I wrote before about being hired by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) to design and facilitate their strategic planning process. We are not done with the assignment, but since so many of you are thinking about planning for next year, I wanted to share some thoughts. Just to recap, they asked us to use a particular planning process, scenario planning, which is a method for generating a strategic plan by putting serious thought into:
- a) the circumstances or conditions or issues most relevant to the organization, informed by outside experts as well as members of the organization;
- b) what these issues might look like at some specified point in the future (the scenarios), and, by analyzing the scenarios, figuring out:
- c) what the organization needs to plan for; and
- d) how the organization is going to address these issues—i.e., the plan itself.
The conversations I listened to, especially in the session when the discussion groups analyzed the scenarios, were really rich and thought-provoking. And hearing a bunch of superintendents and assistant superintendents cut loose gave me a new appreciation for how knowledgeable they have to be on a range of issues, and how deliberate and calculating they are in their thinking—it was an education. Here’s what I think we learned so far that could be useful to you, whether or not you elect to employ scenario planning:
- It was really smart to separate out the thinking from the writing. In my experience, schools and districts often go about writing their improvement plans by taking the established template for the plan, getting a group of staff members together, and filling it out. That method shortcuts creativity and strategic thinking because the focus of the work tends to be on completion rather than on deliberate and disciplined problem identification and consideration.
- Having the outside experts talk to us was really interesting and helpful. We had access to state and national experts in governance, finance, instruction and leadership, but the process made me think that I could have made excellent use of the experts within my district and at local colleges when I was a building principal, and just asked them to come talk about how they saw us and our work. To quote Burns again, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” That tactic, sadly, never occurred to me.
- The experts were helpful in another way, in that they further slowed the impulse to go straight to solution. I realized as I was listening to a couple of them that I had made assumptions about what they were going to say that turned out not to be true, and that was really useful in making me check my thinking. I think I’ve mentioned before that there’s a sign in our office over the corkboard that says “What if the opposite was true?”, and I think we should think like that more often.
- It takes time and planning to pull people away from initial assumptions about what ought to happen, on several levels—what the strategic planning process should look like, what the ultimate product should look like, and what the content of the plan should comprise. This would have been a lot more smooth and respectful if we had done a better job of explaining these things up front—we spent so long thinking and planning and preparing for how to go about this ourselves, and almost no time sharing our thinking with the participants, and that was a mistake. And even when we thought we had explained it, we didn’t do it fully enough.
- You need a leader who understands the important distinctions between adaptive and technical thinking, who knows first-hand that the template of a plan can be a serious impediment to expansive thinking, and who is ambitious—not personally, but on behalf of the organization and what it can do for its constituents—and unafraid of difficult conversations.
I just want to repeat that these principles are not limited to scenario planning. Think outside the boxes.
This was a huge learning experience for me and Richard, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a group of incredibly smart and dedicated people on this project. I look forward to applying what we learned. The Center, as an organization, has been really sharpening its game when it comes to strategy and strategic planning, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more on this topic.
In the meantime—it’s summer, you clearly have more time on your hands given how many more links in the Coaching Letter you’ve clicked on lately, so please take a few minutes to email me and give me some feedback. How could the Coaching Letter be more useful to you? Is there anything about it that’s annoying/frustrating/unhelpful? What do you want to hear more about? What would you like to hear less about? Does it matter that it shows up at unpredictable times? What other questions should I ask you? In addition, this email is part of the Center’s outreach and branding efforts, so if you have found this service useful, now would be a good time to forward a recent favorite to everyone you know—in Connecticut and beyond—and suggest that they too sign up.
Thank you. Have a great weekend. Yours, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106