How two CEOs created a shared language for innovation

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Oct 11, 2016

Louise Waters, the CEO of the Leadership Public Schools (LPS), is no stranger to innovation. Over the last few years, her Bay-Area-based network of three charter high schools has been a pioneer of rethinking education. But one of Waters’ key breakthroughs has been learning how to not go it alone—a collaboration lesson for leaders across all industries to innovate successfully.

Waters was on a mission to scale an internally-built web application for supporting breakthrough teaching practices that was accelerating LPS students’ math achievement. But she quickly realized that turning the tool into a sustainable edtech business model was no small feat. Prior experience had taught her that philanthropic funding could only take an idea so far, and venture capitalists didn’t seem interested in a product with only a handful of users, even if the product demonstrated strong impact.

At the same time, Prasad Ram, CEO and founder of an edtech nonprofit named Gooru, had spent the last few years working to create a state-of-the-art platform to help teachers find open educational resources. But its adoption lagged because it failed to address specific teacher needs, and Ram was eager to find a way to close the missing link between teaching and his technology.

The two CEOs were introduced and quickly realized that their organizations faced complementary strengths and challenges—and partnering might be the solution to each of their complex problems. But although the partnership made clear sense to the two CEOs and their teams, developing a successful working relationship was another matter—a common struggle leaders face when working with external vendors and even internally with cross-functioning teams. Over the course of their partnership, they learned a number of key lessons about how to successfully collaborate:

  •  Identify shared values. A major factor in this partnership’s success was that each organization had a passion for creating high-quality education for underserved populations and a business model that aligned with that passion. Prior to meeting Ram, Waters was generally skeptical of working with edtech companies. Many companies talked about wanting to partner, but their focus on rapid-user-adoption led them to devalue sustained, in-depth collaboration with a school system. Gooru, however, was not focused on rapid adoption; instead, it brought in its operating revenue through a handful of licensing agreements with large organizations, which allowed it to stay focused on working closely with LPS to improve student outcomes.
  • Develop a culture of collaboration. Bringing together people with very different areas of expertise is never an easy task and often requires some experimentation, but the payoff is valuable. LPS and Gooru knew that to close the gap between teaching and technology, they needed to integrate LPS’s educators with Gooru’s design team. Doing so took time and effort up front, but provided a time-saving and cost-effective way to test design assumptions in real classroom contexts before moving them into full-scale production.
  • Create a shared language. Communication may seem like an obvious requirement for collaboration, but experts with different backgrounds often have their own distinct workplace language. As they worked together, LPS’s educators and Gooru’s designers and engineers spent many hours discussing definitions of terms—such as “platform” and “systems”—that might have different meanings to designers and educators. These painstaking but crucial conversations helped clarify the shared vision of what they were trying to build.
  • Trust each other’s expertise. Embrace what you don’t know and be open to learning from those outside of your traditional teams. Going into the project, Ram candidly recognized the need to listen to educators if he wanted the technology to impact significantly student learning. As such, the Gooru team referred to itself as “engineers for educators” and made “teaching first, technology second” the motto for its work.

By the end of the 2015–16 school year, LPS and Gooru witnessed the first fruits of their partnership—students who were using an initial update of the platform mastered approximately 2.82 times as much math in comparison to similar students across the nation, and teachers were thrilled by how much they felt empowered to meet the needs of their students.

Over the course of their partnership, LPS came to view Gooru as the key avenue to fulfill its mission to impact the broader education sector. Similarly, Gooru now views LPS as not just a partner, but as an extension of its organization. (On Gooru’s website, Waters is featured on the Gooru Team page as a “Superintendent in Residence.”) Time will tell whether their partnership will endure over the long run, but given what they have already accomplished together, their partnership offers a number of noteworthy principles for how to collaborate when tackling a problem alone just isn’t an option.

To learn more about Waters and Ram’s work together, read the recent case study “Connecting ed & tech: Partnering to drive student outcomes.”

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Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.