“Steve taught us all not to focus on the past — to be future-focused. If you’ve done something great or done something terrible in the past, don’t focus on it.”
This idea of being future-focused is extremely interesting to me as an educator. What does it mean to be future-focused? With volumes of books, articles, and blogs published recently on defining innovation, this one phrase from Tim Cook captures the concept more succinctly than any publication!
Schools by definition are focused on the future (as in, developing healthy bodies and minds for the future), and yet in their slavish devotion to tradition, are actually more attuned to their past. If we as school leaders use our past successes to build the road ahead, then we must do better to strike a balance and realign our focus. Traditionally, a strategic plan will attempt to show the school as future-focused, but few strategic plans build in accountability and empower the community to move the school forward as one engine.
The notion of a three or five-year strategic plan, however, seems oh-so-twentieth century! Back in 2007, Rob Evans, the noted psychologist and school consultant, wrote “The Case Against Strategic Planning” in Independent School Magazine. Evans writes of a head of school struggling to explain to his Board the case against adopting another strategic plan:
“I’ve been here nine years,” he said, “and we’ve already done two plans. My predecessor was here for 10 years, and he also did two. Each one is thicker than the last. They look terrific; very comprehensive. But we haven’t finished a quarter of the steps spelled out in the last plan.” Nonetheless, the school was doing well. There were “things to tweak,” but even if major change were needed, he no longer saw strategic planning as a valuable tool.
Evans notes that this Head of School is by no means alone in his struggle.
Every year, I have similar conversations with heads across the county. When I press them, they acknowledge advantages to strategic planning. One typical response is: “Most folks like the process of thinking about the school. Discussing the school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, makes them feel as if they’re contributing to our future direction.”
Strategic plans have, in the words of Kaufmann and Hermann, noted authors of the 1990s book Strategic Planning in Education, become an “educational fad.” School leaders and Boards clearly like the idea (and should) of being future-focused and contributing to the future direction of the school, but perhaps there are better ways to address it. Evans argues for strategic thinking rather than strategic planning:
True strategic thinking favors pragmatic, flexible approaches to key challenges, approaches that acknowledge the nonrational and unplannable aspects of the world and of organizational life and the importance of being ready to respond to rapid change in both, and that rely on the judgment of leaders much more than the spelling out of action steps and the measurement of benchmarks. It favors plans that are simple and that concentrate on a very few targets over a relatively short period of time. It anticipates the likelihood that changing conditions may call for changing targets.11
The 21st Century has made the school world more “nonrational” and “unplannable” than ever before. School leaders are faced with changing targets and need to respond rapidly to changing conditions. We have entered the Age of Innovation where past-focused schools will die out from intellectual and financial starvation, and future-focused schools will become paragons for their peers. It’s time to ask which path you’ll choose.