When innovating, having the right team matters

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Jul 14, 2016

To transform any vision in an organization into a concrete, high-impact initiative, having the right people at the table in the right team structure is critical.

Educators innovating in schools too often start without putting the people doing the work in a team where they have the right levers and channels at their disposal to be successful.

This week, the Clayton Christensen Institute released a case study that details the efforts of Leadership Public Schools (LPS), a charter school management organization that operates high schools in California’s Bay Area, and Gooru, a nonprofit edtech company, to co-develop a technology to support LPS’s personalized learning model and improve student outcomes.

The study, “Connecting Ed & Tech: Partnering to drive student outcomes” by Thomas Arnett, contains a host of lessons for innovators on all sides in education—from the importance of integrating across boundaries to handle unpredictable interdependencies in designing technology, which Arnett highlighted in his recent piece here, to getting the team structure right.

LPS and Gooru didn’t get that team structure right at the beginning. As they set out to build a technology solution to support LPS’s model, they spent a good amount of time defining the project’s core values. They erred though in assuming that Mike Fauteux, the teacher who had designed LPS’s personalized learning model and was in charge of the project for LPS, could simply do a data dump to the Gooru team and then touch base with it every couple weeks.

But after just a few of these conversations, LPS and Gooru realized that the arms-length structure was insufficient if they hoped to truly build something that would be so optimized for—and interdependent with—LPS’s instructional model.

Fauteux became an embedded member of Gooru’s design team. He went to Gooru’s offices at least twice a week to work closely with Gooru’s design team and communicated with the team’s leader, Amara Humphry, one of Gooru’s cofounders, almost daily. LPS and Gooru were no longer just coordinating their efforts; they were building a cohesive team.

This level of collaboration proved critical for allowing the two organizations to develop a shared language and understanding of their joint work.

With this adjustment, things moved much more smoothly. Having a unified team allowed the Gooru employees to help LPS leaders understand that some aspects of the technology they envisioned needed to be changed given various technical constraints. And LPS could help Gooru’s designers to understand how seemingly minor design decisions could have large pedagogical implications for teachers.

For example, when building the assessment features in Gooru, [the designers] programmed the tool to give students immediate feedback on their responses—based on the assumption that immediate feedback would help students learn. But when LPS teachers reviewed the tool, they pointed out that immediate feedback could be problematic if students were working together on a question as part of a class activity because it would reveal the answer before all students had time to work through the problem. With input like this from LPS teachers, Gooru’s design team could better align the learning navigator’s features with teachers’ actual instructional needs.

Furthermore, the partnership allowed Gooru’s designers to test quickly whether various assumptions and features would work and get immediate and seamless feedback from implementing in the LPS environment. Being integrated in the Gooru team allowed Fauteux to provide the answers in many cases before Gooru’s designers dedicated significant time to building.

With Gooru’s launch of Gooru 3.0 in June 2016 as a result of this partnership, the Gooru and LPS team are now facing another set of questions. Is what Gooru built so specific to the LPS use case such that it won’t scale naturally? And if that is so, can LPS and Gooru somehow build another type of team to help transform other schools and classrooms to a blended-learning model that can take advantage of the features Gooru built to allow teachers to personalize?

Creating the right team again with the right incentives will undoubtedly be critical to answering the last part of the question. For example, Gooru and LPS could give schools the tool for free but create one—or several—service partners that charge schools to help them shift their learning model to be able to use the tool. Doing something like this could also be an important part of helping the open education resources movement make progress and become sustainable, much as having a Red Hat emerge helped make open-source software a viable undertaking for enterprises.

Just as in other walks of life, having the right team is critical to realizing success in education.

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Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.