URGENCY VS. CAPACITY BUILDING. PLAN ON IT.
Updated: Nov 1
Third in a Series on Strategic Planning for Education Leaders
Successful leaders have mastered the art of operating in the space between urgency and capacity building. I frame it as the juxtaposition of a compelling vision and current reality. For strategic planning professionals, it’s a space created for the purpose of generating volitional momentum to change an organization’s reality. It’s based on the principle of creative tension. Peter Senge coined the term to describe the space where ideas emerge, innovation and growth happen, and the capacity for change becomes institutionalized.
Managing creative tension requires a nuanced approach to leadership, but it doesn’t require super powers, as the mythical view of the hero leader suggests. It requires a strategic plan, which assumes strategic thinking.
Savvy superintendents use strategic planning as a means to work with school boards to disentangle personal agendas and mitigate potential sources of board conflict. Beyond focusing the school board’s work, superintendents use the strategic planning process to: galvanize a school district around a common vision; mitigate leadership gaps by focusing everyone’s work; and build loosely assembled groups into a cohesive force. The commonly imagined individualistic worldview of what leading and managing is belies its reality: it’s a job and it’s done primarily by people who are figuring it out as they go, situation by situation.
A school district, with leaders at every level, is dependent on each leader’s actions. A strategic plan fosters a manner of thinking that leads to strategic actions.
In my most recent essay in this Strategic Planning for Educators series, I referred to management guru Henry Mintzberg as a purveyor of common sense for his approach to management and leadership. He has culled his philosophy through observation, rejecting the mythical view of the hero leader. Contrary to popular thought, leadership isn’t a rarefied quality found in people blessed to be “born leaders.” Mintzberg is clear that it is a job. An everyday practice performed by imperfect humans who are thrust into the difficult role of a leader, ready or not. He also uses the terms leadership and management interchangeably, as I do in this essay, maintaining that all leaders manage and all managers lead.
Strategic planning requires leadership to launch and management to steward. It’s a process that is launched from the space that creative tension occupies.
Mintzberg’s metaphor ‘walking a tightrope’ to describe a leader’s reality perfectly captures the essence of operating in that space. It requires balance. His Syndrome of Superficiality speaks to striking the perfect balance between pressure, time and attention. His Predicament of Planning is concerned with the balance between planning and flexibility; while his Labyrinth of Decomposition is concerned with the balance between micromanaging and disengagement. He describes them as thinking conundrums, the likes of which speak to the operating core of an organization and strike at the strategic apex of change.
Education leadership is fertile ground for Mintzberg’s approach to leading and managing change.
His works are primary source documents in the leadership courses I teach. His systematic observations of leaders have provided him with an insight that he’s been able to translate into a theoretical framework. Given his background and formal education as a mechanical engineer and his post graduate work at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston, where he earned his doctorate, it’s not surprising that his boots-on-the-ground interest in evaluating systems and building an understanding of what works and what doesn't work forms the foundation of his theoretical framework. If the MIT Sloan School of Management sounds familiar to education leadership readers it because it’s where Senge founded and directed the Society of Organizational Learning and developed the art and practice of the learning organization, the forerunner of the professional learning community model in an education setting.
Mintzberg developed his early theories during a period when the notion of organizational learning rose to prominence as a model for continuous improvement.
Borrowed largely from the work and writings of W. Edwards Deming, who observed that the prevailing system of management destroys, rather than builds up people within its purview, the nimble and adaptable organization was born, with continuous improvement as its driving force. Mintzberg was among the seminal thinkers in this era and contributed to the movement of leader as teacher and participant, helping everyone in the organization develop insight into the organization’s true condition.
Districts that think, manage, and plan strategically identify emerging trends and position the organization to remain stable while the winds of change carry less-stable organizations to uncharted territory that the average unstable organization is not prepared to navigate.
When the consumer-driven education marketplace emerged twenty-five years ago on the wings of charter schools, few districts identified them as a threat to their stability. Even fewer districts identified charter schools as an opportunity for them to restructure, reorganize, or better yet reinvent themselves. Most districts have never recovered and continue to scramble just to make ends meet and keep the accountability police at bay, let alone fill the achievement and opportunity gaps that continued to persist 64 years after Brown, 52 years after Coleman, and 47 years after Serrano.
Equity in education will not be realized until the commonly held view of achieving it using deficit-based models is squarely rejected. It has led to the insidious and historic rebirth of segregation in schools.
The opportunities that the emerging education marketplace offer are plentiful for school districts that position themselves strategically and focus on integrated school models. The three planes of work Mintzberg identified: information, people and action, are key elements of a successful school district strategic plan. See a recent strategic plan of mine as an example.
Are you a superintendent with a plan? If you are, you likely have mastered the art of operating in the space between urgency and capacity building. If you are not a superintendent with a plan, you likely spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy keeping your ship righted (urgency) instead of charting a new course for it (building capacity).
Next article in the series: Whose Vision Is It Anyway?