Guest author, @LouiseVanRhyn, Founder & Director of Partners for Possibility (@PfP4SA)

By Louise van Rhyn
Twitter: @louisevanrhyn

Partners for Possibility is the archetypal example of a result of ‘design thinking’. It demonstrates the power of crossing boundaries, working across sectors and being open to the value and contribution of unintended consequences of leading change in a complex social system. 
The catalyst were two unrelated challenges – the failure of the SA Education system for the majority of pupils and the world-wide acknowledgement of the need for new and different ways to develop leaders.

The project did not emerge from a ‘problem statement’ but rather from an enquiry into possibility: What if we could address an issue that we are all concerned about (the quality of education in South Africa) by providing business leaders the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and simultaneously make a meaningful contribution to South Africa)? 

It was simultaneously a response to the invitation from the Dinokeng Scenarios and the National Development Plan: To find ways for business, government and the civil society to ‘Walk Together’ to address the significant issues facing South Africa. 

The break-down of the education system in South Africa is a great example of a ‘wicked’ problem with no easy answers. We have a large system with ±25,000 schools. Twenty percent of these schools are delivering exceptional results while eighty percent are failing our children. There is a lot of anxiety about matric results. Teachers and principals are under huge pressure to deliver better outcomes and improve results but the people who are supporting them don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge of large scale complex social change that underpin the dynamics of improved results. 

On the other hand, business leaders in South Africa have been successfully implementing massive change in corporations across South Africa. They know from bitter experience to first get the foundations right and develop the organisation ready to deliver the required outcomes. What if they bring their professional skills, knowledge and experience to partner with the principals / teachers ?  
Fast forward four years (to July 2014): 185 business leaders from 87 commercial organisations are in co-learning and co-action ‘Partnerships for Possibility’ with school principals in 185 schools across South Africa. School principals and business leaders are each bringing something to the process: Principals bring their general knowledge and experience of the education system and process and specific knowledge about their school, learners and the broader community. Business leaders bring their knowledge and experience of leading and managing change and developing high performance organisations. 

They start working together in a structured and facilitated process to create readiness for change at the school. After a year they are ready to take the next steps: a co-created vision statement for the school and a willingness to confront the brutal facts. We are ultimately looking for improved education and improved academic outcomes but we know from experience in the corporate world during the last few decades that this takes time!  Having said this, we are starting to see dramatically improved academic results in some of the schools that got involved three years ago and we are watching the other schools with much anticipation.  

Over the last four years of working with principals and business leaders we have identified the key foundational factors for change in our schools: Confident and energized leaders, aligned and cohesive school management teams, energized and committed teachers and engaged and supportive parents.

The beauty of the process is that it dissolves the boundary between business and education and creates opportunity for business leaders and educators to be in a deeply reciprocal partnership where they continuously learn from each other. It is a uniquely South African (and award-winning) innovation in the fields of Leadership Development, Corporate Social Investment and Educational Reform. It is an example of a Shared Value initiative and underpinned by a solid theory base (informed by Complexity Science, Conscious Capitalism, Asset Based Community Development,  Large scale complex social system change, Organisational Development and Leadership Development).  

There is world-wide acknowledgement that we need a new and different way to develop leadership. The traditional methods used in business schools have not developed conscious leaders that the world needs (see for more information about the global search for new approaches to develop Globally Responsible leaders).  Partners for Possibility is accredited with the University of the Western Cape as a NQF-level 6 accredited leadership development programme and may just be South Africa’s contribution to this work.

What we now need is for South Africa’s business leaders to see the opportunity that awaits them, to commit to leading outside their comfort zone and to say Yes! The possibilities are endless. 

Learn more about Partners for Possibility at