10 Lessons from 10 Years: Solve for the System, Not for the Individual  

Welcome to Lesson 3 of African Leadership Academy CEO Chris Bradford’s reflections on lessons learnt over the past 10 years of establishing Africa’s leading educational institution.

10 Lessons From 10 Years

We must embrace, and expect, that nothing is right for everyone. In seeking to build a lasting, high-impact institution, we are solving system design problems.’

Lesson Number 3: Solve for the System, Not for the Individual

As educators, we are deeply focused on the development of the young leaders in our care: we seek to ensure that each individual is able to maximize their personal growth. But this tendency toward customized approaches that are well suited for a particular individual can often work against the design and development of lasting institutions.

We must embrace, and expect, that nothing is right for everyone. In seeking to build a lasting, high-impact institution, we are solving system design problems.

One of my favorite simple examples of this is the allocation of student time toward something we call “prep”. At African Leadership Academy, prep is a daily two-hour quiet period designed for focused study. As you can probably imagine, many students dislike prep: they feel that is inconsistent with the practice of self-leadership, and undermines the development of the kind of independence that will be required of them beyond their time at ALA.

We must solve for the system: the allocation of time that will maximize the leadership development and university readiness of our entire cohort of students.

Why regulate?

Research in neuroscience tells us that humans learn self-regulation, arguably the most important skill we need for success later in our lives, through being regulated! The regulation of prep should help our students learn the importance of creating quiet time for study and reflection, a habit that they can carry over into life beyond. (The degree of regulation within prep gradually declines over the course of a student’s time at ALA to support this learning.)

It is true that some of our students do not need prep when they arrive at ALA: they consistently demonstrate, even at age 17, that they are able to organize their lives and clear the space to focus and get things done. The inclusion of prep is not perfect for them, and reduces their independence. But we are solving for the system. There is little evident downside of prep for these students with respect to their longterm leadership development, and tremendous upside for their peers.

As leaders, we should not expect that our decisions will be perfect for everyone. But we have a responsibility to make decisions and set rules and policies that offer the maximum benefit to the system and our longterm mission.

Where are you finding that individuals within your system have different – even opposing – needs?

Are your decisions solving for the system in a way that ensures clarity and focus? Or are they solving for the needs of individuals in a way that undermines the system by creating noise and confusion?

If you’re new to the series, or wanting to review, click on the buttons below for previous Lessons.

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