Thought Leadership Series
Unleashing Talent: A conversation between book author Gary Hamel and associate professor and former superintendent Mary Herrmann
School Administrator, April 2021

Management consultant
Gary Hamel suggests superintendents view their role as being more of a social scientist. PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY HAMEL

This fifth installment in School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series captures the thinking of book author Gary P. Hamel in a conversation with Mary Herrmann, clinical associate professor of education at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former superintendent of three districts in Missouri and Illinois.

Hamel is an American management consultant, a faculty member at the London Business School and a founder of Strategos, an international management consulting firm based in Chicago. He co-authored (with Michele Zanini) a 2020 work Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them. His previous books include What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change; Ferocious Competition and Unstoppable Innovation; and Competing for the Future.

In Herrmann’s interview, which focuses on Hamel’s most recent book, the author talked about how to change complex organizations, including school systems, through a bottom-up approach; how to dismantle bureaucracies and unleash the latent genius inside organizations; and the superintendent’s role as an activist and social architect.

MARY HERRMANN: I had already reviewed your book for School Administrator and really enjoyed it. I found it compelling and significant. So I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview you. 

GARY HAMEL: Obviously, we face enormous educational challenges in the United States for a lot of very complex interdependent reasons, I suspect. I’m sure that you and many, many others are intending to make a difference there, but I think it’s been quite a challenge. 

HERRMANN: It has been a challenge. There’s a lot of complexity associated with school district leadership, and superintendents are constantly seeking new insights and opportunities to learn from other sectors. So we appreciate the opportunity to learn about your work. 

HAMEL: I’m sure one of the dilemmas, when you do operate in that very complex environment with multiple constituencies around you and a lot of constraints, is that it’s easy for administrators and others to externalize the problem and say, “Well, there’s only so much we can do. We have all of these other constraints put upon us. We can’t change the law. We can’t change the way our unions operate. We can’t change the family structures that are out there in the world.”

So I think it would be quite easy, as an administrator, to be very daunted by these challenges and to really wonder where’s the leverage point in making a real difference. 

HERRMANN: So true. What insights can you share with us?

HAMEL: Let me start just by acknowledging that every context is different, and there’s a limit to how far you can extend any particular lesson. Having said that, the one thing that is quite similar across all organizations around the world, public sector, private sector, whatever the culture, whatever the country, is that they’re all based, pretty much, on that old bureaucratic model.

Whether you look at public sector or private sector, what you find is that authority correlates with rank. That power trickles down. That big leaders appoint little leaders. That human beings are slotted into fairly narrow jobs. That typically, powerful staff groups or others set work rules and set the terms for employees and then enforce compliance around those rules. That employees, particularly on the front lines, often feel they have very little share of voice and very little freedom.

That seems to be the same wherever you look. And virtually every organization fits that old bureaucratic template. 

Our argument, though, is that that bureaucratic template is an artifact of another age, that modern bureaucracy was created in the mid-19th century to solve a very different set of problems than the ones we face today, in a very different environment. 

HERRMANN: Apply this thinking to the leadership of schools.

HAMEL: Education efficiency and cost effectiveness are still very important. But what we really need is an extraordinary amount of innovation as the world changes around us, as we need to teach new things and new ways, as we confront new social problems in our communities that require us to rethink how we deliver education. We need an extraordinary amount of innovation as well as cost effectiveness. 

Today, most employees who work in education are very well educated. They are quite capable of looking at data, of judging their own effectiveness, of taking corrective action. They’re very capable of learning from others in peer-based communities and upgrading their practices as they gain new information. 

But despite those changes, most of us still work in these fairly hierarchical, multitiered organizations that are fundamentally disempowering. I think it’s not a stretch to say that most organizations waste probably as much human capacity as they use. I suspect that education is no different. 

So the focus of my work has really been on how to unleash the latent genius that sits inside of our organizations because bureaucracies closed most of that off. In a bureaucracy, there’s not a lot of room for intuition, for experimentation, for artistry, for all of the things that make us human. 

Again, I’d be surprised if the educational establishment is different in that regard. I would bet that bureaucracy grows as fast and is as hard to weed out there as it is anywhere else. 

