March 27, 2018

Create a Culture of Innovation with These 4 Dual Operating System Hacks

Devin Vodicka, Chief Impact Officer and Chief Academic Officer

To become a model of educational excellence, you need to remove the bottlenecks from your organization’s social hierarchy. Altitude Learning Chief Impact Officer and Chief Academic Officer Devin Vodicka, a former “California Superintendent of the Year,” shares four hacks to make information flow more freely to accelerate innovation.

It was a bold aspiration: to become the model of educational excellence and innovation. It highlighted a fundamental tension between incremental improvement and transformational change. But after months of community input and multiple revisions, we arrived at this vision statement for the Vista Unified School District.

In many ways, our district was poised to achieve excellence. Over decades we had engineered a system to continually improve efficiency and stability. We had policy manuals, handbooks, procedural manuals, archives, and countless other documents to codify the decision-making process, encode timelines, and ensure consistency throughout the organization. All of this was reinforced by state education codes, federal policies, collective bargaining agreements, legal settlements, case law, and other external requirements. We were prepared, we were organized, and we were ready to be that model.

How Hierarchies Limit Progress

But our district—like most bureaucratic agencies—operated as a hierarchy, with increasing authority. While most people presumed that as superintendent, the highest-ranking staff member in the district, I had extensive authority, the reality was different. Legal, policy, fiscal, and political constraints put significant limits upon the decision-making ability of any individual in the system, including myself.

Further complicating any forward progress, there was a design flaw in the hierarchy where all information flowed both up and down the org chart. This caused significant bottlenecks where individuals were overwhelmed with information, creating delays and poor transmission of information throughout the system. While the hierarchy was designed to be efficient and stable, it had some genuine limitations.

Slowly Untangling the Red Tape

Trying to promote innovation within a slow-paced, hierarchical system with a layered decision-making structure made being creative and adaptive a challenge. For years I thought about how to shift to more flexible organizational models that would promote emergence and transformation. Doing a cursory exploration into what drives innovation, I learned that diverse connections tend to accelerate the generative process.

My research eventually took me down the path of social networks and social capital—concepts that were showing great promise but were (and still are) poorly understood in the world of educational leadership. Social network theory is a way to map relationships into a "sociogram" that creates a visual representation of patterns of interaction. Social capital is the benefit that emerges through those interactions, helping resources and expertise flow where they are most needed. It was at this time that I read a fantastic article by John Kotter in the Harvard Business Review. Kotter introduced the concept of a “dual operating system”—layering diverse social networks on top of your organization’s existing hierarchy. While I was in Vista, we attempted to implement aspects of this model with varying levels of success.

Read more from Devin Vodicka: What Is Personalized Learning?

Applying Dual Operating System Hacks

Altitude Learning is an education and technology company that operates like a startup in the sense that we continuously add stabilizing features to a very dynamic environment. This gives us the space to experiment and apply innovative practices that may not work, but provide valuable learning opportunities. While the journey is ongoing and we have yet to arrive at the desired destination, I want to share some dual operating system “hacks” in the hope that they can accelerate progress in other settings.

Hack #1: Map your team’s social network

Measure your team’s social networks and make adjustments based on the data. In Vista Unified, we partnered with UC San Diego to survey our leadership team. We created sociograms that visualized the various ways informal networks emerged within the company, how information flowed through the organization, and how connected the team was around topics that were central to our vision. Identifying these elements allowed us to adjust our strategies to improve and build the capacity to support ongoing transformation.

Hack #2: Celebrate those who go above and beyond

Recognize and celebrate the volunteers, those who commit discretionary time and energy to actively participate in the innovation network. High-performing organizations are typified by high-performing individuals who are exceptionally committed. In systems that embrace the dual operating model, those who exhibit high levels of “volunteerism” are energized by opportunities to use their strengths and interests in a way that contributes to the greater good. It is incumbent on leaders to celebrate these efforts in ways that are authentic and meaningful. In Vista, we found that social media (especially Twitter) was a simple and powerful way to recognize individuals and teams who were making strong contributions.

Hack #3: Utilize technology’s full potential

Take advantage of technology to free up more time. I have been amazed with how Altitude Learning leverages technology resources to improve operational efficiency. When the team is more efficient, we have more time to commit to voluntary projects, amplifying our ability to be generative and creative. As a startup (with the iterative culture to match), Altitude Learning fully embraces technology’s ability to streamline, allowing us to move quickly as an organization. Using Google Docs and Slack in conjunction with the pervasive use of video conferencing that connects employees in various locations is a relatively simple, high-leverage strategy that can help to operationalize the dual operating system.

Hack #4: Step off the ladder and engage with your team

Be explicit about when you’re stepping outside of the bounds of the hierarchy and engaging with the volunteer network. This is a pro tip from Superintendent David Vannasdall at Arcadia Unified School District. David found that as his team has worked with the dual operating system model, it was helpful for him to be clear about when he is dropping the customary hierarchical authority of a superintendent so that team members can engage with him in a more informal and generative manner.

These hacks are just the beginning of the conversation and I anticipate that many people have additional suggestions. In the spirit of the dual operating system, I encourage you to commit some discretionary time and energy to sharing your ideas with me via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Thanks in advance for your insights!

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