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5 Principles for Approaching School Improvement Like an Entrepreneur

Applying learnings from 'The Lean Startup' to the world of education 

In the startup world, entrepreneur and author Eric Ries is infamous for his 2011 book, The Lean Startup, which outlines his methodology for successfully managing a startup. Developed from the Japanese concept of lean manufacturing, The Lean Startup focuses on continuous yet rapid innovation as the key to a startup’s success.

In the book, Ries spells out a step-by-step plan for success in the world of entrepreneurship, where having no resources, no time, and a huge problem to solve (sound familiar?) drives creative thinking.

Since transitioning into the startup world, I’ve learned some crucial lessons about rapid, continuous improvement. While these ideas have been invaluable to me as the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, I wish I had been able to apply them during my time as an educator and administrator. As the former director of curriculum and instruction for 115 schools in Chicago, I was responsible for preparing more than 100,000 students for life after school. At our schools, we strove for “career and college readiness,” the education version of continuous improvement. But we hadn’t yet realized the applicability of lean startup principles in our classroom.  

In a recent blog post for Digital Promise, I wrote that, “I understand why the idea of ‘going slow to go fast’ resonates with so many in the education world. As educators, we feel the grave responsibility of making decisions with taxpayer dollars and our children’s future.” While I know and have personally felt this pressure, I feel passionately that we don’t have time for “journeys” if we’re going to do the best job we can for students in today’s classrooms.

Students are with us for a short time and their life trajectories are changing faster than the systems that serve them. We owe it to them to look beyond the education system for solutions and ideas that will have an impact—and quickly.

So how can instructional leaders approach school improvement like an entrepreneur? Here, I review Ries’s five lean startup principles and how they can apply to education:

  • Entrepreneurs are Everywhere. You don't have to work in a garage to be in a startup.”

    Everyone has the capacity to think and act like an entrepreneur. How are you encouraging your team to embrace this mentality? Schedule time for exploration, support teacher innovators, and push the concept of “failing fast” (i.e. learning what doesn’t work sooner rather than later)

  • Entrepreneurship is Management. A startup is an institution, not just a product, so it requires management, a new kind of management specifically geared to its context.”

    The best run startups have rigorous processes in place for eliminating waste in order to build solutions that people actually want and need. A lean management style differs from a traditional one because it accounts for extreme uncertainty. Rather than measuring success by whether or not a project is on track, on time, and on budget, measure success by whether or not you’re meeting the needs of teachers and students (more on measurement below).

  • Validated Learning. Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers. They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated scientifically, by running experiments that allow us to test each element of our vision.”

    To know if you’re meeting the needs of teachers and students, develop thoughtful, short experiments to find out quickly if a proposed solution is working. The emphasis here should be on short. Districts and schools often look to pilots to validate products. On the one hand, student outcomes take time. On the other hand, waiting until the end of a pilot to assess success could waste valuable time. Instead, develop experiments throughout the pilot or initiative to assess traction. This means collecting and analyzing evidence that indicates a strong promise of student results based on improved teaching and learning practices (i.e. more engagement, use of data, strategic lesson planning, etc.). Not sure how to set up an experiment? Use Toyota’s one-page format as a guide.


    Print experiment report >>

  • Innovation Accounting. To improve entrepreneurial outcomes, and to hold entrepreneurs accountable, we need to focus on the boring stuff: how to measure progress, how to setup milestones, how to prioritize work. This requires a new kind of accounting, specific to startups.”

    Effective experiments require effective communication about your learnings. LeanStack.com stresses establishing a regular reporting cadence with your team to discuss progress on current experiments (individual tasks, barriers, etc.), define new experiments, and develop an action plan for completed experiments. Startups usually run daily, weekly, and monthly standing meetings (short meetings where team members all stand and share what they did the day before, and what they plan to accomplish next) to address these topics, but I would encourage developing a cadence that works well for your team. For example, ThinkCERCA customer Farmington Municipal Schools in New Mexico conducts short-cycle assessments every quarter to align learning goals and develop individual teacher action plans. Administrators as well as teachers are involved in item analysis so that all stakeholders are involved and on the same page.

  • Build-Measure-Learn. The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.”

    All of the above principles come together in Ries’s final, yet arguably most important, principle: Build-Measure-Learn. User-centered design is the driving force behind the lean startup methodology.

    In this design process, innovators:

    1) Identify a problem they are trying to solve.
    2) Build a minimum viable solution to the problem.
    3) Test it with users.
    4) Measure a very specific aspect of the experience.
    5) Learn what worked and didn’t work.
    6) Refine the solution based on learnings.
    7) Repeat the process.

    Imagine if we designed teacher and student experiences this way.

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