HERRMANN: I agree that school districts are bureaucratic. I also think that unlike many of the organizations you talk about where there is a bureaucrat for every task, most school districts are lean administratively. A relatively small number of administrators are assigned a wide array of responsibilities that concern multiple and often competing constituencies. 
Mary Herrmann, who served as a superintendent in two states, views school districts as exceptionally complex organizations because of their multiple stakeholders and competing interests. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLLEGE OF EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN

Given that a superintendent is held accountable to the board of education as well as to a lot of other stakeholders, how do you address the broad and often competing elements that exist within the parameters of the organization itself? 

HAMEL: In the book, we tell this little story of the largest provider of home health care in the Netherlands. Jos de Blok founded the company, called Buurtzorg, in 2006. It had been preceded by a long period of time during which the Dutch government tried to professionalize health care. They were trying to create very detailed standards for home health care such as how long health care providers could stay with a patient, how many patients they could see in a particular day and so on. 

And, of course, as they imposed all of these top-down standards, all with the best intentions, they found that the quality of care went down and the costs went up. Delivering health care, like delivering education, is a very localized thing. You can’t apply a lot of general one-size-fits-all rules or you end up managing to a set of top-down targets that are a synthetic representation of reality — highly abstract, often inappropriate for a particular situation. 

You discover that when you give people accountability for outcomes, rather than making them accountable for synthetic targets, when you connect them together so you rapidly propagate best practices, and when their performance is transparent, the whole system levels up at a really quite incredible rate. 

Unfortunately, the debate we’ve been having in this country about educational effectiveness has been taking place within a set of assumptions about how to organize to deliver education, and that organization is bureaucratic at its core. 

I don’t think there’s any way of delivering fundamentally better educational outcomes than we’re getting right now without radical innovation in the way we organize for education. 

When you look across the companies we’ve looked at — and many of them are nonprofit — you see a similar pattern: They’ve divided their organization into small units. They’ve taught everybody how to think like a business person, focus on outcomes, focus on effectiveness, tracking the right metrics. And they’ve given those teams a substantial amount of autonomy and transparency. You know exactly how you’re doing against whatever outcomes, against all of your peers. So there’s no place for mediocrity to hide. Finally, you are accountable in a real way. 

I’ve been an educator all my life, and I think in education, as in health care, we need radical innovation. But that sort of radical innovation will never happen in bureaucratic structures. There’s no evidence of it ever happening, and it just won’t. If we want to build truly resilient, truly innovative, truly customer-focused organizations, we have to dismantle that old bureaucratic structure and build something in its place. 

HERRMANN: I agree with you. It seems when defining organization narrowly, at the local school level with principals and teachers, there’s considerable opportunity to dismantle bureaucratic structures. As you begin to grow broader in your context of the organization and think of it from a superintendent’s perspective, considering all the stakeholders and competing interests, I think it becomes a bit more complex. 

Yes because the model that’s there now works after a fashion. Students get out the door, you get to the end of the school year, and many, many get well educated. So whatever you do, you can’t simply blow up what is there. No one is going to give you permission to do that. It would have all kinds of negative outcomes. 

The existing system is also quite well defended. As much as people may complain about bureaucracy in general, people who have power are not eager to give it up. And if you are held accountable by stakeholders, there’s this natural fear that if you loosen the reins, somehow chaos ensues. That’s usually not the case, but it can be the case if you don’t have that real accountability. 

I think there are reasons that more senior administrators, superintendents, would be nervous about this. If we start to let people color outside the lines, what happens? Some kind of problem is going to come, and I’m going to have somebody beating on me for something that went wrong. 

What we propose in the book is an approach to making this change that is much more bottom-up than top-down. 

HERRMANN: So how do you envision applying a bottom-up approach in our educational context? 

HAMEL: The wonderful thing about the school system is you do have, in essence, tens of thousands of laboratories. Every school is a laboratory in which we can be experimenting and trying new things. And, obviously, you want to be very careful in doing that. 

I could imagine bringing together an online network of school administrators across the entire country and using new tools to crowd-solve problems.

Start by asking, “What do we see are the most fundamental impediments to making the kind of difference in our students’ lives that we want to make?” Then say, “All right, what are the systems, the structures, the assumptions we’re making that are behind those impediments? If we want to build schools that are more innovative, that are more resilient, what new principles need to be embedded in our thinking?” 

