How Dixons Academies Trust took tips from Silicon Valley on structuring their MAT

Arbor - 13 December, 2018

Category : Blog

How Dixons Academies Trust took tips from Silicon Valley on structuring their MAT

At our MAT CEO conference on 5th December, Luke Sparkes, Executive Principal of Dixons Academies Trust, gave a thought-provoking presentation that challenged traditional thinking about the structure of MATs. He spoke about how DAT has looked to looked to entertainment giants Spotify and Netflix to develop a model that moves away from a “no-interference” approach to

At our MAT CEO conference on 5th December, Luke Sparkes, Executive Principal of Dixons Academies Trust, gave a thought-provoking presentation that challenged traditional thinking about the structure of MATs. He spoke about how DAT has looked to looked to entertainment giants Spotify and Netflix to develop a model that moves away from a “no-interference” approach to its high-performing schools. We’ve transcribed his presentation below!


Leading through aligned autonomy: Introduction

I’ve been asked to share our thinking on the concept of ‘aligned autonomy’ – the optimal balance between consistency and self-determination that can empower agility.

I must start by stressing that aligned autonomy is a process, not a destination, and, as a Trust, we are very much at the start of the process.  This is only the second time we have talked about our ideas externally; we aren’t sure how they will be received, but we hope to disrupt thinking.  

Core principles

At Dixons we have 6 core principles:

    • Values Driven
    • High Expectations
    • Choice and Commitment
    • Highly Professional Staff
    • Relentless Focus on Learning
    • Empowered to Lead

The most important is that we are values-driven.  Every decision we make, every conversation we have, every lesson we plan is absolutely rooted in our values.  

In the last 12 months, we have started to organise our Trust around the concept of aligned autonomy.

A different MAT model

As a growing Trust, we are constantly grappling with our organisational development. The received wisdom from other Trusts includes:

  • School improvement driven by central capacity
  • A model that is clearly defined
  • Around 80% Trust standardisation and 20% open to local innovation
  • Leadership focused on command and control
  • Deployment as directed

At Dixons, our model had developed differently. In particular, as Principals, we’d grown used to having a lot of autonomy.  As a Trust, we talked about the concept of earned autonomy – if a school is performing strongly it should have freedom and the Trust shouldn’t interfere.

However, we started to realise that we were storing up problems for the future, because the Trust had almost become a holding body for a series of largely autonomous units.  

Of course, the strengths and identity of academies should be respected, but the whole point of a Trust is to enable schools to ever more deeply engage with, learn from and support each other. We knew we’d reached a point in our growth that we had to think and act differently.  We needed to develop a different Trust model.

I think Dixons has always had a reputation for being fairly cutting-edge (in some circles) and has learnt quite a bit from industry over the years (not least from Dixons electricals in the early years). When shaping our new model, we looked at how leading organisations across the world (in a range of industries) are managing their growth.  A series of slides from a Netflix presentation – which has described as Silicon Valley’s most important document – really resonated with us:

According to Netflix:

  • Most companies curtail freedom as they get bigger
  • So, why do most companies curtail freedom and become bureaucratic as they grow?
  • The desire for bigger positive impact creates growth
  • But, growth increases complexity
  • And growth also often shrinks talent density
  • As a result, chaos emerges – the business has become too complex to run informally with this talent level
  • Then, process emerges to stop the chaos – no one loves process, but feels good compared to pain of chaos.  “Time to grow up” becomes the mantra
  • But, process-focus drives more talent out

Process brings seductively strong near-term outcomes – a highly successful company or Trust:

  • Leading share in its market
  • Minimal thinking; few mistakes; very efficient; few mavericks; optimised
  • Efficiency trumps flexibility

But then the market shifts, due to technology or competitors; or, in a MAT’s case, due to curriculum or accountability changes. The organisation is unable to adapt quickly and can grind into irrelevance.

And so it seems like there are 3 bad options:

  • Stay creative by staying small, but therefore have less impact
  • Avoid rules as you grow, and suffer chaos
  • Use process as you grow to drive efficient execution of current model, but cripple creativity, flexibility, and ability to thrive when things change

But, there is a fourth option.

We believe that the agile organisation is dawning as the new dominant organisation paradigm. Organisations will no longer be ‘machines’ with top-down hierarchy, but ‘organisms’ with agile leadership.

Dixons Structure

Freedom from hierarchy doesn’t exist anywhere in nature (not least in schools), but no one would argue that all hierarchies are good. With that in mind, we’re trying to design our flatter, less hierarchical organisation as a distributed, interdependent, continually evolving system.

Leadership shows direction and enables action, but “boxes and lines” are less important. An agile organisational culture puts people at the centre, which engages and empowers everyone in the organisation. They can then create value quickly, collaboratively and effectively. Leadership in agile organisations serves the people in the organisation, empowering and developing them. They create space for teams to discover new opportunities and effectively respond to change.

Agile way of working

Agile is not a methodology; it’s a way of behaving, it’s a culture, a mindset. Autonomy of agile teams is a must but it’s not sufficient, as teams also need alignment. This grid is a useful way to explain the relationship between autonomy and alignment:

At one end of the spectrum you have low autonomy and low alignment. This results in a micromanaging organisation and an indifferent culture – there is no higher level purpose, and schools are told to “shut up and follow orders”.

