Mission > Vision > Culture, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Compasses Over Maps

 Photo by  Andrew Neel  on  Unsplash  /  Note: This post originally appeared in Leadership + Design's November 2017 newsletter, which focused on "Compasses over Maps," a chapter from the must-read  Whiplash  by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash / Note: This post originally appeared in Leadership + Design's November 2017 newsletter, which focused on "Compasses over Maps," a chapter from the must-read Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe.


What happens when your school stops relying on maps and starts relying on compasses? Let me share a story.

Almost four years ago, a long-tenured Malvern Prep teacher confronted me during a professional development trip.

In front of some of her peers, Mary said, “I need to ask you something, Christian…”

Our Middle School Head had recruited a team of five teachers to imagine a new 6th grade experience. They were to leave behind traditional instruction--“the map” of the school’s culture and operational model--in order to design a deeply student centered learning experience.

“...and I need you to give me--to give us--the honest truth,” Mary continued.

Much of the learning would be project-based and team-based. In an even more radical change, the 6th Grade teachers would design and deliver the experience as a team. Because Malvern Prep starts at 6th grade, this redesign, if successful, would create a domino effect.

To inspire the 6th Grade Team and to observe superior project- and team-based learning, we journeyed across the country to visit High Tech High. After touring HTH Chula Vista Middle School, the 6th Grade Team spent the next day in a hotel conference room dreaming, designing, and pitching ideas. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

And that’s when Mary confronted me.

“When push comes to shove…”

She paused, deliberately.

“...when the you-know-what hits the fan…”

She paused again.

“...because you know that what we’re talking about here isn’t going to be perfect, and there are going to be problems and challenges along the way. So when that happens, what I want to know is this: where are you going to be?”

Mary and her team had begun their expedition into the unknown, without a map. When they encountered an obstacle or threat, would our culture help them to figure out how to change course? They may not have a map, but would they have a compass?


 Photo by  Ali Inay  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash


Believe it or not, at that moment I was relieved.

“When things go wrong,” I said, “I will take the blame because I will deserve it. And when things go well, you will receive the praise because you will deserve it. We are in this together, with specific roles. Your role is to design the most amazing learning possible for our kids. And my role is to make sure you have the space and the resources to design fearlessly. I am 100% convinced that you are the team who will show our community what extraordinary learning looks like.”

In the preceding months, much of the faculty conversation had focused on why we were trying to redesign learning at Malvern Prep. Experienced teachers often expressed confusion and even anxiety or fear about how to shift their practice. Unsurprisingly, many wanted a step-by-step map.

But this 6th Grade Team understood that pursuing our innovation journey meant traveling without a map. We would always be able to see our North Star--student centered learning for positive social impact--but we wouldn’t always know the next step ahead of time.

So I was relieved by Mary’s confrontation because it meant that we were no longer debating whether to go on our innovation journey. Her confrontation was actually another way of asking how would we navigate our innovation journey.

In other words, the conversation had shifted from “give us the map” to “show us the compass.”

It was especially meaningful that Mary was the person to confront me. She had been teaching for over 30 years, and was a strong traditional instructor. A deeply student centered approach meant that she would have to learn new maneuvers and mindsets.

Yet she wasn’t asking for a precise roadmap. She just wanted to know whether her team would have a compass to help them navigate in the face of the inevitable obstacles and crises.

Mary’s confrontation marked the beginning of a lesson I would later discern in “Compasses Over Maps.” For any innovation journey to be successful, it must follow an order of operations: Mission > Vision > Culture

Mission: inspires your tribe to leave the familiar in order to explore the unknown, and provides the fuel to wake up every day and continue that expedition.

  • In Whiplash, Joi Ito says that MIT Media Lab has a clear Mission: “to design technologies for people to create a better future.”

  • Malvern Prep’s Mission is to “Ignite restless hearts to seek Truth, Unity, and Love.”

Vision: provides your North Star, a distant destination that everyone can see.

  • MIT Media Lab’s North Star is to achieve their Mission via “Uniqueness, Impact, and Magic.”

  • Malvern Prep’s Vision is to form learners who are Augustinian in their hearts, Globally Aware in their minds, and Entrepreneurial with their actions.

Culture: provides your tribe with a compass to navigate the twists and turns, opportunities and threats, that a map can never fully capture.

  • The Media Lab’s Culture enables a diverse set of teams to operate independently yet harmoniously in service of its Mission and Vision. As Joi Ito writes, “Instead of rules or even strategy, the key to success is culture.”

  • Malvern Prep’s Culture lets everyone know that no matter what comes our way, “This is how we do things around here.” We are: (1) Augustinians in Action; (2) One Team, All In; (3) Rooted in Family; and (4) Courageous in Restlessness. (A set of expected behaviors accompanies each of these cultural pillars.)

After the 6th Grade Team had gotten through their first year together, Mary and I had the first of many hearty laughs about her confrontation. At the time I didn’t have the language of “Compasses Over Maps,” but I knew that she was saying, in effect, “We don’t need a map. We need a reliable compass. We need the kind of culture that will help us to navigate the darkest woods, the hairpin turns, and the off-road detours.”


 Photo by  Denys Nevozhai  on  Unsplash

I’m happy to say that four years later, the students who first experienced the redesigned 6th grade are now thriving 9th graders. Meanwhile, that 6th Grade Team of Teachers has become Malvern Prep’s village elders because they have spent four years venturing into the pedagogical unknown, exploring new frontiers in learning, and bringing back stories and artifacts and inspirations.

To survive and thrive in our age of exponential change, your school will need to undertake an innovation journey. And it’s scary to go on a journey without a map.

The good news is you don’t need a map. In fact, a map will only slow you down and fool you into thinking that you can anticipate exactly how your expedition will unfold.

Instead, as you pursue your innovation journey, ask yourself:

  • What is your school’s Mission?

  • What North Star, what Vision, has that Mission inspired you to pursue?

  • Are you nurturing the kind of Culture that will be your compass on that journey?

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Christian Talbot