#9—Real Strategic Planning for Schools Should be Messy

Mr. David Perry

The American Embassy School is at an exciting moment in its story. Post-Covid and related to the rise of interest in India, our enrollment is growing. There is strong support for the School from the US Embassy, a professional and diligent Board committed to its success, a senior leadership team poised to find its new rhythm with the recent hiring of several key positions,  and an excellent group of teachers and parents partnering around the very best education for our students. In my view, the School is in a great position to more potently deliver on its mission. And from this position of strength, it is also a great time for the School to begin grappling with designing its future.

AES, like all schools, is and will continue to face adaptive challenges. The adaptive challenges we face are complex and the pace of change unfolding around us is accelerating. The disturbing increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation among students is one such challenge. Another is the role AI will play in education. Other challenges include teacher recruitment and the sustainability of a tuition-based business model. New thinking about the purpose of schools is leading to rapid changes in teaching and learning that draw into question traditional uses of time and space. Competition for students potentially poses another existential threat. And we haven’t even mentioned the growing context of political turmoil and global warming. 

Our students and their families have never needed our communities and teachers more than they do today. And to make progress on their behalf, we need to have the courage and capability to shape our future. We all need compelling visions and real strategies for our schools. 

I have been doing a lot of reading and networking on the topic of strategic planning. Increasingly, school leaders like me feel the traditional strategic planning process we’ve been using may not serve us in the future. School teams engaged in traditional strategic planning have the best intentions. Everyone is deeply committed to their schools and wants to do everything possible to ensure a bright future for their communities. Yet the results have rarely lived up to the expectations. Why is that? Tim Fish, the Chief Innovation Officer at the National Association of Independent Schools, believes it’s because the process we have been using has become “a comfort food casserole filled with some vision, a pinch of actual strategy, and too much planning.” 

It’s human nature to want to plan. Planning, says Roger L. Martin, co-author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, reviews how we often focus attention on the things we can control because those things are doable and comfortable. Planning is stable and predictable. It results in organized lists and measurable goals. Our typical planning process limits the unknowns. But, while according to Martin, “it often strips out risk, differentiation, conflict, and trade-offs…in doing so, [it also] removes unique vision and real strategy.” 

According to Fish, a new process of strategic planning for schools should, therefore, be grounded in three things:

  • The development of a shared public vision that is aligned with the mission

  • Strategy grounded in a clear understanding of challenges and a commitment to becoming more unique 

  • An agile innovation process that can respond to changing conditions   

Vision and strategy are not the same thing—and they are both essential. In the simplest terms, vision defines where we are going, and strategy defines the choices we will make to get there. 

If a school’s mission defines its purpose, a vision sets the direction for the future. It is the aspirational, public expression of where the school is going and why it’s important. It is an essential expression of differentiation that helps define the school’s value for families, alumni, and staff. A vision inspires the community to look beyond the current reality to imagine what can be. 

Strategy, according to Fish, is ultimately about competing to be unique. It embodies the choices we will make to separate ourselves from others. Strategy is as much about what we will stop doing as it is about what we will start. Real strategy, according to Fish, “involves making a bet on the future when we don’t have all the information we need.” It is inherently risky and messy. Fish says that “[I]f you don’t feel a bit of a knot in your gut when you finish the process, you likely haven’t set real strategy. If the process feels tidy and predictable, you may be baking a comfort food casserole filled with a lot of planning and not enough strategy.”

In the year ahead, the Board and I will continue to define our school’s opportunities and challenges to set us up to embark upon defining a vision for the School and the strategy to get there.