Friday, July 22, 2011

Change or We Die: Lessons from the Borders Experience for Education Leaders

This evening I received a email from Borders that basically thanked me for my patronage and for being a "Borders Reward Member." The truth of the matter is, I haven't been in a Borders store since our local store closed about a year and a half ago. As far as purchasing books online, Barnes and Noble and Amazon have done such a fantastic job of making it easy to purchase physical books and ebooks that I had absolutely no incentive to order from Borders.

Still, there is sadness in receiving that email from Borders entitled "A Fond Farewell...Thank You for Shopping at Borders." My imagination doesn't have to work too hard to imagine the individual, sitting at his computer composing a message that basically says good bye. That email is a symbol of an organization that failed to evolve in time to take advantage of the opportunities wrought through a rapidly changing technological world. I can't help but think that maybe Borders discovered it's ship was sinking much too late to do anything about it. My only hope is that our Great American Education System has not arrived at that point yet.

In the email, CEO Mike Edwards states:
"The fact is Borders has been facing headwinds for quite some time, including a rapidly changing book industry, the eReader revolution, and a turbulent economy. We put up a great fight, but regrettably, in the end, we weren't able to overcome these external factors."
My only hope is that we're not writing the same kind of epitaph for public education in America in the future. How can we overcome these same "external factors" that basically sunk Borders as an organization?

Perhaps some of the answers lie in a recent book by Ian Jukes, Ted McCain and Lee Crockett. In their book entitled, Living on the Future Edge: Windows on Tomorrow, these authors offer some pretty good advice to education leaders. If we want to avoid having to write an epitaph that says, "We put up a great fight..." we just might want to take heed to this advice.
  • "We need a new mental approach to life that empowers us to anticipate change and prepare for it." What's wrong with public education today is that too many of us remaking the system in the image which we experienced. We need a mental makeover that gives us the ability to anticipate where this "exponential technological change" is going and prepare for it. Borders didn't make it because they saw it coming to late. That is an old story, but it doesn't soften the truth of it. If we're not careful, public education is going continue reforming the edges until it's too late.
  • "We must start looking at where the world is going to be, not just where it is." In this technologically driven world, vision is everything to an organization, and I'm not talking about that statement posted on the office wall. Vision, seeing into the future, has become prerequisite for us educational leaders. If we are going to lead our schools further into the 21st century, we have to take on what Jukes, McCain and Crockett call "the mind of a quarterback." Like a quarterback who is able to see where the receiver is going to be so he can pass him the ball, we need to see where education is going to be so that we can guide our organization to that point in time. Not having this vision is malpractice for school leaders today.
  • We need to accept the truth that "the myth is that change takes time. It's making the decision to change that really takes time." If you look closely at what's happened to Borders, I bet there have been points of time when opportunities were missed, and warning signs were ignored, all under the rationale that we want to change what we're doing, but it takes time. School leaders are doing the same thing. "We have time to change," they say, or "We're doing fine for ourselves." It'll be too bad when they find, that like Borders, "They have put up the good fight," but in the end they didn't overcome. It's time to quit messing around! The time for change is now. Change we must, or we suffer the same fate as organizations like Borders.
In the end, Borders can blame their demise on any number of factors. They can say it was competition, they can say it was a world that was changing more rapidly than they could adapt. The reality is they failed to have a vision that allowed them to see where they needed to be. Education leaders would do well to learn from the Borders experience.

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