On the other hand, there’s low autonomy and high alignment. This creates an authoritative organisation and a conformist culture, where employees are told which problems need to be solved, but also how to solve them. Arguably, a number of Trusts are taking this approach, but, as those companies are finding, we believe this approach will stifle innovation and drive talent out.

High autonomy and low alignment can result in an entrepreneurial organisation, but leads to a chaotic culture.

The Dixons Story

As a Trust, we were heading towards chaos.  We were starting to see divisions – rather than working for Dixons, staff increasingly talked about working for City, Kings, Trinity or Marchbank. We were autonomous, but starting to sub-optimise, with each school only working for its own success and keeping things to themselves. As a relatively small Trust with some exceptional Principals (who were quick to respond to curriculum changes), we were securing great educational outcomes, but there was confusion, we had limited turnaround support and our central systems were inefficient (some still are).

We realised that to scale agile, we must continue to enable autonomy for our teams, but ensure alignment with the organisation.

Why Aligned (at Dixons)

  • We share the same mission
  • All staff should benefit from our best
  • We all benefit from the brand
  • Staff can be more easily deployed
  • Central services become simpler and more efficient
  • Growth can be better managed
  • No divisions; we don’t sub-optimise

Why Autonomy (at Dixons)

  • Personal accountability is founded on ownership and self-direction
  • If there is no variation, there will be no opportunity for us to learn from different practices
  • Conformity kills innovation
  • Standardisation fails to respond to changing needs
  • Micromanagement breeds indifference
  • Autonomy is the foundation of our success so far

Aligned autonomy will deliver a more agile and less hierarchical organisation:

  • Respect at every level
  • Rules focused on clarity rather than control
  • Needed roles that make sense
  • Pushing power down

Strong backbone vertebrae

A core element of an agile organisation is a fixed and stable backbone that evolves slowly. In order to minimise workload and maximise impact, elements of the backbone must be as efficient and spare as possible. This also allows room for further elaboration and development in response to a leader’s own drivers and context.

Again, I must stress that aligned autonomy is a process, not a destination. A component of the backbone one year may be dropped in another because it outlives its usefulness, or because it is a time for further innovation and testing.

For each element, we have started to create clarity by stating which aspects are aligned across the organisation and which aspects teams have autonomy over:

And so, this fourth option, this new MAT model, is focused on avoiding chaos as you grow with ever more high performaning people – not with rules.

The key to this is to increase talent density faster than complexity grows. And with the right people, instead of a culture of process adherence, you can cultivate a culture of creativity and self-discipline, freedom and responsibility. Leadership is about context, not control. Agility means building a structure that allows people to react in real time. In our current age of urgency, we have to take the principles behind agile and use them a little differently. Let’s call them the three “insteads”:

  • Instead of making a decision when you have 90% of the information, make it when you have 70%
  • Instead of imposing decisions from top down, encourage real-time decisions across the organisation decoupled from title or rank
  • Instead of relying on charismatic leaders who get results by force, recognise that leadership can come from anyone, and is earned not appointed

Scaling agile at Dixons

The following models help to show how we have started to scale agile at Dixons:

Each academy (or what agile organisations in industry would describe as a tribe) is made up of squads or departments that are built around end-to-end accountability and share the same long term mission. The Principal is the Academy Lead and is responsible for setting the context and providing the right environment.  The Principal is supported by an EP who acts as an Agile Coach. Together they provide leadership that shows direction and enables action. Senior and middle leadership groups (described as chapters in industry) promote collaboration and cross pollination of ideas across departments.  They are also responsible for developing people.

Finally, we have started to develop cross-cutting teams that act like guilds. These are groups of people from across the organisation who want to share knowledge and practices, innovate and develop new ideas (in all areas – curriculum, support, and operations). Each cross-cutting team has a coordinator and teams can form, dissolve and reform as resources shift and priorities change.  They can also be used to secure alignment. A people-first organisation relies on true work of small, cross cutting teams:

Scaling agile in this way through squads, chapters and guilds will help us to create a talent-driven organisation. At Dixons, we believe talent is king. Talent, even more than strategy, is what creates value. Hierarchy can isolate and bury talent. Flattening the organisation and pushing power down will stimulate personal growth and create speed. Leading a talent-first organisation requires agility. It requires enough ego to be comfortable with making the hardest decisions and enough humility to defer to the brilliance of other people.

It means living with the idea that the talent will determine the direction and strategy of the organisation.

These are the 3 critical moves to unleash talent:

1. Most vital people must be in roles where they can create significant value

2. They must be free from bureaucratic structure

3. They must be afforded the training and opportunities to expand their skills


We believe that the agile organisation is dawning as the new dominant organisational paradigm. Agile groups can thrive in an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment.  They are both stable and dynamic. They focus on customers (or in our case, students), fluidly adapt to environmental changes, and are open, inclusive, and less hierarchical; they evolve continually and embrace uncertainty. An agile organisational culture puts people at the centre. And all of this is only possible through high autonomy – that is a must – but also high alignment. We must continue to enable autonomy for our teams, but ensure alignment with the organisation.