Flash: Strategic Planning Dead. Zero-Based Strategic Thinking Lives!

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Flash: Strategic Planning Dead. Zero-Based Strategic Thinking Lives!

This is one to share with those at your school who are responsible for long-range planning. Traditional strategic planning at schools is dead. This passing is not really news, but what will rise to replace it has been a mystery.  I think we have solved that mystery.  The good news is we will have a more effective planning tool.  The bad news is that you, the school leader, can no longer check that box every five years and believe you are doing your job.

Traditional strategic planning is dead for three reasons. First, most plans are written on a 4-5 year cycle, which is utterly out of phase with the changes in the world around us.

Second, most strategic planning committees are drawn from a wide range of constituents who brainstorm how the organization can advance the position of their respective silos over the next five years.  Committee members are essentially asked to represent the interests of narrow viewpoints, which they do.  Then, in order to respect hard work and input, the plan includes as much of everything as possible while not disappointing anyone.  The result is a homogenized stew that looks pretty much the same for every school and perpetuates those silos.

Explosion of creative thinking usually ignored in strategic planning.

Explosion of creative thinking usually ignored in strategic planning.

Third, most planning starts with statements, not questions.  Over the last two months I have teed up a simple task with about 500 educational leaders: “Think up a question that starts with ‘what if’ that would break, discard, or fundamentally change something that exists at your school today.  Focus on major expense drivers and structural traditions.” In less than ten minutes each group generated dozens of questions.  After looking them over I asked the leaders how many of those questions had ever been raised in a strategic planning process.  The answer: virtually none.

Virtually the same can be said for most accreditation processes, so the two guiding documents of schools suffer from the same critical flaw. They only consider inside the frame.

How is this possible?  Gather school leaders.  Prompt them to ask challenging questions.  Review results.  Uncover virtually virgin ground, untouched by the cumulative processes that drive long-range planning at all of their schools. In ten minutes. We are gathering hundreds of these questions. Oh yes, and if you read my blog from two weeks ago, you remember seeing how 4th and 5th graders added to this rapidly growing list of thoughtful-yet-never-asked questions.

That proves the traditional process is busted. So what do we replace it with?

One of my thought groups (business officers at the NYSAIS Tri-State conference) came up with an idea which I promised to steal and am doing so: zero-based strategic thinking.  Not planning, mind you; they were very careful to quickly use the term thinking.  Plans tend to gather gravitas and dust beyond their real weight.  Thinking is fluid, dynamic, and active.  What do we mean by zero-based?  Easy. Start with the absolute minimum of conditions, throw out anything that is not absolutely critical to the core mission of the school, and build from there.  Tomorrow I will let you know what I think those minimal conditions are for almost any school, and why.  My prediction: my list will be shorter than yours!  Start thinking.

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  1. gfrblxt May 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm - Reply


    Love this idea. I’ll start the ball rolling with a (probably too long) list of minimal conditions. Critique away! 🙂

    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.


    • glichtman May 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Gonna be a provocateur: boil it down! 1)Learn 2)Learn 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. Will expand on this when I write the blog. Thanks for contributing thoughts; will quote some of these later today!

      • gfrblxt May 11, 2013 at 12:14 am - Reply

        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!

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