Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Strategic Thinking and Planning

After serving as a school and district consultant in the U.S. and internationally for strategic planning, I've had opportunity to experience what makes strategic planning work and fail. One of my Superintendent friends adamantly believes strategic planning is a waste of time, and I think many of his arguments are valid.

I am guided, however, by the wisdom of baseball's Yogi Berra who once said: "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."

Let's start with why strategic planning fails. From my research and experience, here are the top 10 reasons why strategic planning fails (in no particular prioritized order because any one of them can take you out):
  1. Lack of a compelling vision or direction
  2. Lack of stakeholder involvement and/or understanding of the why, how, and what of the plan
  3. Lack of a "focused strategic plan" with clear targets
  4. Lack of leadership (including distributed leadership) and accountability
  5. Lack of resources to implement the plan (e.g., people, time, supplies/equipment, training)
  6. Lack of ongoing PLC/teams development in implementing the plan with reasonable timelines
  7. Lack of organizational stability
  8. Lack of flexibility to monitor and adjust
  9. Lack of understanding for context and culture
  10. Lack of organizational learning on how to implement successful change
So what are potential entry points for effective strategic planning?

Learning to Think Strategically

Before a school can pursue effective strategic planning, it needs to develop understanding and skill in how to think strategically. Many ideas that come forward as strategic are actually tactical or "thin solutions," and not leveraged and robust opportunities.

Creating a Culture of Strategic Thinking

A school or district needs to look at how it will "create a culture of strategic thinking." Not only does this culture piece translate well for organizational needs and issues, but strategic thinking also translates well for teachers and students in classrooms. When everyone is focused on how to most elegantly leverage learning, hearts and minds race with possibilities.

For strategic thinking to accelerate, look at what promotes strategic thinking and what hinders strategic thinking. Find ways to accentuate the boosters and find ways to reduce the barriers. Everyone needs to pursue this within their own sphere of influence, and also wisely advocate for how strategic thinking can be further enhanced across the sacred domains and silos of a school and district.

Don't focus on answers. Focus on questions. What is the school we want to create for our kids? What would this look like, sound like, feel like? How would this be different from what we have now? Why do we think this might be better? What might be some good first steps? What might be our biggest challenges and opportunities? In short, begin to tap into the innate interests of educators to create a better future for kids. Dare to dream big.

Building Capacity for Strategic Thinking

Here are some other ways to build capacity for thinking strategically:
  1. Create opportunities for long range visioning throughout the school
  2. Support conscious and intentional culture shifts -- find ways to honor and respect the past, build enthusiasm for a desirable future, and continue to shine the light on what is going well in the transition between the past and the future
  3. Build collaborative and distributed leadership engaged in regular focused strategic thinking
  4. Establish structures that support a learning organization -- research and development, Professional Learning Communities, connected learning networks, environments within the school that naturally and comfortably support conversations and brief or extended interactions
  5. Pursue backward design -- develop graduate profiles, and plan backwards from high school to elementary on how to coherently support success for the realization of the graduate profile
  6. Use school accreditation for deep and honest review, reflection, and renewal
  7. Encourage innovations throughout the school that address strategic objectives
  8. Think 21st century -- environmental scans, scenario planning, 21st century learning standards, connect with "like-minded" people and places throughout the world so as to mobilize and energize the school 
  9. Create visual models for people to discuss the vision and future directions, so as to build understanding for the "big picture" and to reduce confusion and a sense of fragmentation
  10. Empower people and students as strategic thinkers, and celebrate both successes and failures
Strategic Planning

The Schooling by Design model created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins is a complementary strategic planning model to the Understanding by Design model that is frequently used by classroom teachers in the development of units of learning. Both of these models are also complementary to the model used by Professional Learning Communities: 1) What do we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?, 2) How will we know when students are learning it?, 3) What will we do to optimize learning for all students (those who already get it, those in the middle, and those who struggle)?

It is helpful to have a strategic planning model that mirrors the design of curriculum units and the work of teams of teachers. These complementary models become known as how the school thinks and takes action. The main caution I have about this is when plans become overly complex and detailed, and then lose sight that life and learning happen. Therefore these need to be boldly and simply designed to communicate purposefully and also to be appropriately flexible in the process.

I remember organizational developer Marilyn Ferguson repeatedly saying: "The map is not the territory." It is important for everyone to know that plans need to be understood, appropriately supported, implemented, reviewed, revised, and sometimes abandoned.

The Apollo 11 moon flight was off a straight course more than 90% of the time, but its destination was clear. Continual monitoring and adjusting allowed the mission to arrive at its desired destination. A clear vision and direction with flexibility is the key.

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