Breaking Bad Habits: Defy Industry Norms & Reinvigorate Your Business (2017) by Freek Vermeulen is a great little business book which serves to challenge assumptions about your business.  The central idea is that businesses/industries have adopted practices for the right reasons but over time those practices become harmful.  Vermeulen calls these the “unholy trinity”:

  1. The practice is associated with success.
  2. There is causal ambiguity in the industry.
  3. The practice spreads more quickly then it kills.

I found value in applying the first insight to Catholic schools.  In the past few generations, Catholic schools have achieved remarkable success no matter how you measure—whether that be individual success (number of CEOs, for instance, or number of Supreme Court justices) or sheer numbers (total number of graduates or almost 13 million students in one particular year).  It’s a remarkable story of success no matter how you measure.  At its height, however, the system was based on the high number of religious staff members who provided not only cheap labor but also were the religious backbones of the schools with high levels of faith formation and modeling.  Today’s schools cannot continue to copy the old models with poor implementation (low levels of faith formation, for example).  We must find new methods.  And the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Schools are a step in that direction.

The third insight is also valuable.  Vermeulen argues that bad practices can act like viruses.  An effective virus does not immediately (or ever) kill its host.  If so, then the virus cannot spread. Therefore, a slow death is preferable.  And our schools are home to many bad practices that are slowing our effectiveness.  If a parish elementary school is dependent upon a parish finance council (filled with folks with no school training) then the decisions are made without real input on what’s effective and professional development for teachers (not to mention teacher salaries) is ignored in favor of the bottom line.

Vermeulen then turns his attention to suggestions for innovation, including his “Ten Commandments of Business Innovation”:

  1. Cut out the benchmarking
  2. Reverse benchmark instead
  3. Experiment if you can
  4. Monitor entrants and companies in distress
  5. Ask insiders for concerns
  6. Ask outsiders for suspicions
  7. Create bundles of practices
  8. Take aim at a chunk of the market
  9. Just stop it
  10. Watch out for “That’s the way we do it around here”

These aren’t groundbreaking but Vermeulen’s approach is different and I found the book refreshing and thought-provoking.

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