A Case for Strategic Planning (by whatever name)

The flight crew of a commercial airliner would dare not head out across the Atlantic Ocean without a flight plan.  To have a plan that defines the current location, desired destination, speed to travel, and altitude to fly is paramount to a successful navigation.  This does not mean that the originally planned arrival time will not change if encountering stronger than anticipated headwinds.  When blown off course by cross winds, it will not change the original destination but rather requires a recalibration.  Clearly, for the flight crew, a “plan” is not a stagnant or useless document but rather an agreed upon understanding of intent that guides their activities until arriving at their destination. Thus, strategic planning remains a valuable and important tool.

In their book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss the concept of commander’s intent.  They tell of a battle planning approach embraced by the US Army.  Colonel Tom Kolditz is quoted as saying that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  The essence of this concept is that prior to engaging in a battle, the commander outlines the ultimate intent of the battle — intent such as what hill is to be taken.  Military commanders understand that it is impossible to design a plan that requires no adlib or the need to think strategically and futuristically. But it is important to envision the outcome even if the path to its achievement varies from the original plan.

In the independent school world, the primary criticism garnered against strategic planning is based on the reality that many schools have undergone a planning process only to compose a document that is either shelved and never looked at again, or is so rigid that it is rendered useless.  A school that develops a plan to grow enrollment, for instance, will likely need to recalibrate the plan when the largest employer in town decides to relocate.  This does not mean that the planning process was useless but rather that the plan must remain a living process.  Indeed, a school’s strategic planning is only a worthwhile endeavor if the community remains focused on a destination while remaining pliable enough to adjust when circumstances dictate.

Strategic planning occurs under several names for schools – sometimes called strategic process, school improvement, continuous improvement, and school renewal.  By whatever name, a school must have a plan in place that allows it to continue to improve.  The board and stakeholders must define a desired destination, time line for accomplishment, cost for funding, and a means to collect and analyze data to know whether it is necessary to recalibrate the original plan.  Obviously, schools – like the flight crew — might encounter catastrophic or even fortuitous events that completely alter that plan, but must be prepared to ‘land safely.’

A school without a plan is a school without a clear direction.  School boards and leadership must be strategic and futuristic in their thinking, while at the same time staying focused on the day-to-day actions that are necessary for reaching the destination.  Strategic plans must be dynamic, designed to be referenced and adjusted regularly.  Strategic plans must be mission based and accompanied by a financial plan.  Strategic plans must involve a process focused on school improvement. Though such plans are sometimes begun to satisfy accreditation requirements, in the end, they are not meant to outline the school’s short flight, but rather to serve as the map for the school’s long and safe journey.

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