No Dry Holes

‘It’s so easy to string together a bunch of platitudes and call them a mission statement. But what happens if you actually have a specific mission, a culture in mind, a manifesto for your actions?’


Seth Godin


BP finds oil in two out of three of its drilling explorations. That is three times higher than the industry standard. How do they do this? They came up with the slogan, ‘no dry holes’. Because they realised the waste of drilling in an adhoc way. This had been sustainable in the days of ‘Spindletop oil’ in the early 1900s when huge oil fields were first discovered in Texas, but this is not sustainable when wells were costing up to 40 million dollars to get working. The earlier theory had been, if we are successful in one in ten then that is fine. But with rising costs, strategy needed to be sharper.


So the mantra became ‘no dry holes’. What was the effect of this? It meant that geologists had to make a compelling case before ordering up a rig. Now the geologists at BP probably thought they were doing everything they could already, so what it needed was a shift in thinking. A commitment to doing fewer things in greater depth, literally. This is a tough discipline and it can feel counterintuitive particularly before the results are seen. The temptation is usually to do more of the same in the hope of different results.


How might ‘no dry holes’ translate elsewhere? What might a school look like which adopted this simplified strategy? What would the equivalent of ‘no dry holes’ look like in a school? Well, if we take the example of BP again, the first insight is to ask ‘what is the big piece of work which needs to be done here?’ What is the problem that needs to be addressed? In the oil industry it had been accepted that many attempts at digging wells were needed before reliable sources of oil were found. With rising costs, BP realised that it needed a vision which said, things could be different. So, what is the underlying ‘big, hairy goal’ in a school? In a primary school, it might be, every child a reader. In a secondary, it might be all students at 16 reaching a positive value added score in their GCSEs. What we pay attention to usually changes. Then, we turn it into something which everyone can relate to. Everyone, from adults, to children to school support staff, to the reception staff, canteen staff, cleaners, site staff. Everyone.


In a school which had historically found that some parents were reluctant to come in and meet teachers, the big goal might be translated into ‘everyone welcome’. Now, if everyone really is welcome, what does that mean? Are the receptionists welcoming towards everyone, even the awkward squad? If they are, this doesn’t happen by accident. They in turn have been made to feel welcome by leaders of the school. They are appreciated for their work, often difficult, unsung work. And leaders do this by noticing, talking about it and thanking them for the great contribution they make to the school. Everyone appreciates being told they are doing a good job. So it means, that if they have been appreciated for what they have done in the past, they are likely to be open to conversations about how to make things even better.


This moves the agenda away from, how can I get away with the least possible, to how can I give my highest contribution? Because in this thought experiment, the big mantra has been ‘everybody welcome’. It is a phrase which everyone can use, can understand and where it is very clear whether it has happened, or not. It also shifts the focus from helpless to hopeful.


When we have committed to a big mantra, over time, it permeates our behaviour and our attitude to everything. However, it has to be deeply and truly meant and embraced. It is no good paying lip service to it, because lip service stays on the lips. It doesn’t change anything. In the same way that ‘no dry holes’ was a phrase to drive all thinking about finding oil, so ‘everyone welcome’ would need to drive all thinking and behaviour within a school. And this is not necessarily easy, because it is one thing to welcome those we like, or those who are like us. But what about those who are not like us and who we don’t necessarily like?


That is here the depth comes from. If we are working to these principles, then it has to go deep and embrace the tough stuff as well. And that is when the transformation takes place. And then to the classroom. What does it look like here, if we decide that ‘everyone is welcome’. It means that the teacher and adults working with children, are genuinely pleased to see the children. They talk about this and about how they are looking forward to working with them today. The talk about how all their contributions are welcome.


And they talk about what it means to be made to feel welcome. What it means to make someone else feel welcome. What the difference is between just saying the words and really meaning it. What happens when we are not made to feel welcome? What sort of work are we prepared to do when we feel we are not welcome? How does that compare with feeling welcome. What is the difference? Is it worth it? And if it is, how might we do more of it?


These are big, demanding pieces of work. But what they also have about them is simplicity. They are something which everyone can understand. It is very easy to see whether they are being acted on or not, very easy to check whether it is real. And above all, they have the power to make all of us feel hopeful, not helpless.


From Mary Myatt’s latest book ‘Hopeful Schools’


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