Reflecting on inflection points: a new approach to building internal coherence for multi-academy trusts

Leora Cruddas - Reflecting on inflection points
By Leora Cruddas | 10th February 2020 | 4 min read

IRIS Education Guest Bloggers: Post 1

This year we’re working with some of the most notable education sector leaders to tackle trending topics, important issues and significant subjects confronting schools today.

CEO of the Confederation of Schools Trust, Leora Cruddas, discusses the importance of recognising inflection points in achieving harmony and success across multi-academy trusts.

Recently, I’ve been considering the subject of standardisation versus autonomy for multi-academy trusts. While the debate rages on, I'm beginning to think these terms are particularly unhelpful. At best, they set up a binary opposition between one thing and another, an approach which polarises the conversation in a rather unproductive way.

Instead, I wonder if we would be better off considering how we can build internally coherent organisations. I think the trick here is that internal coherence looks different at different stages of the growth journey.

So, with this in mind, I want to explore inflection points – growth points in which a trust needs to do things differently to build a coherent, productive organisation.

Inflection points

A strategic inflection point is a period in which an organisation must respond to significant change. It is a point of non-incremental adjustment, in which an organisation has no option but to break a previous strategic or operational approach and make a shift accordingly.

In their excellent report, Building Trusts, MAT leadership and  coherence of vision, strategy and operations, Ambition School Leadership talk about ‘break points’. I think the term inflection points provides a greater strategic understanding of why we need to make changes at certain stages of the growth journey.

Andrew Gove, Chief Executive of the INTEL Corporation (the world’s largest computer chipmaker), writes: “An inflection point occurs where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new (…) a strategic inflection point is a time in the life of business when its fundamentals are about to change. that change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”[2]

It is important that trusts recognise strategic inflection points at different junctures of their growth journey and think about what they need to do differently. 

Building back-office infrastructure

Great trusts free their head teachers to focus on their core task of the substance of education; establishing school climate aligned with the culture of the trust, developing teacher quality and implementing an ambitious academic curriculum that is broad and balanced.

This means that what we have come to know as back-office processes and systems must function efficiently in order to advance education for the school community.

As a trust grows, it is not only inefficient to have multiple IT and software systems, but actively unhelpful, presenting a distraction from the core business of improving education. It is also difficult for the trust to operate as a single organisation if back-office systems and processes are inconsistent. Oversight by the trust board will be almost impossible if the trust grows in a disordered manner.

Achieving convergence and coherence through collaboration

As the report Building Trusts acknowledges, it can be difficult to gain buy-in and fidelity of implementation with more centralised decision making – and it can be more time intensive to achieve convergence through collaboration.

It is certainly worth the investment in building collaborative cultures across the group of schools such that they see the purpose behind convergence of systems and processes.

A collaborative approach towards decision-making can, in itself, reach ‘breaking points’. In a small group of schools, it is relatively easy to bring together head teachers to decide, collectively, on a path forward. This becomes difficult to sustain, however, as the trust grows. And so, approaches to collaboration must be flexible, enabling leaders at different levels of the organisation to be involved in decision making as a trust grows.

Beyond systems and processes – aligning mission

Dixons Academies Trust uses Lencioni’s taxonomy from The Advantage to create clarity and alignment across their group of schools. Executive Director, Luke Sparkes, outlines the approach in CST’s journal for executive and governance leaders.

At Dixons, clarity or coherence at the centre is about answering four questions:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?

Leaders in this trust have aligned around the trust’s articulation of responses to these four questions.

A final reflection

By way of conclusion, ours is an emergent sector and we are still feeling our way towards what excellence looks like.

For me, a big part of this is how we build coherence across a group of schools, aligning systems and processes to strive towards the greater good of advancing education for public benefit.

And, just as we teach our younger generations, working together, rather than against each other, is a much more strategic method of achieving our goals.