Throughout this year you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our September news comes from Will Kesler, head of school at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, TN.
It has been my privilege to be involved in SAIS schools my entire professional career. For the past 27 years, I have served as a teacher, coach, department chair, division head, and currently serve as the head of school at Battle Ground Academy, a co-ed day school for grades K-12 founded in 1889. Throughout my time as an educator, I have had the opportunity to work through countless strategic plans and processes at schools in which I was serving, through accreditation committees and visits, and as part of my own personal study and fascination in a process that always seems some combination of intellectual exercise, excessive task management, and downright dark arts all rolled into one. My goal for you, regardless of where you are in the planning cycle, is that you might have greater clarity in the purpose of your strategic plan and a commitment to the right process to see it come to fruition in a meaningful way.
As an English teacher, I taught a semester of Existential Literature on a few occasions – I can see your eyes glazing over now. Don’t worry, it’s just an analogy. The parallel that I want to draw is that in order to help students understand what we meant by the term “existentialism,” we spent a good bit of time explaining what it wasn’t and particularly its inverse “essentialism.” With that same line of thinking, I want to spend a bit of time on the front end explaining what strategic planning isn’t in order to get to what it is and how we can use it (more effectively, I would argue) in our schools.
What Strategy Isn’t
By now we are all well-versed in the famous Peter Drucker observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and as succinct and appealing as that statement is in the abstract, I can say with confidence from observation and experience that if your culture is off in some areas of the school, a good strategy will be a Band-Aid at best, not a cure. In other words, if you cannot articulate with confidence and clarity the reason for your school’s existence, its unique approach to education, and the artifacts and unspoken markers of what it means to be a part of your community, then your first strategic priority is to define and clarify your culture. This process may have to happen across multiple iterations. Asking questions regularly about staying true to your mission or identifying tacit expectations of community members that need to be examined more closely should be a part of any process, but without a clear sense of core identity and purpose, strategy feels like an add-on and not transformative.
Secondly, strategy is not generative thinking. Visionary, generative thinking should be a part of every strategic planning process – what might we do? if we were starting from scratch what would be the core elements of our curriculum? if resources were not an obstacle what programs might we initiate? All of these are great questions and can get you to start thinking about possibilities and priorities, and as you seek such feedback, they also might demonstrate your community’s interest and appetite for innovation, growth, and change, even if it is not in one of the specific areas mentioned. Despite those benefits, that thinking does not ultimately drive action. A plan that remains aspirational only will struggle to gain traction in the day-to-day work of our schools.
Finally, strategy is not operations. We’ve all seen or been a part of a strategic planning process that feels like a “to-do” list and not a very strategic plan. Often, we are papering our pre-existing priorities without regard to our broader context. Sometimes, we want to make sure that we can accomplish the plan and measure it well, so we simplify it to a series of checkboxes and pat ourselves on the back for saying we were going to do something and then doing it. To be clear, your strategy should greatly inform and affect your operations and tactics, but we confuse those at our own peril. Creating a STEM program that prepares students for the next wave of emerging technologies might be a key strategy for your school. Requiring all math classes to include one computer-based math project or presentation at every grade level is operational. Detached from strategy it becomes a to-do list; integrated into a strategy it becomes a key component of measuring your plan’s effectiveness.
So, at last the big payoff – what is strategy and how can we do it better in our schools? Here is my personal favorite definition of strategy: “a series of decisions, made in concert together, in order to optimize performance in the face of competition.” We’ll look at those elements individually.
If that’s the definition, I would argue that the secret sauce for the process boils down to these components:
Ultimately, if we aren’t thoughtful and intentional, strategic planning can become a perfunctory exercise in naming what we are planning to do – a glorified improvement plan. Instead, if done with the right definition and process in mind, a good strategic plan can drive deep innovation, growth, sustainability, and success long after the plan’s elements have been completed.
Good luck and happy strategic planning!Will KeslerHead of SchoolBattle Ground Academy