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By Laura Gossman
Editor’s Note: Fieldnotes has profiled many of the Fellows at Praxis and highlighted their basic start-up stories and initial challenges. In order to explore these start-up challenges more deeply, we are examining some of the tensions identified in the book From Concept to Scale by Praxis’s Steve Graves, Dave Blanchard and Josh Kwan. For a previous introduction to these tensions read here. Below is Matchbook Learning’s Founder, Sajan George’s reflection on one of the tensions described in the book: ‘Take Risk vs. Mitigate It’. To learn more about their start-up story read here.
Prior to launching Sajan George’s first and only social non-profit venture, Matchbook Learning, a blended school turnaround management organization that targets bottom five percent public schools, he led a team of corporate turnaround specialists turning around companies in crisis for the firm Alvarez & Marsal. Across a variety of industries, they would form SWAT teams to parachute into companies that were in crisis, developing and then executing turnaround plans under intense constraints of limited time, capital and capacity.
What a perfect training ground for trying to turnaround schools in crisis.
Every entrepreneur faces a set of seemingly insurmountable challenges. In fact statistics show most fail to successfully mount them. These obstacles simultaneously require adroit risk-taking coupled with deft risk-mitigation strategies. In addition, non-profits are precluded from accessing the kinds of risk capital, time and capacity such risk capital affords one in the start-up phase of growing a venture.
Public education as an industry is a monopolistic one (i.e. most non-affluent parents do not have much in the way of school choice beyond their locally zoned neighborhood school that faces almost no competitive pressures from lack of performance or obsolescence) and therefore highly resistant to and often combative with start-ups.
For these obvious and historically sizable challenges, Sajan received considerable caution and push back when launching a non-profit start-up in education targeting the most challenged population of students and schools. This sheer combination did not lend itself to an effective risk mitigation strategy at a time when this would be needed the most.
So why was Sajan not deterred? Why take on the risk of trying to turnaround chronically failing schools as opposed to perhaps starting with a brand new school the way most charter management organizations do? These bottom five percent schools had failed for so long, what made him think Matchbook Learning could do any better or differently? 98% of the requests for philanthropic funding he pitched were flatly rejected because an unproven model in a high-risk market was a recipe for failure.
Fortunately, there were some important things Sajan learned during the first two decades of his career doing corporate turnarounds that gave him some insight on how to think about risk and the ways it is mitigated. Most organizations, corporate or non-profit, large districts or individual schools, once they start down the path of failure and crisis do not get out. However, they had considerable success as turnaround specialists because of their ability to coalesce the right conditions, the right design and the right execution.
It starts with the right set of conditions. Not all turnaround opportunities are equal. At Matchbook Learning, they believe there is a set of five conditions necessary to even attempt a turnaround:
- Vision – alignment of where they want to head – looking beyond just getting incrementally better, but radically transforming the school to a high performing one versus a school going from just “terrible to bad.”
- Transparency – both on their end goals and how they will achieve them.
- Leverage – because you cannot simply replace all low-performing staff with high performing employees.
- Prototype – the ability to try, fail, learn and try again.
- Grassroots – bottoms-up support to build momentum.
“The design of our solution is what moves the turnaround from being impossible to possible. We have to address the root causes of the deficits we are solving. In a school turnaround, the school is failing which means both the students and the adults generally are failing. We have to address building the capacity of both students and teachers in the design of our solution. This enables our solution to be possible,” shared Sajan.
What moves their solution from being possible to probable is execution. Specifically, they selected two or three non-negotiable activities that are executed day-in and day-out regardless of what other events, problems or crises occur. For Matchbook Learning, these foundational activities include daily observation of teachers and bi-weekly individual coaching sessions with them. In order to win the war for students’ hearts and minds, they have to build the capacity of their teachers on a daily basis.
According to Sajan, with the right conditions, design and execution, a turnaround attempt is no longer impossible, but rather possible and arguably probable. How then does one decide which risks are worth pursuing down this path?
Sajan reflected, “Here your convictions of what is important and what is intolerable should guide you to determine where and when to seek out the conditions, design and execution necessary to pull off the turnaround.”
When Sajan sees students fail, year after year, whose parents have no other choice but to continue to send their children to these failing schools, he sees an untenable status quo. This is a country that prides itself on a democracy where everyone regardless of race, income or religion can achieve success to the very highest ideals of our society if given the chance.
Staring back at Sajan in these bottom five percent schools were children who deserved a better opportunity. With his turnaround background, faith in the rightness of each child’s God-given potential, and the injustice of a system that so chronically denies them the potential that they inherited at birth was and is a risk worth taking.
Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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