The Zero-Base of Schools

The Zero-Base of Schools

Two days ago I wrote a post about how zero-based strategic thinking will replace our outdated model of long-range strategic planning. As promised I will offer my view of what forms that zero base for any school. A zero-based approach tests every assumption against the absolute core of the mission. This approach is critical at a time when the traditional concept of a school is under severe and increasing stress from rapidly evolving alternatives by which consumers can acquire the core services that schools have traditionally supplied.  As made so clear in my recent discussions with Shoshona Zuboff from the Harvard Business School and Jim Maxim from MIT, history is rife with examples of powerful institutions which are dramatically mutated or completely subsumed by alternative mechanisms which provide desired goods or services at significant cost discounts or in ways that are preferred by end users.

In my recent workshops I have asked participants to list their schools’ fixed costs and traditional structures, and then to decide which of these could or could not be shifted to, or wholly subsumed by, a third party collaborator, partner, or competitor at a significantly lower cost. As you might imagine, the list on the “could be shifted” side of the ledger was MUCH longer than the list on the “cannot be shifted” side. The later represents a place to start with zero-based strategic thinking, a place to start building a real value proposition.

Here is an example, thanks to deep thinking and comments from Mike Thayer, a math teacher from New Jersey.  After reading my post and my challenge, Mike offered his zero-based starting point:

A school’s mission should be:

1) Providing sufficient opportunities for all youth to learn (and “own” for themselves) the best ideas from our cultural and scientific heritage. (“looking backward”)
2) Providing sufficient opportunities for all youth to explore/create/discover what lies beyond themselves and the culture they live in. (“looking forward”).
3) Providing a safe and caring environment in which these can occur for all youth.

My response:

I’m going to be a provocateur: boil it down!



3)Safety and caring.

I know that cuts out important stuff, but that is what zero-basing does. Not to say those things do not belong in the vision statement and implementation.


Ah, now it all makes sense! So here’s my list. In order for schools to be successful, they must have as their mission:

1) Learning at their heart
2) Caring for their students in their soul

And that’s that!

Mike quickly found the power of zero-based strategic thinking.  He believes that his school provides emotional, perhaps even spiritual connections to learning and caring that cannot be replaced or shifted.  Is he right?  I don’t know; but it is a great place to start the discussion.

I have thought about this in the last few weeks, about the absolute core of the institution of education, and here is what I have come up with:

Education is about learning.  The only two elements that are absolutely required for learning to take place are students and time.  Mike added caring, and I think if we want great learning, he is right. (Please comment and question this result!) Learning can take place without teachers, campuses, technology, books, desks, administrators, electricity, fund raising, paper, or anything else that we pay for.  We may not be comfortable with that, but the fact is that learning has always taken place in the absence of many of these. This is not to say that learning can take place with NONE of these, but none are absolutely critical to the process.

So that is where I would start: great learning needs students, time, and caring.  I would build from there, adding only where the addition provides value to the end user that will withstand radical competition from innovative, changing, lower-priced, more convenient competition.  Will the result be a stripped down version of your current school? Maybe or maybe not.  But either way, your organization will know WHY they are what they are, not by default, not because of the inertia of the past or fear of the future, but grounded in intentional, questioned, tested, dynamic, strategic thinking.

About the Author: