We might refer to the last 20 or 30 years in independent school management as the Era of Strategic Planning. Schools recognized during this time that they were businesses, not mom-and-pop start-ups or old boy clubs. Businesses need to plan for the future, not just believe in it. We learned to do five-year look-aheads according to best practices. For many schools, particularly those that were founded or have grown substantially since the 1960’s or 1970’s, we crossed the Rubicon between putting out fires day-to-day and acting like a business with plans for a real future.
I am a huge fan of strategic planning. My book, The Falconer, teaches strategic thinking and interprets The Art of War in perhaps its simplest and most personal form. But as Kevin Hendry from the University of Queensland writes in his Leading Strategic Conversations, strategic planning is evolving in substantive ways, and they are highly relevant to school leadership.
Both Hendry, and Jim Collins, who he cites, argue that leadership is now less about the vision of a charismatic or revered individual raised up for others to implement, and more about creating an ongoing dynamism in the organization for continuous self-evaluation and adaptation.
In the current fast-paced, fluid period of evolution, caused by the combination of market stresses and disruptive innovations that so many of us recognize, strategy has to be linked not only with long-range planning for financial and organizational stability, but in creating value. This is not a new business concept but it is one that many school leaders have yet to embrace.
Strategic plans have focused on how the organization can operate efficiently and reliably: how to ensure a match between sources of revenue and the expenses of operation. The link to value proposition requires that we understand what we offer from the direct viewpoint of the customer. This viewpoint has not been the core focus of our strategic planning processes, and that will need to change. We can create new value, find value that we have always had but have underexploited, or expand on our current greatest values. But we are not going to get there if we don’t shift our approach.
Strategy has largely been the purview of senior leadership; leaders set the agenda and lower levels get it done. Value creation requires a vastly more integrated process of determination and implementation. By definition all members of the organization (and in particular the rank and file of faculty) offer key value delivery mechanisms. Our organizational structures and practices are not optimized to take advantage of these value creation opportunities. It is not that we have been stupid; the world has changed and it demands new approaches to address those changes.
Bottom line: value creation is now Job One for all of us, and leaders need to embrace how to develop this in the organization or face quickly losing competitive advantages that may have been built up over decades. A great place to start will be to re-focus from traditional strategic planning to an integrated focus on value proposition.