08 Jun Fractals: The power of simple core principles
This is a short reflection on an idea I picked up from a recent presentation to Essex Heads by former Headteacher Dave Harris (@bravehead), currently working for Independent Thinking. One of the many ideas he shared was based on the thinking of Margaret Wheatley, a business writer. She suggests that some aspects of organisational effectiveness can be explored using the concept of fractals. Fractals exist in many forms in nature because the cells and structures reproduce themselves by following simple repeatable rules. One of the most striking examples is the Romanesco broccoli. Each spiral forms part of a larger spiral that, in turn forms part of an even larger spiral. The repeating unit contains the same core structural identity as the whole broccoli and any sub-section of it.
In Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley suggests that “in true fractal fashion, agreements do not restrict individuals from embodying them in diverse and unique ways. Self-similarity is achieved not through compliance to an exhausting set of standards and rules but from a few simple principles that everyone is accountable for, operating in a condition of individual freedom.”
Dave suggested that this could be taken as a cue to think about school ethos. If every contact with a school is influenced by a few strong guiding principles – about modelling high expectations, kindness and courtesy – then you’d get a sense of that waiting in the reception area, talking to any student or walking into any lesson. Here, the trick is not to micro-manage all of those areas and interactions – it is to focus very clearly on what the key repeating principles are. In order to get a strong repeating pattern, it needs to be expressed very clearly and very simply.
I’ve been thinking that this applies to staff accountability and the process of establishing a high-trust high-quality professional culture. Leaders shouldn’t be trying to control everyone – people should feel that they are ‘operating in a condition of individual freedom’. What is needed is to focus on the key guiding principles that everyone signs up to and delivers in their own way. To me this resonates with the ‘rainforest vs plantation’ thinking I’ve explored before – and is similar to my idea of the forcefield analogy. We’re not saying ‘do whatever you like’ or saying ‘this is how you should do it’. We’re saying ‘these are the basic requirements – now express yourself using those elements.’
We need to recognise that everyone has different values and priorities; people are autonomous beings. Our goal is not to exercise control but to establish the principles within which we operate. We need to focus on aligning our values to create repeating patterns of high quality within a self-repeating organic system where quality is embedded in the base code that we build from in everything we do. If things aren’t as good as they should be, then the issue may well be with the way we’ve designed or communicated the principles -rather than with the performance of an individual.
Thanks Dave for the input. I’m still thinking.