People have a lot of opinions when you start or expand a school. Ken Robinson, in his very popular TED Talk, says that people are bored when you discuss education, but are completely engaged when you ask them about their own education. The strong feelings people have about how they were educated color the opinions and advice they have for a newly expanding school.
In the corporate world, senior leaders are often extremely passionate about an idea they have or feel strongly that a particular direction will never work. Many times, the HiPPo, or “highest paid person” in the room states an opinion or throws out an idea, and everyone on the team picks it up and runs with it without considering a few very important questions: “How do we know they are right? Are they right for THIS situation? Are they right in THIS time?”
I’ll share 3 examples of what we heard at the school and talk about how we withheld judgement until we had data in hand.
- “The community really needs a new girl’s school.” – Our community has a number of single-gender parochial schools and at our very first meeting to discuss expansion, several people shared the word on the street. In this case, the street had it wrong. Rather than committing to a path before the data was in, we opened up registration to find that the boys’ class was filling even faster than the girls’.
- “The community will only support mainstream schools.” – We felt strongly about offering the first strict Montessori elementary program in our very conservative community. We had watched other new schools begin with innovative ideals but ultimately shift to “more of the same” before they enrolled students. We suspected that these decisions were based on fear and hearsay rather than data, so we arranged an informational dinner for interested parents to see what type of response we got when we let our freak flag fly. We hoped for 30 attendees, but ended up hosting 100 engaged parents who only stopped asking questions when the restaurant owner turned off the lights at 10:30pm. And the applications started pouring in.
- ”No one will drive that far for a school.” – Over 2 years, we grew from 16 pre-schoolers in a basement to 90 students from pre-school to 3rd grade. We planned to continue through high school, so it was important to find a space where the school could grow. When we found the perfect space at the right price, it was almost 20 minutes away from the community. There were many closer educational options, but we hoped we were strongly differentiated from the competition so that people would still choose our school in spite of the distance. Before we signed the lease, we ran a test to find out. We told our existing and incoming parent body about the new location, emphasizing the gorgeousness of the building, classrooms and playground to see if we would lose families because of the distance. We did not AND many families with kids in both pre-school and elementary signed up for late stay for their little ones to give them a single pick-up time, providing an unexpected revenue stream that paid for cool programs like music, yoga and martial arts during the school year.
Whether you’re part of a start-up or a multi-national corporation, you will be tempted to accept opinions from the powerful or confident, but pump the brakes and create an experiment to test the assumptions instead. There’s no downside to validating an opinion with data and you may avoid a business-breaking mistake.