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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

On the Superlinear Nature of School Experience

Back in October 2023, the English computer scientist and essayist, Paul Graham, wrote a piece entitled Superlinear Returns

Graham introduces us to this notion of superlinearity by first debunking a myth that he was taught in school.

Teachers and coaches implicitly told us the returns were linear. "You get out," I heard a thousand times, "what you put in." They meant well, but this is rarely true. 

In so many aspects of our world - from human evolution to capital investment, from the acquisition of knowledge to political gains - Graham explains that the "return" on our efforts tends not to be linear but exponential, and that going half way rarely means we enjoy a 50% reward. "If your product is only half as good as your competitor's," he says, "you don't get half as many customers. You get no customers, and you go out of business." 

Or, he suggests, think of a game of football. Just because a team scores half as many goals as their winning opponents, doesn't mean that they can claim half as many points. No, the winner takes it all.

The relevance of this approach starts to become clear if we think for a moment about any extremely well known brand, such as Apple. The exponential growth in reputation of this technology company over the years is beyond dispute. And, while they have a number of competitors offering a range of good products at reasonable prices, the majority will often be ignored by consumers simply because they are "not Apple." Again, the winner takes it all and those in second or third place are often invisible.

My suggestion is that the same may be true when it comes to the experience of school, and that there are three lessons I believe that we can learn from Graham's essay on this topic.

A yellow fruit in a basket of orange fruit

Lesson #1 | The importance of risk

"At the far end of the curve," says Graham, "incremental effort is a bargain… there's less competition at the far end — and not just for the obvious reason that it's hard to do something exceptionally well, but also because people find the prospect so intimidating that few even try. Which means it's not just a bargain to do exceptional work, but a bargain even to try to." In other words, take the risk and there's a chance that it will literally pay dividends in the end. 

When it comes to intentionally designing the experience of school, however, the reality is (still) that few even try. They are too risk averse, preferring instead to keep the machine of school working in traditional ways that give little or no attention to the actual experience of students, parents, and employees across the community. And even in schools where they did once venture to establish an Experience Team, there are too many examples out there of changes in ownership or senior leadership reverting back to traditional, siloed and disconnected ways of working that can only ever deliver a siloed and disconnected experience.

Lesson #2 | Pay attention

Later in his essay, Graham has another line that I keep coming back to: "If you pay a ridiculous amount of attention to your tiny initial set of customers, ideally you'll kick off exponential growth by word of mouth." I love this suggestion that we might pay a ridiculous amount of attention to a few people in our school, and the impact that Graham is suggesting it will eventually have on what people will end up saying about us.

The traditional machine of school, alluded to above, cannot afford this attention.  After all, it's a machine and it doesn't consciously give attention to anyone. At best the students, parents, and employees in our school (in this scenario) are users, products, numbers on a spreadsheet, or levers that help to make the wheels of school go round.

Experience strategy, by contrast, is all about attention and, consequently, the people who design remarkable experiences will remember names, ask questions, adjust and accommodate in ways that both surprise and delight. They will begin with empathy and kindness, carefully creating systems and processes with the user in mind, not for the sake of efficiency or financial profit. 

You might be finding it hard right now to fight against the machine of your school. But, even here, Graham appears to be encouraging us to take a moment each day to step to one side and offer ridiculous attention to one individual, one family, one group in our school - to listen to their experience and seek out one step towards making their day better. That much, all of us can do. And you can bet those people will start talking.

Lesson #3 | Be different

Finally, towards the end of the essay, Graham concludes that "A kind of work where everyone does about the same is unlikely to be one with superlinear returns." It reminds me of Apple's infamous slogan, used between 1997 and 2002, Think Different, with its instantly memorable salute to counter cultural ideals.

From an experience strategy point of view, a memorable experience doesn't always have to be different. And, let's be honest, there are many aspects of school life that are necessarily the same. But, who would you rather be? The school with a website that looks identical to every other school in town, or the one that takes a risk to try something new? The school with a Mission that uses the same tired cliches, or chooses to be an exception by speaking in a language that actually inspires? The school that sends out report cards that look identical to when I was in school, or finally takes the leap and reimagines how to engage students and parents in meaningful conversations on the topic of How's it going at school?

I've said it before. In a world full of schools that all look roughly the same, those that will stand out in the future will be those that intentionally design the experience of school. Perhaps what Graham is helping us to consider is the possibility that taking a risk, beginning with ridiculous attention, and committing to being different might just be what is needed to reap enormous rewards in the long run. At least, rewards that will provide a significant return - if not for us - for the students, parents, and employees in our school.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash.



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