Strategic Planning in Education – 3 Keys to Success

Nothing affects a school district more than it’s ability to create and execute a strategic plan. A good strategic plan can improve student outcomes, keep great teachers and enhance the reputation of district leadership. Failure in strategic planning can be disastrous. Here’s what we know about strategic planning in education including a brief history, what works now and where it’s heading in the future.

What is strategic planning?

Strategic planning is the process of setting goals, deciding on actions to achieve those goals and mobilizing the resources needed to take those actions. A strategic plan describes how goals will be achieved through the use of available resources.

School districts of all sizes use strategic planning to achieve the broad goals of improving student outcomes and responding to changing demographics while staying within the funding box they are given. The nature of these goals and restrictions suggest that strategic planning in education is, and must be, different than the process used in the business sector. In the business sector the goal is to get more customers or make more money. Recognizing these differences, educators became early adopters of blending strategic planning with community engagement activities.

Where did strategic planning begin?

Goal directed planning has been around since humans developed a pre-frontal lobe. Strategic planning, as we know it today, evolved out of military strategy. Strategos literally means “general of the army” in Greek.

The strategoi provided “strategic” advice to political rulers and war councils about managing battles to win wars as opposed to providing tactical advice about managing troops to win wars. That distinction has haunted the strategic planning process for close to 2000 years. Even the language of military strategy remains entrenched in the work place. “Front line” workers and being “in the trenches” are an accurate description of the reality of those on a battlefield, not those in an office or classroom.

We know that it can “feel” like there are enemies to rail against. The collaborative leaders we work with recognize and acknowledge the reality of the public education system while using language that builds relationships and reframes enemies to potential allies.

The adoption of strategic planning in the business world began somewhere between the 1950′s and 60′s. The exact date has yet to be agreed upon but most scholars and business historians agree that the practice along with the philosophy emerged over a few decades and that strategic planning continues to evolve today. Strategic planning in the education sector initially flowed out of business practices as a result of people moving from the business sector into positions in education leadership and bringing with them a set of planning tools and paradigms.

What is strategic planning today?

Modern strategic planning has been influenced by systems theory and the ideas put forth by Peter Drucker, Edward Deming, and Peter Senge to name a few. The shift from the machine age to the knowledge age changed the thinking from top down, command and control to worker empowerment, decentralization and bottom-up planning. In the business world many organizations still use the early models and processes while some have moved into more collaborative and inclusive processes. Many businesses still have a “war room” and only top leadership is included in strategic planning. Others have adopted a variety of techniques from the growing strategic planning buffet.

Does strategic planning work?

Not everyone believes that traditional strategic planning works. Tom Peters described strategic planning as “death by a thousand initiatives” and Henry Mintzberg suggests that the evidence clearly shows that, “lead boots” and “paperwork mills” were the usual outcome of strategic planning.

Mintzberg also found and shared many examples of organizations that had been successful in strategic planning. He notes that these organizations approach strategic planning in a less structured and rigid way. Much like we have observed within school districts.

Virtual Event Replay:
From Competent to Compassionate Leadership

Dr. Quintin Shepherd, Superintendent of Victoria ISD shares his learnings about how even the language we use is changing in today’s new leadership paradigm.

Strategic planning in education

Since the 1970’s, when Ira Gordon’s first introduced his Community Impact and Parent Involvement Model, the education sector has amassed a rich history of community engagement. School districts in the US began adopting the practice of strategic planning in the 1980’s. The term appeared in educational publications for the first time around 1984, and by 1987 an estimated five hundred US school districts were using some type of strategic planning. As school districts adopted strategic planning models used in business, they changed the process to better suit their needs and philosophies.

The descriptions of strategic planning in education are so different from its use in the private sector as to raise the issue of whether the educational model has diverged so far that it deserves some new name ~ Conely

Some critics suggest that the education sector emphasizes the political dimensions of the strategic planning process as a way of increasing the number of school community stakeholders. We don’t think that’s something to be critical of. Rather, it should be lauded. The education sector has shifted the process of strategic planning from a boardroom activity to a community-involved process. As Anderson aptly points out:

In some ways, up until now, we have managed to get community engagement exactly backwards. We decide then we engage. We decide and then we defend. We tell and then we sell. We decide what the community wants for its children then we sell them the solutions. True community engagement is just the opposite. We engage the community in answering the question at hand and then, we, as part of the community, decide. That shift in language and in actions makes all the difference.  (2009)

More recently school districts have proactively shifted their strategic planning process to genuinely include and involve parents and other constituents.  At the school district level strategic planning requires community engagement and support both functionally and legislatively. Collaborative leaders in education know that without community support and the insight that comes with community engagement their strategic plans are likely to fail.

3 keys to a successful school district wide strategic plan

Although there is no magic bullet there are a few practices that consistently result in better, more effective and supported plans.

1. Get everyone on the same page. Differing understandings of what strategy entails, how it should be created and who should be involved, can stymie even the best plans. The first step in creating a successful strategic plan is getting everyone involved to agree on one model of strategic planning.  A terms of reference document can get everyone on the same page.

2. Engaging community early in the process. Gain insights and gauge community preferences as early as possible. School districts that engage early in the planning process have a much greater chance at building a successful and community supported plan. Engage early and engage often is the mantra of successful collaborative leaders.

3. Be a collaborative leader. Collaborative leaders in education have long recognized the benefits of early and frequent engagement with their constituents. They know, as we do, that much like early reading programs, every minute and every dime invested in gaining community support, pays off exponentially.

What is the future of strategic planning in education?

Educators, realizing the value of diverse perspectives and community support are inviting parents, employees, student and other education stakeholders to inform their strategic planning. The education and community development sectors have embraced the idea that strategic planning is best accomplished with the inclusion of community. Technology has enabled this.

Without a connected and accessible “environment” like the Internet, genuine and affordable community engagement in strategic planning would not be feasible. Our connected environment, the ubiquity of email and user-friendly technology has changed, and will continue to change, the strategic planning process.

The future of strategic planning is emergent

Strategy is not a starting point, it’s a process and a collaborative one at that.  It is not written in stone, nor is it ever truly complete.  It evolves over time, becomes stronger as it adapts to new challenges even as it remains true to its core principles. Good strategy is never being, it is always becoming. ~ Greg Satell

Strategic planning is not on its way out. It is changing, evolving, becoming more community of purpose driven, much like our education system.

Here at ThoughtExchange we use our technology to leverage community insights to improve strategic planning processes for school district. Here are a few examples of how school districts have used our insight platform to create community informed and supported strategic plans.

Virtual Event Replay:
From Competent to Compassionate Leadership

Dr. Quintin Shepherd, Superintendent of Victoria ISD shares his learnings about how even the language we use is changing in today’s new leadership paradigm.

About the Author

Jamie Billingham

Jamie Billingham