 I think that today, there’s often a sense that these systems are so complex, that we have so many constraints on us, that we really can’t do anything. But one way is to start experimenting. Let me start hacking the model now within my set of permissions, without blowing things up. Let me start to experiment. Then, let’s create this laboratory. Let’s share what we’re learning. Let’s start to build a pro-change coalition and see what’s working and starts to propagate. 

My sense is the way to change a complex system is not to change it top-down. 

HERRMANN: Collaboration and experimentation are essential. As leaders, we try to distribute leadership and engage our staff members in planning, improvement and decision making, but we also need to consider the organization more broadly, to include students, parents, board members and so on. How might we engage them in that process as well? 

HAMEL: I do think that parents, probably, have been the least-heard constituents in all of this, so engaging them in this conversation and in this process is absolutely important. And they can be as much on this sort of a platform as anybody else.

I can’t comment on how well education is organized today to do that. I don’t know how many teachers or principals have been taught the basics of rapid prototyping or design thinking, which does start with the customer, which is the parent and the child. I suspect, at least in the private sector, that is still very rare. I suspect it is fairly rare in education as well. 

Every leader I know, and I’m sure this would be true for school administrators as well, knows that their organization needs to change faster And, yet, despite that being a common frustration, they have not taught every frontline administrator or even employee how to think like an activist, to see a problem. Imagine a solution. Go out and test that. Build a coalition. 

If you look at how social change happens, really meaningful social change almost never happens top-down. It starts with the Greta Thunbergs of this world who say, “No more.” 

Having said that, at the level of entire school systems, I think you do have to have this conversation about whether we need a radically different way of organizing to deliver this service, one that creates much more accountability, much more freedom, that relieves people from all of these targets. 
Gary Hamel sees human capacity wasted in organizational structures rooted in century-old conditions. PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY HAMEL
HERRMANN: One that is much more equitable, as well. How do you ensure that the voices you’re hearing from are representative of the community? What we often find in schools are those community members who are most powerful and influential are often the ones serving on district boards, foundations and committees. So how do we give voice to those who have been historically sidelined or marginalized? 

HAMEL: That’s a good point, and that’s exactly why this conversation has to be open. In other words, the people who have the time and the energy, and maybe even sometimes the sophistication, to influence the bureaucratic structures, as they are, get on the school boards, and those people have a disproportionate share of voice that does not necessarily reflect the views of the community overall. 

HERRMANN: Right. Those whose voices have always been heard are more deeply invested in preserving the status quo processes and practices that have fostered their power and positions.

HAMEL: What I realized many years ago was that in the average large organization, we had given a small number of people at the top the authority to set direction and strategy. But those people had most of their emotional equity invested in the past and often felt compelled to defend a decision. Clearly, you had to have a change process that created a pro-change constituency that was more powerful than the status quo constituencies. 

This goes way deep into public policy, but most public policy decision bodies get hijacked by a small number of groups that have a big, big interest in getting particular outcomes where the average person wants to improve but doesn’t have so much vested, so they just never show up. And they’re not the ones trying to shape the system for their advantage.

The voice of parents has to be more powerful than the voice of unions, of administrators, of regulators, than anybody else. I mean, every industry on the planet today is getting reinvented from the customer backwards. And if you’re not in front of that, you lose.

HERRMANN: That’s a great point. Also important for superintendents is what you can tell us about paradox. I found your chapter on paradox very interesting. 

HAMEL: Oh, thank you for bringing that up. You said earlier, completely correct, that it’s not only that we have a multiplicity of roles, but they often conflict. So I think the general principle for me is that there are, at times, goals that seem to be mutually exclusive that aren’t. That with some creative reframing, you could find a both/and, instead of an either/or. You saw that decades ago in the car industry, where we had long assumed that quality and cost were mutually exclusive. If you wanted a high-quality car, that was a high-cost car. Toyota, of course, came along, and Honda, and they learned how to deliver quality at a low cost. 

So first, you’ve got to really think about any tradeoff that you say, “Gee, this seems to be intractable. It’s an either/or.” You have to work with your heart and say, “Is there some way of reframing that so that it becomes a both/and?” 

You know, we often assume that compliance and freedom are mutually exclusive. If we give people freedom, then things spin out of control. Then you start to ask, “Well, is there another way you can get control?” You have to take any potential tradeoff and say, “Is there a creative way of reframing it that, somehow, allows us to avoid that either/or choice?” 

