The Strategic Decision: Choosing a Planning Process that Fits the School's History and Culture

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The Strategic Decision: Choosing a Planning Process that Fits the School's History and Culture

  1. The Responsibility of the Board of Trustees: Mission and Strategic Thinking

    The word “trustee” conveys the responsibility of boards of independent schools to hold the mission of the school “in trust” and to plan for the long-term preservation of that fundamental mission. Setting, modifying and agreeing upon a powerful mission ARE the jobs of the board. The mission should be rooted in history, implemented in fact, and relevant to the future. It should motivate and empower the board to act on strategic matters not micro manage operational ones. The focus should not be on what one wants as a parent for one’s own children but on ensuring that the school will serve future children.

    Strategic planning is one way to carry out mission but the process is never without risk to the body politic of the school community, to the board and to the head of school.

    BEFORE entering into this critical process, many schools make a major mistake. They fail to consider the INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL culture and political tone of their school. This can be the difference between developing a successful plan that lends new energy and direction to the school, versus one that results in the dilution of mission and a loss of forward momentum. In the worst case, there is the risk of damaging school culture and stirring up a hornet’s nest of constituent opposition and intrusion into board policy and school management.

    Having successfully guided many schools worldwide in the strategic planning process, Littleford & Associates believes that the crucial, first step is to select the appropriate approach tailored to your school’s internal AND external dynamics. This assumes however, that there is also general agreement on the School’s mission among the key constituencies in the school community. Without that consensus, the entire process may become stalled at the starting gate.

    Our firm recommends EITHER a broad-based “democratic” model or a more “focused” approach. Both are highly effective and can deliver the desired outcome. There is also a middle ground process: a “hybrid” approach which a majority of schools seem to be using today. The differences among these three relate to the number and type of constituents involved and how their input is managed.

  2. The “Democratic” or “Broad Brush” Approach

    Historically, most schools used the “broad based” process in order to appear inclusive, but failed to consider first the political tone of the school community and how the involvement of various parties potentially might play out. The broad based approach involves board members, administration, faculty, alumni, parents and students. Members of these groups serve on a steering committee. This process involves:

    1. Interviews with a cross-section of people from all of these groups using focus groups and/or a survey.
    2. Those interviewed who are also on the steering committee participate in a workshop that effectively lays the groundwork for the initial strategic planning work. That work may take about three months and use a committee of 15-35 people drawn from all the constituencies and divided into subcommittees.
    3. The process comes to a close by screening the subcommittee reports.
    4. There may be a wrap-up workshop at the end of the planning period about three months later. Or, the first workshop can be a day long, intensive one which brings closure to most of the process.
    5. The last step is writing a final document for dissemination. The advantage of this approach is a greater sense of consensus building from a broad base of constituent opinion. It is the oldest one used in independent schools because the underlying assumption is that by involving more people, a stronger mandate for change with a greater chance of “buy-in” will result.

    The “democratic” process can involve multiple voices in refining and updating the school’s mission in a positive way. It can build support for raising money for buildings and/or endowment perhaps in the form of more leadership gifts. The approach works best in stable schools with mid to longer term heads in office.

    It is NOT, however, recommended for a school in which any of the following exist in its climate and culture: serious tension between the faculty and/or the board and administration; friction between the parent body and the school or board; and during the head of school’s first two or three years on the job.

    What can, and often does result from using this “wide-net” approach in schools with the above dynamics? During the planning process, any of the groups represented may come armed with their own narrow agendas, and if their expectations are not met, they may use the process as the basis for further actions or mobilization to achieve their objectives. The climate of the school may become even more politically charged. One of the original goals of the process, consensus building, breaks down. The school may lose sight of that important beacon, its fundamental mission.

    When the decision makers are steering committee members, not all of whom or maybe not even a majority of whom are trustees, there may be a tendency to stray towards micromanagement. This is a risk of involving in planning those who are not trained in trusteeship and the school’s mission. The experience and skills of a facilitator are key here in keeping such a diverse and large group on track.

    It is seldom a good idea to initiate a planning process in a head’s first or second year although that is often one of the first “charges” that a board gives a new head. A better idea is to give a new head an “entry plan” rather than expect him or her to carry out or be immediately a part of a strategic plan.

    In one well-known school, with a new head barely two years into the job, a broad based strategic planning process was undertaken recently. Faculty members upset by the decisions of the new head, and missing some of the power and privileges they enjoyed under a previous long-term head, used the planning process to undermine her with parents. She became isolated and unable to build the crucial political capital with key members of the school community. Only the determination and support of her chair and the decision to conduct a workshop on board governance prevented the board from yielding to faculty and parental pressures and terminating the head.

  3. The Focused Approach

    This is the recommended approach for any school with a moderately healthy or somewhat troubled school climate or a relatively new school head. It solicits input from all key constituencies without involving them directly in the decision making process. It avoids the risk of fueling underlying political tensions that threaten consensus building and the stability of the school.

    This approach involves more leadership and direction from the head and the board. The facilitator conducts confidential interviews with the head, key administrators and every trustee during the first two, three or four days of an on-site visit. He or she leads focus groups for each of the following: students, parents, alumni and faculty, all selected randomly. In this setting, all groups have the opportunity to express their views. Other focus groups may include community leaders and heads of area receiving or sending schools.

