The Importance of Choosing the Approach that Suits School Climate
- The Responsibility of the Board of Trustees: Strategic Thinking and Planning
The word “trustee” conveys the responsibility of the board of trustees of the school to hold the mission of the school “in trust” and to plan for the long-term preservation of that fundamental mission.
The strategic planning exercise is “non-cyclical”; a school should never postpone this important process in order to conserve its resources in economic downturns or when facing budgetary pressures. The strategic planning process assists schools in allocating and maximizing its personnel and financial resources in order to meet its short-term needs and ultimately, fulfill its mission.
However, BEFORE entering into this critical process, many schools make a major mistake. They fail to consider the INTERNAL culture and climate of their school. This can make the difference between developing a successful plan that lends new energy and direction to the school, versus one that results in the dilution of its mission and a loss of forward momentum or the risk of damaging school culture.
- Which Approach to Strategic Planning Fits Your School?
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 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 model or a more concentrated, less inclusive approach. Both are highly effective and deliver the desired outcome.
- The Broad-based Approach
The broad-based approach involves these school constituencies: board members, faculty, alumni, parents and students. This process involves interviews with a cross-section of people from all of these groups over a three-day period. Having built credibility and rapport with these individuals through the interviews, the facilitator should engage all participants in a subsequent workshop that effectively lays the groundwork for the strategic planning process. That process occurs over a three to six month period and uses a committee of 15-35 people drawn from the interview group and workshop participants.
The process comes to a close by screening the subcommittee reports and conducting a wrap-up workshop at the end of the planning period. The final step is writing up a final document for dissemination.
The advantage to this approach is that by involving more people, it can serve as a stronger and wider basis of consensus for change.
It is, NOT however, recommended for a school in which any of the following are present in its climate and culture: serious tension between the faculty and/or the board and administration; tension between the parent body and the school; and during the head of school’s first year 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 agendas, and if their expectations are not met, they may use the process as an opportunity for political gain, “stirring up a hornet’s nest.” The climate of the school may become even more politically charged. Consensus- building breaks down, and the school may lose sight of that important beacon, its fundamental mission.
With a new head barely one year into the job, a broad based strategic planning process was undertaken recently by a well-known school. Faculty members upset by the decisions of the new head, and missing the power they enjoyed under a previous, long-term head, used the planning process to undermine the head with parents individually, and then collectively. It is seldom a good idea to initiate a planning process in a head’s first year.
- B. The Directed and Concentrated Approach
This is the recommended approach for any school with a moderately healthy climate and/or culture. It solicits input from all key constituencies without involving them directly in the strategic planning 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 from head and the board. The facilitator conducts confidential, 45 minute interviews with the head, key administrators and every trustee during the first two days of an on-site visit. On the third day, he or she leads four, one-hour focus groups for each of the following: students, parents, alumni and faculty, all selected randomly. In this setting, all four groups have the opportunity to express their views.
On the fourth day, having established an important connection with all of the key players through the interview process, the facilitator conducts a workshop for the board and head ONLY. The workshop accomplishes the following:
- Outlines the strategic initiatives supported by the trustees and head; any areas of disagreement; and challenges and opportunities facing the school.
- Provides feedback on the views of the focus groups; highlights agreement and conflict between those views and the vision, direction and strategic initiatives preferred by the head and board.
- Addresses any issues of board governance or structure that may have surfaced.
- The resulting agreement is documented and sent out (or not sent out) to the school’s constituents.
- The Broad-based Approach
- 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 with a pre-determined result.
The broad-based and directed models are flexible and are not predisposed towards any particular outcome. Both provide an opportunity for all 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. Both guide the school wisely in developing an effective strategic plan that supports the mission and vision of the school.