The Strategic Planning Conundrum
Updated: Mar 2
At some point in every independent school strategic planning process, someone will wonder if the plan is "strategic enough" or "too operational." These are important questions that appear as the subject of a whole subset of leadership literature, almost all of it affirming that most strategic plans are, at best, embellishments of the status quo, at worst, vast lists of operational tweaks too mind-numbing to track beyond the first months of the implementation phase.
I'd like to consider here a critical difference in strategic planning for schools that makes this question of what amounts to strategy more complicated than it might be in other enterprises. First, education is by its nature a little "c" conservative activity. It is Janus-faced, looking backward to gather and curate what we've come to know about the world and the human condition in order to bequeath it to our children to help them embrace the future. Second, schooling, especially that of young children, relies on stability and routine, because this is the environment in which children learn best. If we had any doubts about that, the pandemic cured us of them. And finally, educators are doing high stakes work. The future of mankind rests on it.
The world of work and home once looked more like school, but now school feels like an anachronism. Entire industries are openly disdainful of the value of looking backwards; only the future matters. Shouldn't school also "move fast and break things?" Wouldn't a truly strategic plan for a school be full of "disruption?" I'm convinced that the accelerating pace of change in other industries has inspired schools to take a clear-eyed look at practices propped up by tradition (too often, nostalgia) and institutional inertia and replace them with meaningful innovation.
Nevertheless, in their strategic planning schools should remind themselves of the difficulty of standing out in an enterprise that thrives on stability and some unifying existential principles. So what do strategic efforts in a school look like? Lately, I've been pleased to see faculty at the center of many strategic plans: recruitment, professional growth, compensation and benefits, diversity, wellness. We're growing out of a long era of school teachers who saw the work as a vocation, and schools need to think creatively about how they will ensure they have excellent teachers to bring their programs to life and to build new programs. There is plenty of strategic work to be done here, and although none of it will represent a shiny new thing, it will guide the school in growing its most important asset in a season when there is a shortage of teachers. Guarding independence is another strategic effort I've seen arise in plans this year. As several states attempt to intrude on school curricula, library collections, faculty speech, some independent schools are planning to bolster support for lobbying efforts, grow resources so that accepting vouchers doesn't become a financial lifeline they couldn't refuse, and unwind any relationships that might open the door to government intrusion. None of these items will swing the needle into the red on the sexiness meter, but I would argue that they are absolutely strategic.
Yes, independent schools need to find differentiators, but they first need to get the essentials right: academic excellence, outstanding faculty, positive school culture, strong outcomes. Regardless of school, these attributes are invariably at the top when we ask parents what made them choose it. In fact, school leaders are often dismayed to find the sizzle items from the last strategic plan near the bottom of that list--STEM initiative, new arts center, J-term, wellness plan, etc. We don't think schools should stop driving toward innovation, but we do try to help school leaders understand that if "flying car" thinking overtakes the strategic planning process, they'll miss the opportunity to examine closely the elements that have the largest influence on the value proposition.