The Flyweel Effect

Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself as a child. Think back to when you and your friends would spend all day outdoors. As you think about these times, picture the local playgrounds you would visit.


What do you remember about these playgrounds? What was the first piece of equipment you and your friends would run to? Perhaps it really fast slide. Or a set of tall swings. Or some monkey bars you would climb across.


Or, perhaps it was a heavy, old-fashioned merry-go-round.


Think about that merry-go-round for a moment. Consider the amount of effort it took for the giant wheel to move. You and your buddies used all of your strength and pushed with every ounce of energy you had. Eventually, the merry-go-round would start to inch forward.

As the wheel started to turn, you kept pressing with even greater effort. Eventually, the giant wheel completed one entire turn. But you couldn't stop after just one rotation - you had to keep pushing until the giant wheel started to move faster. Two turns ... four turns ... the merry-go-round was building momentum.


Eight turns ... sixteen ... thirty-two! Finally, all of your focused energy and hard work pushing the giant wheel provided you and your friends a chance to jump on board as the wheel flew forward with almost unstoppable momentum. You reached a point of breakthrough!


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This vision of the merry-go-round is an analogy to the flywheel effect work popularized by Jim Collins. In his Good to Great research, Collins discovered when organizations focus on a handful of interconnected concepts - and execute those strategies at a high level over a long period of time - they will eventually reach a point of breakthrough.


We have embraced this flywheel mindset in our school district. We believe when we make repeated, disciplined, well-executed decisions over the course of several years, our district will reach a point of breakthrough.


To operationalize the flywheel, we needed to create a set of "strategic anchors." Strategic anchors - a district's fundamental beliefs - are like the handrails you push to make a merry-go-round start moving. Press on those bars for long enough, and eventually momentum starts to build.


To determine our strategic anchors, we did a lot of listening. We turned to staff, students, and parents for input on developing a plan that met their needs. After a year of focus groups, face-to-face interviews, and survey feedback, we selected the following five strategic anchors to guide our work:


Attract & Retain Great Staff: Regardless of our master plan, nothing is possible without outstanding staff working with students each and every day. Our staff members are the backbone of our district. Therefore, we must commit to hiring the most talented individuals and ensure every employee feels valued, trusted, and respected as a member of our organization.


Guarantee Exceptional Learning Opportunities: Of all the factors affecting student learning, classroom teachers have the greatest impact. To ensure teaching is delivered at high levels in every district classroom, a common understanding of the characteristics of great teaching must be established and enacted through effective professional development.


Emphasize Data and Measure Progress: Setting goals and tracking data are key elements of the school improvement process. We must identify key data points that define our success and devote resources to measure progress in those areas. Clear measures of success will provide our employees, students, and stakeholders with an accurate picture of our district's progress.


Inspire Success & Share OUR Story: Every child brings unique talents to our buildings, and we believe it is our responsibility to make students aware of those special abilities they possess. When staff are intentional about sharing positive messages and creating special moments, students build confidence and have a greater chance to realize their limitless potential.


Cultivate a Culture of Excellence: We want our school district to feel different. Creating a culture of excellence means every employee is committed to outstanding work and providing exceptional “customer” service. We must develop a mindset where all staff pay attention to detail and strive for every product, lesson, and interaction to be "five-star" quality.


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Getting a heavy, antiquated merry-go-round to function was no easy task. You had to make sure all your friends were organized and pushing in the same direction. Although it would have been easy to quit after generating movement, one rotation was not the goal. Only after pressure was applied to each handrail for an extended period of time was the ride optimized for use.


School leaders can adapt this thinking to their own setting.


Good to great transformations do not happen overnight. Leaders must ensure their staff are aligned and working towards the same goals. Although it is tempting to stop the process after experiencing modest success, small wins are not the objective. Only after consistent force is applied to a set of strategic anchors over many years will districts reach a point of unstoppable momentum.

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