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The Timing of Strategic Planning

By Diana Rosberg
The Timing of Strategic Planning

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, if applied to strategic planning, posits that we cannot simultaneously know both the current state of our school, and where our school is heading.

Strategic plans are integral parts of reflective, responsive, student-centered international schools. If we want our schools to grow meaningfully, we have to take the time to understand our context, challenges and opportunities, and we have to design a pathway to our desired future.

Perhaps because of everything I just said, there is often significant pressure on school leaders to produce a strategic plan. How many directors have been tasked with the expectation of getting one in place? When that ask comes in, how many directors take the opportunity to wonder “Should I?” (Perhaps we should be asking “Should I?” about a large number of the tasks on a Director’s unending to-do list, not just strategic planning. But that’s a subject for another day.)

Let’s wonder. Why shouldn’t we start building a strategic plan today? My top reasons:

  1. We might not have the institutional knowledge needed to craft a valuable, effective, and enduring strategic plan.
  2. There might be valuable insight and information scheduled to arrive within a reasonable time frame. We can use it to build a better strategic plan, but only if we are patient.
  3. There might be other imperatives that would (and should!) compete with a strategic plan.

Institutional Knowledge

Top of the list is institutional knowledge. A strong strategic plan is based on a thorough understanding of the entirety of the school’s situation. Our first steps are based on knowing all about ourselves, including strengths, challenges, and values. Only once we have clarity about who we are, can we authentically look at our desired ideal school, and perform a gap analysis. Plotting a course on a map involves knowing both where you are, and where you want to get to. If that first point is missing, it’s impossible to know whether we should turn right, turn left, or move forward at full speed. So, if your school has not recently undertaken a serious self-study, that needs to be your first priority. Look into all the dark corners, question the state of the curriculum, inquire into the what, how, and why of your finances, and on and on.

If you’re noticing a certain similarity with the self-studies required for accreditation, run with that. It’s entirely possible to use accreditation standards and self-study protocols to establish the baseline knowledge needed to build a strategic plan. There are other ways too, but in most schools, there’s little reason to divide our energies across multiple forms of self-study. Do it once, do it thoroughly, move on. 

Incoming Insight

Schools receive incredibly valuable insight on regular schedules, from our accrediting agencies, our local governments, or Ministries of Education, and more. For the schools I work with, this typically includes the International Baccalaureate, and perhaps your school has its own sources. Whatever the source, treat this information with the respect it deserves. Outsiders often see things that we miss. Experts have keen vision to connect the dots, see potential pathways, and steer us around pitfalls. If your school is lucky enough to receive wisdom from outsiders and experts, listen. Ponder. Their thoughts make fertile ground for designing your new future through a strategic plan.

These insights come to us on a schedule. We usually know months or years in advance when we can expect to receive it. Plan for that, and plan to start building your strategic plan soon after it arrives. You can be ready to jump. In three, two, one….

Speaking of potential pitfalls, imagine the tragedy of first building a strategic plan, and then soon after receiving this type of outside guidance, only to find out that your plan was off base. That you “have to” do this, that, or the other in order to maintain your school’s accreditation or license, or to take your IB programs to the next level. That kind of distraction could wreck your strategic plan, or at best, diffuse your efforts just when you were starting to build steam. Your efforts will be so much more focused and productive if you wait to build your plan until after you hear from your outside experts.

Some of you might be wondering, “Doesn’t our accrediting agency require our school to have a strategic plan BEFORE their visit?” The answer is a clear “maybe.” There are ways to demonstrate your strategic planning credentials without having a fully formed, bells-and-whistles strategic plan already running before the team arrives. 

Competing Imperatives

Your school may already have some absolutely non-negotiable imperatives that must be accomplished before anything else can be considered. Perhaps you were caught up in a world-wide pandemic that is still keeping children out of classrooms, and you know that you must attend only to improving how you meet their needs while remaining physically distant. Your focus shrinks, as it should.

Or you’ve got a mandate to become an IB World School, or switch to International General Certificate of Secondary Education and A-Levels, or seek accreditation for the first time. Are you opening a new campus? Adding grade levels? These sorts of massive undertakings each require immense amounts of energy, and they each come with their own to-do lists (a vast oversimplification but bear with me). Used right, those to-do lists can be repurposed to provide the guidance your school needs at these crucial times, and to prevent other (good but untimely) ideas from stealing your attention. Stick to your current imperative, make sure everyone knows your shared purpose, and focus, focus, focus.

If Not Now, When?

Every situation is different, but there is one common underlying scenario: accreditations and IB authorizations. I’d advise any school to wait on strategic planning if they are undertaking any (or many) of these. Whether your school is tackling these for the first time, or heading into its fifth cycle, strategic planning will be easier and more effective once your self-study is complete and after you receive those wonderfully rich reports from your visiting team(s).

With all that self-knowledge and external wisdom in hand, it’s the perfect moment to take your next steps. This is when the standard practices for strategic planning will have the most impact. Work with your stakeholders to identify what the school must continue to value, must remove, or substantially adjust, and must add in (these are the roses, weeds, and bare patches in your school garden, as the amazing Adele Hodgson taught me). Build up from there, following the strategic planning model of your choice. With some careful work, you’ll have a strategic plan in place relatively soon, a Strategic Plan worthy of capital letters, one that will guide and focus your entire team, stand the test of time, and take your school to its next level of excellence.

If Not Now, Then What Now?

If you choose not to build a strategic plan right now, let that decision be based on solid thinking. Let it be because of one or more of the reasons outlined above. And if that’s the case, you already have a mandate for what to do next. Your school needs to hone its focus, whether on its self-study, on preparing for accreditation or IB authorization, or on building that new campus. So instead of activating the whole community for a full-on strategic planning process, gather the key players. They’ll probably fit around one conference table, or on one Zoom screen. Work with them, and identify the core outcomes, tasks, timelines, and champions. Capture that in a simple, powerful way. Share it with everyone, and make sure nothing is allowed to distract you along the way.

Some might see this as a form of strategic plan, and you might be right, but the important thing isn’t the name. The really important thing is that you, and everyone in the school, will know your purpose and focus. And you won’t waste your community’s time and energy on an unnecessary planning process. 

Final Thoughts

Strategic plans are as crucial as ever. Schools need them. Full stop. Before you build one, take some time to consider “when?” Pick the right moment. By doing so, you’ll ensure that everyone’s time and effort is put to the best possible use, and you’ll end up with a Strategic Plan that is truly fit for purpose. Design your future.

Diana is the Academic Director at the International School of Kazan in Russia. 

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