Do you recognise this scenario?

A group of committed and motivated people get together over a period of time. They complete a gap analysis and goal setting activities to decide on some priority areas and then develop a comprehensive plan with the requisite performance indicators, resources, responsibilities and timeline columns. There’s a big launch and everything is exciting for a few months before normal work expectations start to crowd out the new priorities. There’s talk of being overstretched and out of the loop and new, unexpected and urgent actions start being requested. It seems that the priorities are just reinforcing things that were being done anyway. By the time the cycle comes to an end, no one really remembers what all the fuss was about.

You’ll not be alone if some if this rings true. It was certainly something I experienced as a principal. It’s not because there wasn’t a great deal of good will going in. And it’s not because the plan wasn’t essential.

Sadly, most plans don’t achieve what we set out to achieve with them and therefore do waste a lot of our time. 

As usual, when you are in the forest it is hard to see the trees. And it was only after I had gone through many cycles in schools and outside of education that I could see what was going awry.

There are many lists published of things that go wrong with plans, but I think you can narrow it down to two areas.
1. Lack of engagement because of poor buy-in, minimal accountability or limited oversight, and
2. Disappointing outcomes because of dissipated motivation, inefficient resource allocation or ineffective strategies.

So no more planning? Of course not. I just think we have to stop planning the old way. This is not just about schools. Strategic planning has been done badly in lots of places.

I do think that schools have a better chance than most organizations of creating successful plans if they can let go of some old thinking which was originally taken from business literature. 

Firstly let’s deal with how schools operate. They thrive on organic communication. They work best when there is a narrative that defines them and the people within them. So we need to structure our strategic planning to take advantage of that.

Secondly, schools are inherently team-based. This means that everyone has a slightly different responsibility to a single shared goal. So we need to allocate accountability and activity that meshes with the responsibility.

And thirdly, we need to do what really matters and make it really count. Schools do know what really matters, but have had real problems in seeing whether their actions have really been effective. Getting the right information on the achievements is the key.

So, what should you do when creating a strategic direction for the school? What I learned by the tried and true method of making mistakes, was this;
1. Get the right people together. There are lots of people who should be involved and plenty who want to be involved. They may not be the same people.
2. Find the elephant in the room. It is easy to set a priority to do something easy and manageable. Look behind the obvious and find what is really critical to the success of the school and you’ll have a more worthy plan and better chance of successfully engaging everyone.
3. Set a Direction and a Plan. Be clear about your strategic direction and tell the story about this so everyone knows what and why. Then do a strategic plan. One is an engaging narrative and the other is plan. They’re not the same.
4. Plan for people. Make your plan concise and relevant and flexible. Put it in the hands of those who implement and tie it to accountability processes. Keep hold of the story and tell it yourself, often and everywhere.
5. Know what you need to know. Make sure your celebration of achievements is based on real information. If you don’t already collect what is important, find a way to do it. If you don’t already widely share what is important, start now. (yesterday is better)

There is a lot to be gained by the head of school in being the holder of the process. Equally, there is a lot to be gained by being freed up to focus on other critical aspects. The context of the school (size, expertise, resources, ownership, transiency) will play a big part in determining the best deployment of the head and others. Context will also determine the best planning/reporting cycle to apply, and the best forms of communication.

Some schools may be well served by taking on a formal structure. However, I think school administrators should think carefully before rolling out a traditional strategic planning format. There have been too many times that a well-documented strategic plan has been the major (or only) outcome of a traditional process and too few times that a school has become a significantly better place as a result of all that thinking and energy. Aren’t we are too busy in schools to waste our time on something that doesn’t make a difference?

If you’d like to know more about how we would approach strategic direction setting and planning in your school, download the brochure here, or start a conversation here.

As a Director and Principal most recently in Beijing and Laos, Greg Smith understands the challenges of leading change in schools. He founded Schrole Group with business partner, Rob Graham, and now offers innovative tools and processes for the challenges facing international schools. If you would like to know more about setting strategic directions and NOT wasting time in planning, he’d be happy to talk with you.