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Strategic Planning to Strategic Thinking: The Long-Ranger Rides No More

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Once there were several cyclical events in the independent school world that tended, at least for a time, to get everyone's attention in a school. Committees met urgently at odd times, administrators were even more harried than usual, and staff to-do lists lengthened ominously. There'd be a flurry of work, writing, and sometimes visitors--and then it was over, and life returned to normal.

One of these was and still is accreditation, a process that is nowadays thankfully becoming less burdensome in some of its recording requirements and (thanks to some good direction on the part of accrediting bodies) a good deal more thought-provoking in its lines of inquiry. At least decennially, thoughtful schools can use the process as a time for both reflection and forward thinking, and a good visiting committee can be truly useful as a sounding board and mirror.

The other process, in some cases the more dreaded because it tended to be more frequent, was what used to be called long-range planning. Back in olden times, when we pretended that the years stretched before us unchanging, a school's long-range plan was a grand, often grandiose, document, sometimes accompanied by a superbly detailed action plan, that laid out five or even more years of a school's future: build some things, enroll some more students, raise some more money.

Endless in the vast committee work that generated it and often virtually unreadable, the Long-Range Plan, beautifully printed and bound at some expense, was then carefully laid to rest, joining its forebears, undisturbed, in an institutional time capsule. And the years stretched out afterward as they actually do, filled with surprises and the need to act in the moment.

Long about the end of the last century many schools, perhaps encouraged by consultants blazing many new trails in that era, realized that long-range planning was neither very interesting nor very effective. As business gurus' ideas seeped into academic thinking, it became clear that what was needed was not long-range planning but rather strategic planning. The shift was decidedly toward action based on intention and principle--toward the development of strategies that could help schools achieve specific goals congruent with their expressed missions and aspirations. No longer, for example, were schools just going to build some stuff, but they were going to build stuff that fit in with a larger conception of the school's aims and purposes.

Two bless├Ęd trends have accompanied the shift toward strategic planning. One is the discovery that such plans, well made, can actually be useful, and therefore they need not simply become part of the time capsule; accompanied by thoughtful action plans rather than simply elegant ones, strategic plans can be helpful guiding frameworks and even bastions against (or at least filters for) the impulses of the moment.

The other is the shortening of the horizon over which the plan must, in the fullness of time, pass. Even if we once deluded ourselves that we could accurately extract five years of prescience from a crystal ball, we certainly understand now that we can't. Typically these days, a sharp and actionable strategic plan runs to three years, laying out principles and aims in more or less equal measure; work toward specific steps can be laid out with some confidence on an annual basis (or less), or the goals can even be designated, at the action level, by year. Overarching aims--build stuff, add kids, raise money--can still be present, indeed front and center, but now connected to goals specifying what will happen in the new buildings and what those new students will experience.

It's also been my experience that shorter plan horizons dramatically increase the chances that the work will be done, attentively and effectively. A goal set for a couple of years away means work starting, like, now--with much less likelihood that some distraction will derail the plan altogether.

Lately the word "planning" has been disappearing from the strategic lexicon, replaced by "thinking." It sounds like nothing more than semantics, but looking at the process as thinking puts a new emphasis on the deep connection between reflective consideration of the school's critical strategic needs and equally thoughtful development of the steps needed to meet those needs. The process results are still a roadmap, but rather than just a set of route directions, strategic thinking involves something like augmented reality, with pauses to truly envision the results of the work and perhaps see new implications.

Incidentally, I have now lived twice through the whole business done exceptionally well and swiftly, using a procedure that starts with some very smart steering work and facilitation. An excellent briefing book, one long evening with a big, inclusive group followed a bit later by a full day of the same, and we had bones enough to wordsmith a rather nice set of priorities that has moved our school along in some very strategic directions, indeed. The efficiency and inclusivity of this process made me want hours and hours of committee time back from my previous experiences in "long-range planning."

All of this circles back to something I wrote about the other day in response to the notion that independent schools are doomed. If any schools really are doomed, it may be because neglect of strategic thinking--honest, hard, and timely reflective consideration of the school's needs in its actual context--has left them vulnerable. I still occasionally have to cringe when I am told by someone that their school is embarking upon a long-range planning process, and I quietly hope that they mean strategic thinking for three years rather than a tedious piling up of vast goals for five or ten years out.

Above all, strategic thinking focuses the attention of stakeholders on possibilities: of what the school can be and of what will make it better--a more exciting place to be and a better experience for its students. I, for one, look forward to the process; we've come a long way.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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