Corporate Kindergarten: How a Montessori Mindset Can Transform Your Business
I’ll spare you the perfunctory context setting about how our globalized economy is moving at a rate of change unimaginable even a decade ago. It’s a given. Business models, product cycle times and even the Fortune 500 had a much longer shelf life in the 20th century than they do today.
To remain competitive — or, dare I say, relevant — organizations must achieve vastly higher levels of strategic agility, or face the foul risk of becoming “Blockbustered.” And by strategic agility I mean the ability to tactically pivot at the drop of a hat, to launch novel initiatives and kill off those that are no longer serving you.
At its apex in 2004, Blockbuster Video had nearly 60,000 employees and over 9,000 stores worldwide. Its market value and annual revenues each exceeded $billion, and it boasted a #1 position in the space by a long shot. In fact, CEO John Antioco was doing such a stellar job that his compensation that year totaled $51.6 million.
Yet the writing on the proverbial wall had been glaringly apparent for years. New threats and opportunities were ever present. It seemed obvious that Blockbuster’s dinosaur retail business model had to change, but did it have the desire or strategic agility to course correct and reinvent itself?
Rewind the clock to 2000, when Blockbuster turned down a chance to purchase the still struggling Netflix for $50 million. Cue forehead slap. Humming a worn out tune, fingers in ears and blinders securely fastened, it continued ignoring new entrants and technologies — think Redbox and video streaming. Fast forward six short years from its peak in 2004, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection. By 2011, the company and its remaining assets were auctioned off for a paltry $233 million to Dish Network. (Fun fact, Netflix is now worth over $50 billion.)
So what does this story have to do with Montessori and what kindergarteners inherently know about strategic agility? Quite a lot. Hint: if you’re thinking dinosaurs, that’s not it.
Montessori kids are unique. They’re taught differently and they learn differently. Just ask 15 time Grammy Award-winning musician Yo-Yo Ma, author and Nobel Prize recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the founders of Google and Amazon. As entrepreneur Peter Sims explains, “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia.”
The vast majority of employees in Corporate America grew up confined by the rigid structures of our conventional education system. We sat in well-organized classrooms comprised of straight lines of desks, with the omniscient teacher positioned front and center. Generally speaking, we had thick textbooks, were required to memorize innumerable factoids, took tests like it was our job and were taught to produce the exact same answers as everyone else. This may be a tad hyperbolic, but you get the picture. Point being, there are clear parallels between traditional organizational structure and culture and traditional educational models. Can you see them? As another example, take a closer look at typical corporate policies and procedures that govern employee behavior. Starting to connect the dots?
Contrast these norms with mixed-aged classrooms and a teaching method where learning is largely self-directed, where children gravitate toward what interests them and where teachers act as coaches and facilitators rather than puppet-masters or dictators.
In Montessori classrooms, learning and teaching is a bilateral process with older children acting as competency models for younger ones and student interests influencing teacher lesson planning. Homework and standardized testing is minimal, and emphasis is placed on personal mastery over benchmarked grades. Children confidently brim with new ideas about challenges to tackle, having learned that failure is acceptable and mistakes are merely learning opportunities.
So some obvious questions arise: How acceptable is failure in your organization? Are all your employees hardwired to seize opportunities, innovate, contribute their best thinking and flex their implementation muscles? Or are they sitting on the sidelines waiting for senior leaders to dole out directives?
After studying and working with some of the strongest leaders across the world for the past 40 years, a dominant leadership characteristic we’ve identified is that they’re often unconventional thinkers. A question they constantly ask themselves and others is, “why should something be like that?” Every problem is viewed as solvable — as an opportunity — rather than an insurmountable barrier. Stellar leaders feel at home with ambiguity. They’re creative, imaginative and insatiably curious. They aren’t afraid to take risks or challenge the status quo.
This begs the question — are adults capable of unlearning ingrained patterns of behavior? Are they capable of broadening their aperture of perspective? Would we see greater levels of innovation, engagement and passion if colleagues worked on initiatives they wanted to versus had to? The answer is a resounding yes!
Every day we help organizations make these same types of critical leadership and cultural shifts, all in the service of delivering significantly better business results. Here are three steps you can take to amplify your organization’s strategic agility:
1. Define Your Opportunity: Start first by articulating the greatest opportunity facing your organization today that could be seized if the organization were able to work closer to its full potential. Paint a picture of that aspirational goal that aligns, inspires and motivates people to want to reach for it, without fear of failure. What’s the silver lining or the driving force that makes it essential to execute with enhanced speed, ingenuity and agility?
2. Launch an Employee Network: Traditional organizational structures are fantastic at reliability, efficiency and short-term results, but terrible at delivering big, bold out-of-the-box change quickly. Launch an employee network staffed entirely by volunteers whose singular focus is to be on the bleeding edge of innovating and improving the business each and every day. For those familiar with Dr. Kotter’s work or newest book Accelerate, this is what’s long been referred to as building a guiding coalition or dual operating model.
Akin to creating an empowered mixed-age Montessori classroom, a guiding coalition is comprised of a diagonal slice of the organization and devoid of rank, titles and narrow job descriptions. This diverse network of thinkers and doers volunteer their discretionary time to work on both existing and emerging strategic priorities that will make an immediate impact.
3. Reinforce Desired Behaviors: It’s essential that an organization’s most senior leaders model and reward what they hope to see more of across the business. Employees need to witness and understand what’s expected of them in this flexible Montessori-like reality. Learning new behaviors like fast fail, rapid experimentation and bias for action takes practice. Typically we see a tenfold increase in innovation when organizations create urgency, give permission and heighten expectations that it is everyone’s job to be innovative.
A perfect example of what happens when the wrong behaviors are unintentionally reinforced comes from Andrea Beaty’s brilliant children’s book, Rosie Revere, Engineer. 8-year-old Rosie is a passionate inventor, inspired to create gadgets that improve the lives of her friends and family. Sadly, Rosie is left deflated and despondent after a favorite uncle laughs off one of her latest gizmos.
“He laughed ‘till he wheezed and his eyes filled with tears,
all to the horror of Rosie Revere…
She stuck the cheese hat on the back of her shelf
and after that day kept her dreams to herself.”
Does this scenario sound familiar? Do your corporate leaders immediately look for flaws in new ideas rather than ferret out the small gems of possibility? Are the majority of resources allocated to quotidian business activities versus efforts directed toward innovation?
Fortunately for Rosie, she has a great-great-aunt whose character is modeled after Rosie the Riveter, the iconic model of strong female WWII production workers featured in the famous “We Can Do It!” wartime propaganda campaign to boost worker morale. While she too laughs when witnessing Rosie crash-land her newest helicopter design, her very next reaction is what we don’t see enough of in most organizations.
“You did it! Hooray! It’s the perfect first try!…
Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!”
How will your organization respond to its next perfect failure and prepare for its next supreme success? By creating a corporate kindergarten culture where Montessori mindsets are cultivated and rewarded and we can unlock the full potential of each individual in your organization from top to bottom and every level in between. It may just be the answer to propelling America’s emerging innovation economy to the moon and beyond.
This article was written by Kotter International from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.