Putting the Substance (and Enjoyment) Back in Strategic Planning

Forging School Strategies Blog | March 30, 2015


“I hate strategic planning.”

“Every school strategic plan looks the same.”

“Ugh. . . it’s time to launch our five-year strategic planning process next year and I’m dreading it.”

We hear some variation on this theme all the time. Why do so many school leaders dread strategic planning? Perhaps because the process can be all consuming with minimal substance? Or is it because, in their quest for best practices and benchmarking, schools have become susceptible to a cookie-cutter and uninspired approach?

We argue that effective strategy consists of a few core initiatives that create comparative advantage and motivate internal stakeholders. It does not equal a list of your top five goals for program, finance and facilities.

What strategy looks like, therefore, is very individualized to your situation and your school market. Without taking stock of both internal and external market dynamics, it’s really nothing more than a five-year to-do list, with little or no evidence that you’re likely to be successful in completing it.

The best planning looks something like this: A deep dive into substance often energizes internal constituents. Effective strategic plans usually have a core theme that motivates school-wide commitment, as opposed to a top-down approach typically utilized in the corporate world. It involves engaging the passions of your teachers, administrators, board members and parents toward a noble purpose. A good school-wide strategic plan will not seem like arbitrary work for your constituents…it could even be enjoyable.

There’s one important caveat with this approach, however: these plans must still create comparative advantage. We would argue that the major strategic challenge facing schools is perceived value and competitive positioning. Do you know what the appeal of your school is in the local market? The reasons why applications are decreasing in certain divisions? Schools are filled with smart people who think they know the answers based on what they hear from a few demanding parents or from their own intuitions. But you have to take the time and use valid methods to really know what matters most to parents inside and outside of your school.

Occasionally, school leaders misidentify the most important challenges in strategic plans and craft solutions that are more complicated (or expensive) than necessary. We frequently hear schools say that prospective parents are drawn to new facilities at competitors. Are you sure? Facilities have rarely, if ever, been a primary factor of school choice in our market research studies for schools. It almost always has much more to do with your program — or prospective families’ lack of understanding about your program. Identifying a few core initiatives that promote greater understanding of your program, therefore, will enhance both your competitive position and financial health.

Most schools are in a position where they can boost their respective programs by elevating their core values in the minds of constituents. School leaders should ask themselves: Are there activities, programs or processes that we have not implemented that will make our core values more real or demonstrable to current students, prospective students and their families? These are the type of questions that will lead to strategic plans that generate enthusiasm from the school community. Rather than creating an arbitrary wish list every five years that gets put on the shelf and elicits indifference, school leaders should follow this path. Dare we say it? They may even find the process pleasurable.