09/28/2015 02:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Escape Work's Death Valley

By Kevin O'Brien, Principal at K.T. O'Brien Consulting

If you haven't seen Ken Robinson's 2013 TED talk "How to escape education's death valley" I suggest you watch it. The theme is how to improve the education system but I found many of the ideas to be applicable to our workplaces. He points out that in some parts of the country 60% of the children entering high school will eventually drop out and this doesn't even represent all the children who stay in school but are actively disengaged from it. This number is eerily similar to Gallup's 70% disengagement statistic. Robinson goes on to talk about the enormous cost our society pays for disengagement in schools. One study that found halving the drop out rate would create a net gain to the U.S. economy over 10 years of nearly a trillion dollars. Gallup recently found the cost of workplace disengagement to the U.S. economy to be around half a trillion dollars annually.

So what does this mean? Robinson provides three principles on which human life flourishes.

The first principle says that human beings are individually different and diverse from one another, which is obvious to any parent who has two or more children. The problem with our schools and our workplaces is that they are based on conformity, not diversity. Schools are encouraged to find out what children can accomplish across a very narrow spectrum of achievement, which completely ignores the fact that children prosper with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents. I found myself thinking that the same is true in the workplace. Adults prosper from a wide range of contribution opportunities that allow them to exercise their various strengths. When we don't create space for human diversity in our workplaces, we artificially limit what is possible.

The second principle under which human life flourishes says that curiosity is the engine of achievement. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn with out any additional assistance. Robinson remarks that teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. One of the effects of the current culture of schools has been to de-professionalize teaching by forcing teachers to teach passing standardized tests and predetermined outcomes. Again, I found myself thinking, if you can light the spark of curiosity of someone at work, won't people contribute without any further assistance and "Aren't leaders the lifeblood of the success of organizations?" Robinson describes teaching as a creative profession. Teachers don't exist to just pass on information. Great teachers mentor, stimulate, provoke, and engage. Education is about learning. If there is no learning going on, there is no education going on. Leadership is also a creative profession. Great leaders are great teachers and vice versa. The problem in many workplaces today, is that leaders spend a whole lot of time discussing business without ever discussing how they are going to mentor, simulate, provoke, and engage the individuals in their organization.

Robinson states that the dominant culture of education has come to focus not on teaching or learning but on testing. He says that while testing is important and has a place, it should not be the central focus. Similarly, the prevailing culture of most organizations and businesses is focused not on contribution and service to stakeholders but on profit. Profit, like testing, is extremely important, but it should not be the overriding focus. Profit should support the main goal of an organization, which is to serve all people on which it depends.

The third principle is that human life is inherently creative. We all create our own lives, which is why we all have different resumes. One of the roles of education is to awaken and develop our powers of creativity. Unfortunately, what we have in our schools is a culture of standardization. As an alternative, Robinson looks to Finland. Finish schools don't obsess about science, math, and reading or even have standardized testing and they have no dropout rate. In Finland, if students are in trouble teachers provide support and help. The same should be true in our workplaces. If individuals are disengaged, leaders need to provide support.

Robinson offers three solutions to reinvigorate American schools:

  1. Individualize teaching and learning. Recognize that it is the students' responsibility to learn and the school's responsibility to engage their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. Place the focus not on testing and standards but back on the individual and giving freedom to the teachers. This best practice is the same for organizations. What all great work cultures around the world recognize is that it is individuals who are following and contributing. The workplace must engage their individuality, curiosity, and their creativity. W.L. Gore and Morning Star famously do this by having new associates and colleagues spend the their first month or so of employment walking around the organization in order to find their best place to contribute.
  2. Attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. All highly performing education systems invest in professional development of their teachers. In most workplaces, instead of having a leadership system, what we have is a management system designed to control the organization. The reality is that we need to move off management by command and control and move towards a system where our organizational leaders mentor, simulate, provoke, and engage people. The simple truth is this: If no following is going on, then there is no leading. Thus, we must invest in the professional development of our leaders.
  3. Devolve responsibility to schools--not boards or districts--for getting the job done. Education doesn't happen in committee rooms, it happens in classrooms. Leadership doesn't happen in boardrooms, it takes place on the shop floor. Many of the current policies in both schools and companies are based on mechanist conceptions. The thinking is that if we fine-tune it just right, all will hum along perfectly. Schools and organization are not mechanical systems they are human systems. And every person who is disengaged from them has a reason for it. The thing about human systems is that there ARE conditions under which humans flourish.

Robinson ends his talk with a little story about Death Valley that I really liked. The story goes like this: "Nothing grows in Death Valley because it doesn't rain. In the winter of 2004 it happen to rain 7 inches. In the spring of 2005 the whole floor of Death Valley was covered in flowers for a short period of time. This proved that Death Valley isn't really dead it's dormant." The moral of the story is that with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. So can be true with systems that are thought to be dead, change the conditions and a different sense of possibility will emerge. The real role of leadership in schools and companies is culture and climate control. If we create a culture and climate of possibility in our schools and workplaces, people will achieve things that could not be anticipated and could have never been expected.

Kevin O'Brien is an organizational self-management consultant, open-space facilitator, and certified scrum master. A chemical engineer by training, he worked for seven years at W.L. Gore & Associates. He is principal of K.T. O'Brien Consulting. Kevin is also a champion of Great Work Cultures, a movement dedicated to unleashing the power within every human organization. He currently resides in the city of Philadelphia. He can be reached at