Thursday, September 19, 2013

Montessori Management

To say that the Montessori was not the approach of Our Lady of the Angels grammar school is to understate the obvious.

Let’s see (thank you, Wikipedia):

  • Emphasis on independence
  • Freedom within limits
  • Respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical and social development

Well, uncheck, uncheck, uncheck.

Much as I’m sure the nuns wanted to run things this way, with 50 kids in a classroom, it just wasn’t possible.

For a couple of months in 7th grade, we actually had 100 kids in our class. Our nun had a nervous breakdown. So while they tried to line up a sub – which wasn’t that easy, midway through the year, when all the nuns were assigned. It wasn’t like they were going to spring for a lay teacher or anything - they doubled us up: two kids to a desk while they conducted their “search.” They ended up plucking a very sweet young nun who had not yet completed teacher training/college. She probably wasn’t that much older than we were. By the by, there were fewer discipline problems with Sister Martinet, I mean Sister Paulina, than there were with the poor nun who we gave a nervous breakdown. (They did not, of course, tell us that Sister F had an NB. This came out the next year when a nun let it slip in a diatribe. As in, “And it’s no wonder Sister F had a nervous breakdown.”)

Anyway, we’re not here to debate the merits of born-free Montessori, unleash the genius within vs. the standard parochial school ‘who do you think you are?’ approach of my childhood.

We’re here to talk about Montessori Management, which is – at least according to The Economist – how some hip and happenin’ companies are run. After nipping at Google a bit for its “juvenile tastes,” they note that:

Box, a Silicon Valley company, has installed swings in its headquarters. Red Bull, an energy-drinks firm, has a reception desk in the shape of a giant skateboard in its London office. Businesses of all types have moved towards sitting workers in groups in open-plan rooms, just like at nursery school. Time was when firms modeled themselves on the armed forces, with officers (who thought about strategy) and chains of command. Now many model themselves on learning-through-play “Montessori” schools. (Source: The Economist.)

The closest I came to a Montessorian environment was a quirky little Cambridge company that had a couple of video games in the kitchen. Not that I would have played, but by the time I got there, the games were pretty much obsolete. Interestingly, this place also went the this-is-the-Army-Mr.Jones route, bringing in a retired U.S. Navy admiral as COO to get the place ship-shape.

I suspect that, before he was piped aboard, The Admiral had nary a clue just how resistant our culture would be to his military charms. I got to work pretty closely with him on a couple of things and, at one point I said to him, “You know, Jim, if you had 17 legs you couldn’t kick ass hard enough and fast enough to get anything done around here.” He ruefully agreed.

Mostly, I spent my career in traditionally managed – by tech standards, anyway – companies. There were hierarchies. Managers managed. Underlings underlinged (and bitched).  I worked in several places that had bona fide tech genius around, but none of these companies ever managed to break through the overall managerial incompetence ceiling and become a household word.

Perhaps this was because our folks in charge – while they may not have suffered abuse by Montessori standards at OLA – had not been to Montessori schools. I find it amazing that:

The bosses of Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), Amazon (Jeff Bezos) and Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales) were all educated in Montessori schools. So was Will Wright, a video-game )pioneer.

And, for the most part, they credit Montessori with their creativity.

But it would be wrong to conclude that the success of Google and Amazon vindicates Montessori management. Both companies have pragmatically mixed progressive ideas with more traditional ones such as encouraging internal competition and measuring performance. Mr Bezos is also an enthusiastic employer of ex-military personnel.

Wonder if The Admiral is still working?


Anyway, there’s been a bit of backlash forming against placing too much faith in Montessori’s “free-flowing creativity, endless collaboration and all things open-plan.”

Some are finding that all that emphasis on teamwork and collaboration actually stifles creativity, and results in “groupthink, conformity and mediocrity.” Not that those things don’t happen in non-Montessori environments…

There’s also some pushback on those open-plan office set ups that everyone’s gone so gaga over. In one study, researchers:

…found an astonishing amount of antipathy. Workers say that open-plan offices make it more difficult to concentrate, because the hubbub of human and electronic noise is so distracting. What they really value is the ability to focus on their jobs with as few distractions as possible. Ironically, going open-plan defeats another of Montessori management’s main objectives: workers say it prevents them from collaborating, because they cannot talk without disturbing others or inviting an audience. Other studies show that people who work in open-plan offices are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress and airborne infections such as flu.

Give me an office with a door that closes, any old day.

Having spent those months in the 100 kid classroom, I could live without an open plan…

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