Having said that, it’s important to note that there are many tradeoffs that remain tradeoffs. And my advice there is that the best people to manage those tradeoffs are the people on the front lines. 

So often, we try to make these tradeoffs at the top and then they become very clumsy. You often have a pendulum that swings back and forth on some particular issue over time because from the top, we push the whole system one way and then, a few years later, we go, “Wow, that’s not working very well. We completely ignore this.” So you push the system the other way. 

HERRMANN: I agree. I also like your quote, “Leadership will become less a function of where you sit and more of what you can do.” And, with that in mind, as you think about the role of superintendents specifically, because we talked a lot about focusing at the grassroots level, what would you recommend superintendents do to put into practice some of the things that you’ve suggested in your book? 

HAMEL: No. 1, spend a lot of time talking to teachers and to principals. That means going to a school principal and saying, “Who on your faculty is trying new things? Who do you really think of as an innovator? Who is pushing back against the system in positive ways rather than merely complaining or whining about it?” Try to identify who is that natural pro-change constituency and then start learning how to work through them on whatever you want to do. 

It’s almost impossible to change anything meaningful if you are working down through your own power structure. So you have to end-run the hierarchy. 

My second thing to do would be to try to create at least some budget and support for local experimentation of prototype. Make clear the sorts of experiments you’re looking for and create a process where teachers and principals who want to experiment have a clear route to do that and put pressure on your departments to support that experimentation and create the freedom to do that rather than standing in the way. 

No. 3 would be to start to open up broader conversations with parents and other underrepresented stakeholder groups. And start to leverage their ideas and their passion to pressurize a system for positive change. 

HERRMANN: Very compelling. I like how you describe in your book this model for leading change as being both “revolutionary and evolutionary; radical in its aspirations yet pragmatic in its approach.” Is there anything else you would like to add?

HAMEL: The last thing I would say is as a superintendent, you need, more and more, to see your role as being one of a social architect, where the goal is not simply running the system, managing the budgets, managing the personnel issues, but really thinking about what kind of systems, structures, processes, incentives, information systems, are going to get the very best out of the people who work in that school system. 

As a school superintendent, if I really want the biggest impact over the longest period of time, it will be creating an environment in which others thrive rather than any particular innovation I might lead. 

HERRMANN: And so, as you tap into the expertise, learning and passion of others, how do you continue to enhance your own learning? 

HAMEL: As a school administrator, you should spend most of your time learning from organizations that are not in your business. You already know how schools are run. You already know the pressure on school administrators. 

If you want to learn something, go study the open-source community. Go study some of the examples that we talk about in the book. But you have to look at these outlier examples. Otherwise, you’re going to be held hostage to that old model. I really believe that as long as we’re operating inside that old model, we’re pretty much stuck. 

HERRMANN: So how do we get “unstuck”? How do we advance equity, excellence and innovation?

HAMEL: You know, as communities, we have to go back and look at the metrics, be honest about the causal factors, depoliticize the debate. Be honest about the things that are going to be required if we want accountability if we want innovation, then work through those together. 

So one thing we’ve done is use these large-scale hackathons. If there is a group of school superintendents or principals you know, we have a platform that allows us large-scale, collaborative problem solving. I think there’s a huge amount of innovation that’s possible. 

HERRMANN: That’s interesting. So using what you’ve done with hackathons and thinking about that with educators, potentially? 

It’s a way of doing an accelerated problem solving, building a consensus around the things that are really getting in the way. It’s very difficult, often, being one school administrator fighting this battle by yourself with your legislature or whatever. But when you start to build a coalition of interest and a common diagnosis, that has a lot more power. 

Then, you could also crowd-solve. You can say to principals, to teachers, “What are your ideas on how to solve this?” I have a lot of passion for contributing in whatever way that’s useful. 
HERRMANN: Sounds like a great opportunity. I really appreciate your insights. Thank you for spending so much time. It’s been great! 

HAMEL: Oh, it’s a pleasure. You guys are doing good work, and I have such a heart for people who are there every day against such difficult odds. So I hope that shines through. 

Next Issue:

The sixth installment of the Thought Leadership Series features book author Marcus Buckingham in conversation with Howard Carlson, executive administrator of the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council and the Arizona Educational Management Council and a former superintendent in Minnesota and Arizona.