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Two days ago I wrote a post about how zero-based strategic thinking will replace our outdated model of long-range strategic planning.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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:


  1. Will Richardson May 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Really enjoying these posts, Grant.

    So let me offer a push:

    Is education about learning, or is it the other way around? And are “students” required for learning? Not that I’m sure how to answer these questions myself at the moment, but since we’re going for “zero sum…” ;0)

    I think great learning needs learners, passion, time and access to people, information, and experiences to fuel it. Education, however, is a different thing all together. We assume we need an institution for that. Do we? The better question to me is do we WANT an institution to help us with that? I think there is a powerful argument that we do, but that then depends on on the value add to the learner, not to the “education.” In other words, we have to suss out when we want learners to be students, or when learners NEED to be students in order to become better learners. That’s our value now.

    I’ve got Papert stuck in my head again: “What you ought to be learning at school is that you don’t need to be taught in order to learn.”


  2. boadams1 May 14, 2013 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Grant, I so appreciate your thinking and your workshopping around these ideas and practices. And I love Will’s push and questions back. I don’t have answers either, but you know I think about this stuff even in my sleep, so I have a few things to contribute/ask:

    1. I love the etymology of “education.” As far as I know, it comes from “educare,” meaning to draw out or draw forth that which is already there. Every time I think of this root, I think of a sculptor seeing what is inside the block of marble. As Michelangelo (I think) said, “my job is to free what already exists inside.” So, I have grown to believe that the learner is the primary sculptor, as well as the emerging being finding freedom from the captivity. Of course, I also think that an educator sees him/herself as a sculptor of this metaphorical kind, too. For me, this lies at the heart of Will’s question about “Is education about learning, or is it the other way around?”

    2. I wonder if the summarized share about mission here is too reductionist. The zero-base version can sound so generic that it will actually not communicate much at all in reality. The sentiments that you and Mike exchange are beautiful, and you know I am right there with you both in belief. However, as Rick DuFour is so good at doing when he asks a crowd of 3000-5000 to mad-lib their school mission statement while he gives the basic framework, many school mission statements boil down to the same generic beliefs. What if we abandoned the old 20th century warhorse of “mission” altogether? What if we moved to purpose and became much more specific about what a particular educational institution is uniquely good at? What if we were so comfortable (maybe wrong word) with our identity that we could truly articulate how we were different from the other organizations/institutions? Then, professional educators and parents and students would know more precisely how School A and School B create different value for the learners who choose such institution-based education. Isn’t a lack of this specificity part of the issue now? A number of schools don’t really know who they are or who they are trying to be – not at a collective, organizational level.

  3. glichtman May 14, 2013 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    I completely agree with your last half paragraph, which is right where the idea of zero-based came from. I asked a workshop (and this based on the talk with Zuboff and Maxmin) “what at your school could be shifted to or subsumed by a formal or informal collaborator, competitor, or other actor, probably at a lower cost? What could not?” Of course the first list was long and the second short. Now we start with the short list, and work up from there…hence the zero base. This grounds everything in the value core, not all the rest, the warhorse stuff.

  4. […] Distilled from ongoing conversation and deliberation with Shoshana Zuboff,  Jim Maxmin Grant Litchman and a very important roundtable discsussion on Lake Damariscotta, ME this […]

  5. […] and led workshop experiences around Zero-Based Strategic Thinking. On May 11, he wrote about it here. Like zero-based budgeting, Zero-Based Strategic Planning takes on more of a “start from […]

Leave A Comment