscape of the office is a crucial first step in the process, deep commitment to the transformation process is required of leaders. Personally, I have had to model the vision of this new office space by removing the headmaster’s office and joining the team. My space is a small standing desk right alongside my colleagues. I am accessible, open, and part of the team, not special or set apart. I believe this speaks volumes to our organization.
Space transformation demands people transformation. Why? Because new space requires new behaviors. New behaviors are only possible when people change. Therefore, changing your office’s spatial arrangement necessitates an intentional focus on leadership development.
At Monte Vista Christian, we have doubled down on our leadership development efforts since our move to a flexible office. We started by spending two days at an offsite retreat, with the focal point of our time together being Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. As our team improves in our ability to trust each other, make conflict productive, commit, hold each other accountable, and focus on results, we will learn to live in our shared space as a highly functioning team. Ultimately, we will begin to transform our culture.
For example, at an offsite retreat, our team collectively agreed that our thematic goal for the next six months would be the concept “we.” We focused on a quote from our founder almost 90 years ago as a theme for our work:
“Monte Vista is a school where boys and girls, regardless of whether they lived near or far, irrespective of race, creed, or position in life, whether they be children of ministers and missionaries, children from well-regulated families or children from broken homes, all, alike, could receive a good education and at the same time learn to live together, play together, work together, and worship together as one happy, wholesome family.” (Emphasis added)
“Together as one” stands out for me because it embodies the culture of leadership I desire to see at Monte Vista Christian School. Because space matters, we are leveraging our space as a representation of our desired institutional culture and as a catalyst for an innovation cascade for the transformation of our culture.
A Call to Be Radically Different
Do you desire to change your school culture? Do you long for a school that is prepared to tackle the complex challenges threatening Christian education? If so, perhaps you will join me on a journey of transformation. Perhaps you will take a bold step and begin an innovation cascade within your organization by providing some new wineskins. It is challenging work. It is dangerous work. But, then, so is doing nothing.
Miller, R., M. Casey, and M. Konchar. 2014. Change your space, change your culture. Jon Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Lencioni, P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. 2002. Josey-Bass: San Francisco.
About the Author
Dr. Mitchell Salerno is Headmaster of Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, CA, president of the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, and a well-regarded speaker on school innovation and technology. He can be reached via email at MitchellSalerno@mvcs.org and the school website is www.mvcs.org.