What does it take to innovate across traditionally siloed spaces? In March 2020, a group of education and youth development professionals met to kick off what would become Future Proud Michigan Educator (FPME) LAUNCH. Most team members–representing four offices from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and subject matter experts from the Region 8 Comprehensive Center (Region 8 CC)–had never worked together. Nonetheless, we shared a vision for bridging traditional divides between early childhood education, K12, and out-of-school time learning.
As we met, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were beginning to shutter classrooms across the country. In this uncertain context, we planned for implementation of a redesigned Career and Technical Education (CTE) Education and Training program that would offer high school pathways to careers in education and youth development. While the team was new, the idea was not. State leaders had tried to begin such a program before without success. But this time was different: The effort had supportive policies in place and champions within both the Governor’s Office and the state education agency. We also had the beginnings of a team with the wherewithal to innovate across existing disciplinary and organizational boundaries.
While most state education agency staff want to work across organizational units, collaborating “horizontally” across agencies requires significant human and organizational capacity (Edmonson et al., 2019). For us, four key activities facilitated this boundary-crossing.
- Connect: Identify and activate your “bridges” and “adhesives.” Organizational researchers describe “bridges” as individuals who serve as go-betweens across traditionally siloed areas. In contrast, “adhesives” bring people together to build relationships and understanding. (Importantly, adhesives build the team’s ability to work together in the future without support. [Edmonson et al., 2019]). We had both on our team: A senior MDE leader acted as a bridge across offices, while the Region 8 CC staff took on the role of building the team’s capacity to work together effectively.
- Inquire: Foster mindsets of curiosity and empathy amongst team members. At the onset of the project, Region 8 CC staff engaged many of the team members in listening sessions to understand their unique assets and incentives for participating in the work (This became standard practice in on-boarding new team members.) Team members made space at the beginning of each meeting to learn about each other on professional and personal levels. The relationships we developed rendered cross-office work not only effective, but also joyful.
- Center: Build collective understanding of the purpose for the work. Hailing from a variety of offices within the state education agency, each team member comes to the work with unique priorities and passions based on their roles and responsibilities. After a failed elevator speech activity, we recognized the need to collectively develop a statement of our purpose. We revisited that purpose statement at each meeting and even held a retreat to explore the questions: What would success look like in five years? In ten years?
- Grow: Encourage continued learning and adaptation. In boundary-breaking work, learning cannot stop within a team – even one that spans organizational units. We prioritized learning from the field, including from the students and educators who are part of FPME LAUNCH. In the first year of the project, we established an advisory group that has met seven times thus far. We also held ongoing listening sessions, conducted webinars and surveys, and visited classrooms across the state. What we have heard from the field has challenged our assumptions about the project and provided insights into the complexities of the work.
Today, the FPME LAUNCH is in initial implementation in more than 80% of Michigan’s intermediate school districts. Although the program typically takes two years to complete, several students have already earned a credential and gone on to higher education and employment. As these students note in the following quotes, participation in the FPME LAUNCH has inspired and prepared them to teach:
“This program really opens your eyes to why children act the way they do at all ages. You also gain so much experience in different kinds of classrooms so you learn a lot about where you really want to go as an educator.”
“I was seeing how the content we were learning [in college coursework], how I had already done that in the classroom. I had an edge … I felt comfortable and confident that I can go off and do this on my own one day.”
“In the beginning I wasn’t really sure about education, but this class has shown me that I want to be a teacher!”
“When I come into class with the preschoolers, I love how excited they are to tell about what they did. This class has definitely helped me choose my career path.”
“It’s really fun to see different teaching styles and have kids come to you for help like you’re a real teacher. It is the best part of my week.”
Edmonson, A., Jang, S., T., & Cascario T. (2019). Cross Silo Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 130-139. https://hbr.org/2019/05/cross-silo-leadership