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Second in a Series on Strategic Planning for Education Leaders

If strategic planning is concerned with illuminating an organization’s overall purpose and envisioning in broad terms how to realize it, then strategic management is concerned with ensuring that the plan is realized. Implementing the strategies requires strategic learning, strategic thinking, and strategic acting operating in concert as standard operating procedures.

Management guru Henry Mintzberg, author of Managers Not MBAs, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, and Managing, coined the term Syndrome of Superficiality to describe the most challenging strategic thinking dilemma leaders face: How do you get deep amidst so much pressure to get results now? In education, the condition is termed the urgency/capacity building dilemma. Strategic management addresses this challenge and other similar strategic thinking challenges in the context of the realities and priorities of the organization. The Syndrome of Superficiality, along with the Predicament of Planning and the Labyrinth of Decomposition are what Mintzberg describes as thinking conundrums.

Strategic thinking is among the elements of strategic management, a more nuanced approach to leadership. Strategic management requires more attention to people and action. School districts that successfully implement strategic plans use strategic management to translate strategy and the broad vision that encompass it into operational terms.

Assessing the implications of a set of strategies as they relate to an agency’s operating systems, its budgets, its control systems, and its standard operating procedures is a pre-operational step. If the infrastructure is not firmly in place, successfully operationalizing a strategic plan becomes difficult and could lead to a common condition in education: plan fatigue.

The variety of management levers must work together seamlessly to advance a strategic agenda. Among the levers not commonly refined in school districts, operational and business planning, internal and external communications, analytical and problem-solving capabilities, legislative agendas, leadership, and the organization's influence over other actors in the network all come to mind as those that are commonly cited as institutional tendencies or dispositions. These levers are simply not in our institutional DNA.

For example, in one of the school districts I’ve led, the Board of Education envisioned schools that valued, above all, relationships and stability in a world where many of their students lived unstable lives. Ensuring students were known and didn’t fall through the cracks was the overall purpose of the school district. They aimed to raise the level of expectations, one student at a time, by importing opportunities that their community and schools would otherwise not have at their disposal. Furthermore, they envisioned schools that had as its central focus a theme, including STEM, VAPA, DLI, and IB, to capture the interest and imagination of the great variety of learners.

Furthermore, they sought autonomous and stakeholder-owned and operated schools, each in the image of the unique community of learners it serves and each meeting the criteria for what Fullan described as an effective set of drivers, the type that fosters intrinsic motivation of teachers and students. As the Board came to learn, the survival of their district depended on their ability to contend with the possessive individualism of the emerging world of a consumer-driven education marketplace in today’s era of choice. The School Board’s strategic planning process set out to develop actions that would support its grand purpose to realize its vision of building a truly special school district. See the strategic plan here and learn how one district did it.

I am using purpose interchangeably with vision because they are two sides of the same coin. Without a purpose there could be no vision. Without a vision there would be no purpose. Purposely taking action that advances strategic initiatives is strategic management. If it’s perfectly purposeful, the interaction of the combined and unified elements produces a total effect that is far greater than the sum of the individual elements.

The work of the school board is critical if a district is ever going to make its strategic plan a reality. It takes patience and time. It requires staying the course. It requires stability in a traditionally unstable institution, defined by elections and organizational certainties such as the vagaries of the economy and the whimsy of public policy. Michael Fullan writes eloquently about the deliberate policy forces that can help school districts achieve the results they desire.

Fullan writes, “The key to system-wide success is to situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force. This means aligning the goals of reform and the intrinsic motivation of participants. Intrinsic energy derives from doing something well that is important to you and to those with whom you are working. Thus, policies and strategies must generate the very conditions that make intrinsic motivation flourish. This is as basic as the human condition.”

It starts with a purpose. Followed by a vision. Followed by a strategic plan and realized by strategic management. It’s not simple work. In fact, it’s the opposite. There are lots of moving parts. That’s the reason so few districts are able to successfully craft, develop, and implement a strategic plan.

Next article in the series: Urgency vs. Capacity Building. Plan on it.


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