Innovation case study: Malvern Prep

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash/ When you're on an innovation journey, you will have to cross a chasm. Only the right culture can guide you through the fog and confusion.

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash/ When you're on an innovation journey, you will have to cross a chasm. Only the right culture can guide you through the fog and confusion.


Last week, I received a surprise in the mail.

Inside an envelope were two 3" x 3" cardboard squares bearing Malvern Prep’s logo. I had never seen these cards, even though I just finished five years as Malvern's Head of School this July, before I left to launch Basecamp.

My friend and former colleague Patrick Sillup, Malvern Prep's Assistant Head of School for Academics, had sent them. This school year he has been handing them out to families to help them understand the compelling value of the Malvern Prep experience.

Card 1 captures the school's Vision. MP teachers design learning that forms students to be Augustinian, Globally Aware, and Entrepreneurial.

Card 2 illustrates the difference between other schools and Malvern Prep. "Old school" institutions approach learning as if it were paint-by-numbers: tests are standardized, teachers tell the kids what will be on the test, and learning is conveniently packaged. By contrast, Malvern Prep--"Our School"--forms learners who see the world as a canvas on which they will create their positive social impact.

These two cards say a lot about the culture that has evolved at Malvern Prep over the last several years. Just five years ago, Malvern Prep was a good but traditional school. How did it innovate its way to being a place for student centered, entrepreneurial, social impact learning?

The answer is deceptively simple: Malvern's leadership invested in mission-driven, vision-inspired, entrepreneurial teams. In return, these teams have redesigned the school's "cultural DNA."

Having the right cultural DNA is hugely important on an innovation journey, because when you move from Mission > Vision to Strategies > Tactics, you must cross a chasm. The right culture will guide your passage. The wrong culture will sabotage the journey.

Malvern Prep needed to move from a Vision for Augustinian, Globally Aware, and Entrepreneurial learning to strategies and tactics for long term implementation. To cross that chasm, Pat and several other leaders knew they would need a new Culture—one that would prioritize entrepreneurial teamwork.

Pat started by recruiting a team of teachers to redesign the 6th grade learning experience. A year later, he recruited another team to redesign 7th grade. And another team to redesign 8th grade the following year. Then came teams for 9th, 10th + 11th, and 12th grade. All of these teams knew that their goal was to design learning aimed at the center of the Venn diagram described above.

While the 6th and 7th grade teams were developing, Malvern Prep's Director of Social Entrepreneurship, Jay Rogai, and a team of upper school teachers launched a 100% project-based, 100% team-based experience in Social Entrepreneurship. Even the class’ CEO panel functioned as a team to support the students and the teachers. Again, all teams aimed at the center of that Venn diagram.

During these same years, the school introduced a teacher Summer Institute (SI). Over three summers, teachers work in teams to identify Malvern Prep-specific problems and to design innovative solutions. Just as important, each day of the SI begins with a shared discussion and reflection on essential readings on the school's Augustinian mission. Why? You guessed it: to hit the center of that Venn diagram, where Augustinian mission and Entrepreneurial innovations overlap.

If this all sounds linear and clear, don't be fooled. It was difficult, because change is always messy and difficult.

But when a team is traveling through the chasm, surrounded by fog, as in the picture at the top, the right culture can illuminate the path forward. Sometimes that culture can even help you to clear a new path.

Which brings me back to those little cards I mentioned earlier. While the Venn diagram had been established before I left Malvern Prep, I could never have anticipated the ingenuity of the cards that Patrick Sillup sent me. That is the beauty of a culture designed to promote entrepreneurial teamwork: its DNA naturally leads it to innovate.

How aligned are your school's Mission, Vision, and Culture?

Christian Talbot