    On the last day, having established an important connection with all of the key players through the interview and focus group process, the facilitator conducts a workshop for the board,management team and head ONLY. The workshop:

    1. Outlines the strategic initiatives supported by the trustees and head; any areas of disagreement; and challenges and opportunities facing the school.
    2. Provides feedback on the views of the focus groups; and highlights agreement and conflict between those views and the vision, direction and strategic initiatives preferred by the head and board.
    3. Addresses any issues of board governance or structure that may have surfaced.
    4. Gains agreement on the rank order priority of five to nine strategic initiatives, the timetable for each task and preliminary estimates of the budget required to accomplish each.
    5. Initiates a discussion of action plans that may need o be adopted in order to carry out each initiative.
    6. Leads to the formation of small committees that may meet once or twice over the three months to finalize four to six action plans for each strategic priority. These are led by board members, include key administrators and may also include a few teachers, parents, and alumni.
    7. Documents the resulting agreement which may or may be sent out in some form to the school’s constituents.

    One school which used this approach was still in the transition phase of leadership. Outwardly, everything seemed relatively calm and smooth for this five year head whose predecessor had been there 23 years. However, there were many issues in this boarding school that were bubbling just below the surface, including maintaining the balance of boarding versus day population, preserving athletic traditions, and the raising the quality of teaching in the classroom. The former head had arranged special deals with certain teachers and often teachers who were not the better performers in the classroom.

    The Head and Board Chair initiated a “focused” strategic planning process and interviewed all members of the Board plus groups of parents, students, faculty, alumni, board and administration. Some solutions to enrollment concerns became apparent, and some interesting pricing and recruiting strategies emerged which could ameliorate the feared loss of the essence of boarding life.

    However, mixed in with this good news were clear indications of a faculty revolt brewing and aimed at some of the new head’s personnel and curriculum changes.

    The particular “focused approach” allowed the issues to be addressed thoughtfully, firmly and yet sensitively. The process moved forward with caution as opposed to a more explosive outcome which could have resulted from a too large or “public” aspect to the strategic planning effort. Faculty concerns, especially about accountability, were addressed appropriately.

    Focus groups can be chosen in a way so as to represent a “random” selection and represent a fair balance of opinion. This consultant prefers face to face focus groups or interviews as opposed to surveys to gather opinions and feedback. The confidentiality of information from surveys, even on line surveys, can never be totally be assured, and the activity can also encourage excessive unproductive “venting.” In one client school, some trustees got carried away with on online tool that resulted in thirty pages of feedback some of which was unnecessary and even hurtful.

  4. The Hybrid Approach

    This concept uses the core elements of the “focused” approach outlined above BUT includes a small sampling of parents, alumni and perhaps a student or two in the actual strategic planning workshop. Board members, the head and the management team still comprise the majority in the workshop.

    This approach tends to convey a sense of greater participation and “voice” of constituents, who are also heard in the focus groups that precede the workshop. HOWEVER, it provides an element of guided conversation that is conveyed by a board, as the constituency trained and experienced in establishing policy for the school. The workshop should be structured in a way that the board members are always the substantial majority present.

    A school which had been recently founded by two dynamic and generous entrepreneurs was already thriving after just a few years. A great deal of money, time and energy had been committed by the founding families. The rest of the Board had taken a backseat to the leadership of the donor families. In this particular school, it was important NOT to use a broad brush democratic approach because the Board and founding family were not yet ready to put their “baby” at risk from challenges by newly enfranchised independent school parents.

    The full Board was insufficiently engaged and still developing into a true functioning entity. The “hybrid” approach was used to engage parents, teachers, and students but in a workshop context where the majority of those present were board and administration. It was made clear that the policy decisions remained in the realm of the Board. There were five discussion groups formed from a mix of constituents at the workshop. All participants applauded the results.

  5. The “Corporate” Model

    It is important to keep in mind that whichever approach is chosen, a purely corporate model rarely adapts to the independent school culture.

    In another school, a new Head was hired shortly after a Board invested significant time and money in developing a long range strategic plan. The Plan followed an elaborate corporate model that key Board members embraced. The Head understood when he accepted the job that he would be expected to adopt it and “live” it, including regularly monitoring the progress of the school relative to plan through the use of extensive “dashboard indicators.”

    However, in his first year, it became apparent that the staff was growing increasingly disgruntled. The Plan included accountability measures. Accountability of performance inside and outside of the classroom was not part of the culture under the previous head.

    Parents began picking up on the faculty’s unhappiness through conversations with teachers and their children. The Head began to feel a lack of support from both faculty and parents. The Board remained very firm in its expectations that the head be responsible for carrying out the plan. They periodically reminded him that this was his charge when he was hired.

    An “entry plan” would have been a better way for this new head to develop political capital and become acquainted with the culture of the school. Unfortunately, this head did not survive the typical five year transition period.

  6. A Combination of Choices

    There are times when one approach should follow another. If the last strategic planning exercise used the “broad brush” approach, then a few years later it may serve the school better to use the “focused” or “hybrid” approach.

  7. Choosing an Outside Consultant

    Many schools hire an outside consultant to facilitate strategic planning, one of the most critical responsibilities of the board as a policy-making body. The consultant should NOT bring to the school a pre-packaged approach. The “broad-based”, “directed” and “hybrid” models are flexible and are not predisposed towards any particular outcome. All three provide an opportunity for constituencies to be heard, create a shared sense of the school’s direction among planning participants, and infuse them with renewed energy to achieve its goals. All guide the school wisely in developing an effective strategic plan that supports the mission and vision of the school. It may be wise to choose an experienced consultant who is likely to be available when your next plan update is due.

    If the School is not certain which approach to employ in launching its own strategic planning process, raising that question is an important first step in seeking the advice and input of a consultant to assist the school.

John Littleford

Senior Partner