If you are four times (37% vs. 8.3%) as successful as the average of your peers, would you be satisfied? Not if your big idea, like Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, is to be ten times better.
It is amazing what happens when a big idea becomes the mission of an organization. NASA’s mission became achieving President Kennedy’s big idea to send a man to the moon and return him safely home. Wikipedia’s mission was to deliver Jimmy Wales’ big idea that every person be given free access to the sum of human knowledge. Apple’s mission aligned with Steve Job’s big idea to build a phone with one button that is simply to use.
While man on the moon, ubiquitous human knowledge and the iPhone are truly amazing feats, they may not be as challenging as Feinberg’s and Levin’s big idea. Their big idea is to ensure low income students have the same college graduation rates as high income students.
In 1994, they founded KIPP Academy charter schools with a mission to achieve their big idea. In 1999, KIPP Academy’s eighth grade students, from low income families, had the highest scores of any school in the Bronx, NY and 5th highest in New York City(1). You would think that being on the front page of the New York Times and a 60 minutes segment by Mike Wallace would be enough to celebrate. Not if you are Feinberg and Levin.
The success and publicity did help KIPP schools expand rapidly. Today they serve more than 41,000 students in 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Over 87 percent of their students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program.
Now back to the mission. The results are in. The first group of KIPP students, which began in KIPP middle schools, are now over 24 years old or six years out of high school. They have a 37% college graduation rate which is remarkably higher the overall national average of 31%. They are four times higher than the national average for low income students of 8.3%. While their achievement is remarkable, Feinberg and Levin are not satisfied.
In 2011 Feinberg and Levin expressed their disappointment. “We aspire for our students to earn four-year degrees at the same rate as students from the nation’s highest-income families, giving them the same opportunity for self-sufficiency,” he said. The graduation rate of student’s from high-income families is 77%.
Once a student walks through the classroom door of a KIPP charter school, they become part of the mission until they are 24 years old. In addition to more hours at schools, each student, parent and teacher must sign a learning pledge to do whatever it takes to help the student learn. The KIPP Through College (KTC) program helps to bridge students’ transition from middle to high school and from high school to college. They even call former students in college monthly and visit them on campus.
The KIPP mission is clear, so everyone needs to do whatever it takes to get the students through college. It is simple to measure mission outcomes, just like whether we safely returned someone from the moon and people like the one button phone.
We often lose track of the mission when trying to measure progress. There may never be a way to evaluate people individually on mission as it is a team effort and the results are in future. It is also very difficult to manage people with fewer rules while encouraging them to take risks and to step outside the box.
The evolution of work did not come with instruction manual for migrating our culture from process/compliance driven to mission driven. We grew up in an environment that rewards being compliant with rules, being fair, being even, deterring risks and conforming.
Processes, policy and procedures are critical for any organization as they are intended to bring the most efficient, safe, legal and effective way to achieve a mission. Yet, too often they don’t effectively align with the mission. Employee appraisals are tied more to compliance of the ineffective procedures than mission.
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin remind us that it can be done. They believe success is not about the highest test scores (process/compliance), it is about providing an opportunity for any kid willing to work hard (mission).
To achieve a dream, big idea or breakthrough innovation, the mission has to be clear, concise and a big part of every decision. A well-defined mission is the navigation system to make almost anything happen.
(1) Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012, p50